1. Freedom Fighters (2003)
The revisionist history of Freedom Fighters posits what might have happened had the Russians ended World War II by dropping an atomic bomb on Berlin and established themselves as a peerless global superpower. In the ensuing decades, the Soviets apparently would have claimed much of the planet as their own, until they eventually launched a surprise attack on the United States, beginning with New York City. At the center of the 2003 third-person shooter is a pair of overall-wearing brothers who happen to work as plumbers. (One of the brothers even has a large “M” embroidered on his cap, in case the allusion is lost on anyone.) One brother is taken hostage, and the remaining brother, in a bid to rescue him, finds himself leading a rag-tag militia on a quest to reclaim now-Russian-occupied New York. By rousting the gun-toting Reds out of each level of the game and rescuing soldiers along the way, the player earns “charisma points,” and higher charisma means that more soldiers are willing to fight by your side. Earn enough charisma and even injured Soviet soldiers, not unlike those fickle turncoats in the crowd in Rocky IV, will opt to join you.
2. Command & Conquer: Red Alert (1996)
Killing Adolf Hitler has to top nearly any list of time-travel priorities. In the 1996 real-time strategy game Command & Conquer: Red Alert, Albert Einstein invents the Chronosphere, travels back to the days before Hitler comes to power, and averts the terrors of Nazi rule by zapping the future German dictator out of the space-time continuum. But sci-fi has taught us that fiddling with temporal matters always produces unintended consequences. Without Hitler and his hordes goose-stepping across Europe, Stalin wastes no time sending out the Red Army to fill the power vacuum. It’s an unusual piece of speculative history. Who can forget the chilling image of Stalin as he dances around his office, hooting and waving his belt around to celebrate the Communist subjugation of Great Britain?
3. Rush’n Attack (1985)
Bluster can be an effective psychological armor. Make yourself seem powerful enough and other people will start to believe the tough talk. By the mid-1980s, the United States didn’t exactly need bluster anymore, as the economic decline of the Soviet Union was well underway, but Cold War chest-puffing was a tough habit to break. Hence Rush’n Attack. A single soldier is sent into an unnamed country—though the fourth level is called “Siberian Camp,” so it’s not hard to read between the lines. Playing as the soldier, you are equipped only with a blue jump suit, a knife, and the task of destroying the enemy’s secret weapon. From there, you proceed to stab every single soldier in the Soviet army. It seems the infantrymen of capitalism are so superior that the only weapon they need against rocket-pack-equipped armies is a giant knife and an impressive vertical leap.
4-5. Tetris (Game Boy and NES versions, 1989)
The pack-in game that originally came with Nintendo’s Game Boy was famously habit-forming, causing untold millions to become so hooked on Alexey Pajitnov’s Tetris that they’d see the four-block “tetrominoes” descending the backs of their eyelids as they fell asleep. The strange “space shuttle” ending of the game, seen only by the most masterful players, seems to suggest that the mass addiction was all part of the Soviet plan. After a group of traditional Russian dancers rejoice at your success, we see a Buran space shuttle leaving the launchpad. See, while you were wallowing in capitalist decadence by playing this dumb game, brilliant Soviet engineers were building a glorious vehicle to the stars. So, yeah, nice job putting all those make-believe blocks in the right place.
The officially sanctioned NES version of the game is even more disturbing. In this version, the dancing Muscovite revelers are none other than your favorite Nintendo heroes—Mario, Link, the whole lot. Having presumably rejected the corruption of the West, the iconic characters appear to have assimilated wholeheartedly into life behind the Iron Curtain. And as if to hit home the inevitability of Soviet dominance, the spires of St. Basil’s Cathedral suddenly launch free from their foundations, suggesting a nuclear armageddon initiated from within the Kremlin itself. Yet through it all, Luigi doesn’t miss a beat in his Trotskyite jig, the traitorous bastard.
6. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
Fantasy combat with the USSR tends to involve wild space-age technology. The original Metal Gear was a prime example, with its titular walking, nuclear-missile-launching tank. But Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater went even weirder. The game opens in 1964 with the world’s greatest Cold War fears realized as a nuclear bomb detonates on Russian soil. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. president Lyndon Johnson, being reasonable sorts that don’t want the world to end, send in the grizzled badass Snake to apprehend the responsible terrorists before mutually assured destruction becomes unavoidable. Snake has to fight a personal war against Soviet separatists and their giant all-terrain nuclear tank—not to mention the supernatural soldiers of Cobra Unit. It’s got everything Cold War intrigue needs: a struggle between the old and new worlds, espionage, and Sputnik-esque paranoia-inducing tech.
7. Strider (1989)
The makers of Cold War-inspired pop culture were getting a little stir crazy by the time Mikhail Gorbachev got his perestroika on. You could see it in the stories. The James Bond series and Vietnam fallout like First Blood had given way to stuff that was downright weird, like Rocky Balboa ending the Cold War by punching a blonde guy. Strider wins the award for clearest evidence of psychic fatigue setting in as the U.S.S.R. disintegrated. The game’s story is zany across the board: By 2048, an evil dictator rules the world, and a badass ninja has to bring him down by infiltrating what remains of the Soviet Union. Strider’s idea of what the Soviet Union would be like if it were allowed to thrive for another 60 years is alarming, even beyond the robot dragons. Sky pirates lead the military, and enormous robot apes are standard-issue weapons at Siberian bases. Strider makes Red Dawn look both plausible and comforting by comparison.
