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Alive 9
The Poly Play

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
were made.

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computer technology, and up to twenty years out of date in styling!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)
Schmetterlinge (Butterflies)
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 - 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.


CiH, for Alive Mag,July '04

Alive 9