1991 and Russia's Glimpse into Japanese Arcade Culture | Марафон-15 (Marathon-15)

On the brink of its demise, Soviet Russia had a chance to see the early 1990s arcade experience that they never before had.

In early 1990s Soviet Russia, a television show, Марафон-15, aired as the union collapsed and the era of glasnost shaped culture. Thanks to it, Soviet children had a chance to see what was going on in Japan’s arcade culture. Nearly 30 years before a certain well-known operations company from the country expanded into Moscow.

Sergei Suponev, son of poet Evgeny Kozmich Suponev, was born in Khotkovo, Moscow Oblast, during early 1963. Stints in the army and state-owned Central Television, working his way up from shipments to propaganda departments, interrupted his first time at university, before returning to complete the concept for what would be his first hosting job in 1988.

Upon its launch on TV as a then-unnamed programme in 1989, Марафон-15 was an immediate success among its target demographic of 15 year old children and young adults.

Embodying this, the viewers were ultimately trusted with naming it, as a result, the series subsequently becoming a fixture in the schedules and time-slots to come.

Марафон-15 generally covered the world’s cultural trends and styles for its audience. Naturally, these would include video games, with one such feature focusing on a computer club in Estonia.

And early on in 1991, it would offer Soviet youths a piece of the arcade energy emanating from Japan.

Russian arcade gaming had been a different story to many parts of the world up to that point in time.

Though numerous exact copies of older machines found in the west like Sea Devil existed, small amounts of others were homegrown examples. Games grew popular over time, but no scene or culture ever formed around them. Technology stayed low rather than high.

With the obvious exceptions of what Alexey Pajitnov and small grassroots microcomputer groups were up to, the country’s gaming culture as a whole was largely quiet and insular, even with the growing availability of imported console sets and eventual rise of Dendy in 1992. But before that, Марафон-15 was a beaming arcade future in a capitalistic metropolis.

As part of an on-location feature filmed in Japan, Sergey Suponev had the chance to chat with locals, check out toy shops, and visit just one of the many thriving game centres in Tokyo. For an attention-grabbing lead-in, viewers were immediately confronted with the sight of the infamous gyroscopic R360 cabinet for G-LOC: Air Battle.

10 seconds are shown in all its 360 degree glory.

Then, cuts to brief shots of gazing children, racing businessmen, and plastic police guns maiming their way through video corridors. Games by the old Japanese amusement industry heavyweights are all naturally present - Namco, Taito, and Sega, to name just a few.

As games like Racing Beat and Steel Gunner play on, Suponev tells viewers of their obvious advancement over their country’s adult-frequented gambling halls. His perspective is one radically different to those of the west, who, despite receiving arcade video games in typically inferior cabinets to the east, still had a culture around them.

Given the preponderance of machines made by Sigma Enterprises in the clip, it’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination to believe that this was one of their directly managed “Game Fantasia” venues in Tokyo. Sigma, of course, were notably one of the first companies to open dedicated game centres in Japan, beginning way back in December 1971 with Game Fantasia Milano.

Then, an extended shot to put focus back on the R360 begins, showcasing its rotational prowess in full. Suponev simply lets the machine speak for itself here - intentionally leaving viewers to fully take in the technological experience feat that Sega had managed to pull off and release to Japanese amusement facilities during the previous year.

The three minute segment eventually ends with Suponev going over the wonderment of a coin pusher machine, popularised by UK company Cromptons way back in the 1960s but scarcely seen by Russian eyes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he claims he hasn’t won much yet - best stick to the Sigma Game Fantasia cabs.

Since the 1991 airing of the piece, many things have changed in Russia. For one, Марафон-15 went off the air in 1998…

..it survived the post-communist dissolution of its channel and switched over to another in the midst of the country’s 90s turbulence. Footage has surfaced online in the usual places, though its entire 9 year run is now lost media, and of course, not complete.

The current rights holders of the programme, VGTRK, have uploaded the Japan piece in full onto YouTube, with many commenters paying tribute to it and the late Sergei Suponev, who passed away in 2001.

Марафон-15’s name has also been immortalised in a recent song and accompanying music video by Russian post-punk revivalist Kate NV, member of Glintshake.

And in an ironic twist of fate, contrasting the popular museum collections of its own arcade past, Russia eventually became the first country outside of the US and Japan to receive a Round 1 venue in late 2020. Painted in its signature red colour, albeit offering offline versions of its Japanese games, it goes to show how cultural exports from further east have now become the real deal.

Round 1’s expansion notably came off the back of numerous community efforts to import Japanese arcade music games into the country during the 2000s, proving the groundswell of demand. However, those first televisual glimpses into early 90s gaming culture offered to Russia, not only by Марафон-15 but also the likes of the official Dendy TV series and that one Sonic the Hedgehog game show, shouldn’t be forgotten by others.

Like their more well-known western and eastern counterparts, an important vessel and documentation for video games and arcades to this day.