8. Super Punch-Out!! (1984)
In a pre-NES arcade iteration of Nintendo’s boxing game Punch-Out!!, the thick-jawed Russian boxer Soda Popinski was known as the somewhat more problematic Vodka Drunkenski. Today this overt reference to Russian drinking culture would likely create an international incident. In the early ’80s, though, there was plenty of leeway when it came to denigrating the Soviets. Still, Nintendo thought discretion the better part of valor when it renamed the character for the home version of the game. Despite the downgrade in alcohol content, Popinski continues to profess a love of drink—“I can’t drive, so I’m gonna walk all over you,” he says—and also demonstrates a certain immunity to cold. Popinski’s hulking size makes him one of the most intimidating characters in the game; the alcohol angle only amplifies his fearsome qualities, making him seem like an angry drunk who could pop off at any moment—which is pretty much how Americans perceived the Reds for the better part of a century.
9. Communist Mutants From Space (1982)
By 1982, the threat of space aliens was a well-worn premise in video games. So the developers at Starpath Corporation must have known they needed an extra hook for their Space Invaders knockoff. If extraterrestrials were old hat, what about extraterrestrials who espoused a stateless form of government in which a collaborative system of production distributes abundant wealth based on need? Now that was truly frightening. And so Communist Mutants From Space was born. Piloting your private-sector laser cannon, you chip away at the mutants’ defenses until you land a death blow on the mother alien, which cuts off the creation of new mutants—thus proving that all implementations of communism are doomed by the impossibility of true decentralization and the inevitable formation of a corrupt power core. Or maybe it was just a crappy space shooter with a dumb name. Hard to tell.
10. Fortress America (1986)
One of the five board games released in Milton Bradley’s Gamemaster Series, Fortress America is set in a near-future of American hegemony. It pits one player as the U.S.A. against the combined forces of the Asian Peoples Alliance, the Central American Federations, and the Euro-Socialist Pact. The game was released in 1986, soon after the quintessential Soviet invasion film, Red Dawn. In both of these scenarios, the American technological advantage is nullified and then eclipsed by the incomprehensible hugeness of the Red Army and its fellow traveling allies. The U.S. player must defend three fronts, each commanded by an opposing player. The only border that isn’t a warzone is the northern front, held by our peace-loving Canadian brethren.
11. Street Fighter II (1991)
Back in the glory days of the WWF, nothing got crowds more riled up than Nikolai Volkoff waving around the hammer and sickle on a field of red and belting out the Soviet national anthem. By the time Hacksaw Jim Duggan ran into the ring with the stars-and-stripes and a two-by-four, the arena would be on the verge of frenzy. Street Fighter II’s Zangief plays off this same nationalism. Like Volkoff and Soda Popinski, this hairy grappler wears the trademark red Soviet speedo, and he sports scars that he allegedly received while wrestling bears in Siberia. The “Red Cyclone” isn’t all bad. At the end of Street Fighter Alpha 3, for instance, he teams up with sumo wrestler E. Honda to destroy a wanna-be dictator’s “Psycho Drive,” making the world safe for fat Japanese guys and hirsute Russian dervishes everywhere.
12. Vanquish (2010)
The essayist George Santayana famously said that those who don’t remember the past are doomed to live through it again. But Santayana probably didn’t expect anything along the lines of the U.S.S.R. 2.0 seen in Vanquish. After the Unites States and Russia call off friendly relations amid a new space race, the ultra-nationalist Order Of The Russian Star assumes control of a gigantic satellite microwave laser, which it immediately uses to vaporize San Francisco. Fortunately, America has a man in a fancy spacesuit who can perform rocket-powered knee slides—a proud symbol of the triumphant Western individualism and ingenuity that those Russians, with their heartless mega-lasers, will never understand.
13. Twilight Struggle (2005)
This board game simulation of the Cold War by designers Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews retroactively raises the specter of the mid-20th-century Soviets. With one player manipulating the geopolitical dealings of the United States and the other doing the same for the U.S.S.R., the game appears to be evenly matched. Yet Struggle is subtly weighted so that in the early, post-World War II stages of the game, the Great Bear has a small but distinct advantage—one that can be used to conquer the space race and various proxy wars, not to mention the global battle for hearts and minds. Before they get the hang of the somewhat trickier U.S. position, it’s not unusual for novice players to find themselves repeatedly overwhelmed by the People’s Revolution. And, given that the game is based on real events, they may be left wondering how Eisenhower and Kennedy ever managed to keep our little ol’ capitalist nation intact.
14. Krazy Ivan (1996)
Produced well after the Berlin Wall had been reduced to rubble, Krazy Ivan may not take place in the U.S.S.R., but it’s a prime example of how pop culture held onto Cold War tropes past their real-world expiration day. In Krazy Ivan, the formidable Russian military has given control of a giant robot suit to a Russian soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He is so deranged that the normal spelling of the word “crazy” cannot contain his madness. Krazy Ivan only takes about an hour to finish—one hour of shooting alien spaceships and bases while saving prisoners. It would all be pretty dull if it weren’t for the astounding live actors playing Ivan and his support crew in a handful of story scenes. The cartoony Russian accents, the dinner-theater-ham performances, and the soft playing of Ivan’s theme song, Chic’s “Le Freak,” elevate Krazy Ivan from a mere throwaway game to a legitimate indignity for a once-terrifying superpower.