Gaming heaven or hell?! From those crazy guys who brought you the DDR!
Hands up all those people who thought that video gaming in the old eastern
bloc was impossible. Who thought that it was a decadent western indulgence,
to be shunned and excoriated by all right-thinking socialist peoples?!
Well evidently the East Germans did for a while, but at least they started
to have a change of heart towards the end, as 1985 saw the first official
party approved video arcade game being produced there.
This beastie was called the 'Poly Play', and up to 1500 of these first
attempts at giving East German youth a taste of non-illicit gaming action
The Polyplay was in keeping with the frugal style of the East German
government, using off the shelf components, such as a huge Russian rack-
based 8-bit computer for its mighty electronic brain. A locally manufactured
television set was used for the display, which was really pulled 'off the
shelf' and tipped on its back in stranded turtle fashion to face upwards.
Then there was a substantially built hand-made cabinet for it all to go in,
made by local furniture makers, when they had exceeded their five year plans
for kitchen cupboards and had time on their hands I guess. The main user
interface was a heavily engineered analogue joystick, with a single fire
button next to it.
Exterior view and the guts of the thing!
One source suggested that the specifications varied slightly, according to
what materials were available at a given moment to make the things. The
example which provoked this article is on display at the Swindon Computing
museum, it has no sound capability. Other versions of the Poly-Play may well
have had some noisemaking built in?
Even from the perspective of 1985, it was described as ten years behind in
computer technology, and up to twenty years out of date in styling!
Unusually for any arcade machine, there were a number of games available
from the same cabinet. In keeping with the overall theme of the Poly Play,
these were rather basic as well.
Titles included the following:-
Hirshjagd (Deer Hunt)
Hase und Wolf (Hare and Wolf)
Abfahrtslauf (Departure Course)
Scheissbude (literal translation "crap booth"!)
Autorennen (Racing Car)
Of which, the most familiar to western eyes, would be the Pacman-like "Hare
and Wolf" game. The wolf was described as being not too intelligent!
'Fox and Hare'
"What big teeth you've got!" - "That's because they are ascii!"
(There is an issue with 'Scheissbude' here, I think the translation might
have come out wrongly, could it be something like "Shoot booth"?! German
readers feel free to correct me where I'm wrong!)
There was also the priceless "Catch the drips in a bucket or drown!" game.
Was this based on the real life of many people living in state apartments?
With a ZX81-esque screen display of 60 x 40 blocks and character-based
graphics, gameplay had no choice apart from keeping things simple. One thing
in its favour was that it was a colour system, managing to produce an
ambience of some early ZX Spectrum games, from the screengrabs on Andy's
You might like to pause for a moment, and contemplate the contemporary
western state of the art for arcade games. This would be something like
'Outrun', where a twin 68000 based system made it possible, plus another
chip, a Z80 I think, dedicated solely to the sound. And of course the ST and
Amiga computers both saw first life that year!
There were no such things as amusement arcades in East Germany, "amusement"
being thought of as another selfish individualistic western conceit. Instead
these machines turned up in various leisure centres, sports halls, municipal
swimming pools etc. There wasn't even a coin slot to threaten the
proletariat with lurking capitalism, as you had to use tokens to play the
games. (Which then leads on to a raft of feeble jokes about a centrally
planned shortage of these, extra in-game lives given to high ranking
communist party members, and so on... Wait a minute, here's some more, how
about a game of "STASI-Dodge"? Or in the East German version of Breakout, do
you get to play as the wall?!)
These machines enjoyed some popularity, especially with little or no
alternative available, but the end quickly came with the collapse of the DDR
government in 1989. Nearly all these machines were recalled to the factory
and were destroyed shortly after. There are only *three* survivors of this
purge left worldwide. The Swindon example turned up in a specialist arcade
machine refurbishers collection, where it had lain in storage for years
before being discovered. This would make it one of the rarest examples of
video gaming hardware anywhere. Don't expect to see any on Ebay anytime
Poly Play does live on in a virtual sense though, in the form of the MAME
emulation. Indeed it is suggested that Poly Play could be one of the few
fully legal arcade ROMs, as the DDR official copyright is now somewhat
Anyway, I think this is a topic worthy of feedback from the more easterly
parts of the Atari scene? Do any of the Dresden Atarians have any memories
of this machine, fond or otherwise? In general, how did the kids trapped
behind the Iron Curtain get their computing and gaming kicks before 1990?
C'mon, it's a sharing thing, and we're expecting lots of lovely anecdotes to
put in the next Alive!
An excellent web resource for this machine, is Andy's Arcade, otherwise
known as www.andys-arcade.net - It has a fuller explanation of the machine
than I've provided, and there are tons of pictures of the exterior and inner
workings, full screenshots and reviews of all the games, and even the MAME
ROM's are available from there.
HAVE YOU PLAYED SOCIALIST REALISM TODAY?
CiH, for Alive Mag,July '04