Soviet Videogameland: Perestroika

Perestroika is a word with a meaning instantly familiar to Soviet historians and casual observers. As is so often the case with any political decision, there was a variety of mixed feeling. Was it to be regarded as a good thing, or as the supposedly unbreakable Soviet Union's final death throes in its submission to capitalism?

The feelings of the Soviet people in regards to this life-changing event were depicted in an all-new manner: through videogames. Enter Perestroika, Locis' DOS game of the same name. Having discovered its existence, I hunted down a copy and eagerly fed it into DOSBox.

At the core, Perestroika is instantly understandable, being an almost complete knock-off of Frogger. You play the little green creature, and your goal is to move across the lily pads to the coin in the upper right. However, the lily pads disappear over time, and getting around the level becomes a challenge. Different pickups can appear on pads, and they will boost your score significantly.

Despite symbolism behind almost everything, the entire game is in Russian and these aspects aren't easy to pick up on. The lily pads are in fact laws. Their appearance and disappearance is a political statement, that laws change and disappear as it suits. The cutesy little bubbles you can pick up are, among other things, consumer goods, bankable currency, and taxes.

Similarly to Frogger, the game does introduce an enemy that will challenge progress and can kill you if it makes contact. In Perestroika, this enemy is the 'bureaucrat' to your democrat. The message is thus one of support for democracy in the USSR.

Fighting the bureaucracy and grabbing the pickups proved quite difficult, at least before changing some of the settings. Initially, it was near impossible to play due to the speed the game was running at. I brought the CPU cycles down to 500 for a more period-accurate experience, and the game became a good bit easier. By no means is it a breeze due to the random nature of each level, but laws don't disappear in half a second like before.

Regardless of the settings for how quickly you want the game to run, Perestroika is determined to make sure you see its title screen. It won't disappear any more quickly on a faster setting than it will on a slower one. In a way, that's quite alright because the artwork is somewhat appealing.

I picked up on only one issue when playing Perestroika, and that wasn't due to the game itself. Rather, it was my own understanding of Russian. When I'd lost all my lives, I couldn't figure out a way to restart. The text said to press 1 or 0 if I wanted to continue, but it didn't seem to care if I pressed 1, 0, X or Z. It did absolutely nothing and so, each time I died, I had to restart the entire game.

I can't dislike Perestroika. It's more or less a rip-off of a beloved Western franchise, slathered in political sentiment, but it's good because of what it is. It's a piece of history, perhaps more than it is a blatant clone of Frogger.

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