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24 September 2014

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Fancy a game, comrade?
Polyplay screen grab

One of the rarest working arcade games in the world has found its way to Swindon's Museum of Computing.

The Poly Play videogame was the Eastern Bloc's answer to the capitalist's Pac Man but resembles something more like an old-fashioned TV set in a tall wooden cabinet.

The Poly Play machine c.1985
The Poly Play machine c.1985

Nevertheless, with up to eight games, a simple firing button and 8-way joystick, and a slot to take tokens rather than coins, the Poly Play is, in fact, less grim than it sounds.

Simon Webb, the curator of Swindon's Museum of Computing told BBC Wiltshire, "The story goes that this was the only arcade approved machine to be produced in East Germany and they used to go into places like municipal swimming pool and leisure centres.

"When the Berlin Wall came down, for some strange reason they recalled the machines to the factory and had them dismantled. A few were salvaged. There were probably about 1000-1500 made."

The Poly Play arcade machine on display in the museum is an original from East Germany, although Simon admits he is unsure from where exactly.

The Poly Play machine's 'guts'.
The Poly Play machine's 'guts'.

The machine stands out from the many other computers on display and looks more like it was built in the 1970s, rather than the mid-eighties.

"I think someone described it as technology that was ten years out of date and styling that was at least twenty years out of date," says Simon.

"It is a little bit temperamental and when we first got it into the museum it wasn't working properly but it seems to have settled in now. I think it likes being amongst good company, so it's behaving itself."

The actual computer inside is a Russian business computer - a rack based system, with an array of plug-in cards and chips marked in Cyrillic.


• The Poly Play: token-operated video arcade games console.

• Manufactured c1985

• Machine made from readily-available components, rather than specifically manufactured items.

• Display an Eastern German colour TV set with a screen resolution of 60x40.

• Number of players: 1

• Games include:

Hirschjagd (Deer Hunt)
Hase und Wolf (Hare and Wolf)
Abfahrtslauf (Downhill)
Schmetterlinge (Butterflies)
Schiessbude (shooting gallery)
(Racing Car)

• The Poly Play machine is on display at the Swindon Museum of Computing at the Oakfield Campus of the University of Bath in Swindon (on Marlowe Avenue)

• The Museum's Game's Exhibition "High Score" continues until September 2004 - more details via the Museum's website.

"It's surprising that it is still working but it is very solidly built - typical German engineering," says Simon, adding that the wooden cabinet was made by a GDR furniture manufacturer.

"The display is quite interesting because if you lift the lid it's just an East German TV set."

Almost from the word go, sound was an important feature on many arcade and console games - certainly in the West, but this particular Poly Play machine is devoid of any sound.

"It seems the models vary," says Simon, "because they were all hand built and parts weren't always readily available; it seems that some versions did have sound but this one doesn't".

As with many of the early computer games, the graphics on the Poly Play are pretty basic and the games don't require much skill.

"You've got seven different games in this case that you can play and some of them are similar to some Western games," says Simon.

"There's one called Hare and Wolf, which is a bit like Pac Man - you're the hare being chased by a not very intelligent wolf!"

And on the question of spare parts it seems that they're almost non-existent, which makes switching on the machine a risky business if there's a chance that something might go pop.

Simon says, "The chips were Russian clones and are very, very difficult to get hold of but we power it up every Saturday morning so that people can come in and have a look and see what it was like and have a go on it."

The Poly Play machine's 'guts'.
The Poly Play flashing lights.

This particular Poly Play came from a firm who specialise in refurbishing and selling arcade machines. The machine had been in storage but it was felt it would be better to get the thing on display so that more people could see appreciate it.

And what about its value? Simon says it's hard to say; as it's only one of three in existence, it could be priceless.

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