A few weeks ago I wrote about Gonbee no I'm Sorry, a jolly if fairly basic maze game that was enlivened by the fact that you play as former Japanese Prime Minister Kaukei Tanaka. Now, Tanaka was an interesting guy, (and he's even more interesting when he's being chased around by Michael Jackson,) but in the grand sweep of History he's something of a bit-part player. What a game really needs to set it apart from it's competitors is an appearance by a true giant of the global stage, a politician who was at the forefront of some of the twentieth century's most important events. Someone like, let's say, Mikhail Gorbachev.

The real reason that Street Fighter II was such a global smash was down more to the former Soviet president's toe-tapping cameo in Zangief's ending than any other single factor, except the gameplay, graphics and music. The man whose political reforms signalled the end of the Cold War and earned him a Nobel Peace Prize wouldn't be satisfied with a mere guest appearance, though: he demanded more, and he sent his top KGB agents to Japan in order to convince the game developers there to make a videogame in which he was the star. Two companies - Compile and Sega - took him up on his offer, and so today I present to you two videogames starring Mikhail Gorbachev.


Gorbachev also ordered that he be made kawaii as fuck. Even his name was shorted to the cutesy-wutesy "Gorby", which is a bit like calling Margaret Thatcher "Maggie-Waggie" only much less creepy. Did I mention Gorby is a former leader of one of the world's most powerful nations, as well as being a Nobel Prize winner? "Come, charming peasant children," this adorable pixel caricature seems to say, "let us ride these wonky pipes to a brighter future!" Yes, this game really has nothing to do with Mikhail Gorbachev and everything to do with pipes. You see, there's a pipeline to be built!

Stretching from Tokyo all the way to, uh, somewhere on the left-hand-side of Russia, this pipeline will carry the hopes and dreams of all the downtrodden peoples of the Earth. Also water.

Yep, not oil or natural gas but water. Blue Gold! Moscow tea! This is how Roman Abramovich got started, you know - he used to own a pipeline that provided vast amounts of water to Western Europe until he realised there was probably more money to be made in fossil fuels. Gorby's not in it for the money, though - he's got an undefined dream to fulfil and at least some part of his grand vision requires the transportation of large volumes of water from one place to another!
What about the game, though? Well, take a look at another gameplay screenshot and see if you can figure it out.

It's a Russian-themed puzzle game where rotatable blocks fall from the sky and have to be dropped into the correct positions in order to satisfy your goals. It might sound familiar, but this particular Tetris variant has spliced its digital DNA with The Assembly Line's old plumb-em-up Pipe Mania.

Water leaks from the pipes on the right-hand-side, and you must build an unbroken line connecting whichever pipe is leaking to one of the pipes on the other side. Pipe segments of various shapes are dropped in from the top of the playing field, and all you have to do is rotate and drop them into the required spaces. If you accidentally block off your pipe, the water will start leaking from the next pipe up until you either create enough pipelines to clear the stage or you block all the pipes on the right and get a game over. Unlike in Tetris, blocks will split apart and fall down to fill whatever space lies below them, and much of the gameplay is concerned with splitting your blocks in the right place, as well as making your pipe as convoluted as possible to score maximum points.

I don't know what that peasant girl has to do with anything, though. I think her haphazard distribution of whatever pipe segments she can lay her hands on might be a satire on the unsuccessful industrial policies of the Communist regime. That doesn't explain why she spends the whole game waving semaphore flags around, though.
Gorby's Pipeline is a pleasant-enough, if very basic, little puzzle game that is hardly going to dethrone Tetris as the true Tsar of the Soviet falling-block puzzle genre. I didn't manage to make it to the end because I'm even worse at puzzle games than I am at shoot-em-ups and my reactions have been dwindling since around 1998, but from what I can tell the game just gets faster and faster until you clear all the stages. If you manage that, you get a few pixelly fireworks to celebrate your triumph and then you're sent back to the start, because pipelines built by hurling random bits of plumbing into a pit aren't going to be the most structurally sound pieces of civil engineering and they need repairs already.

If you're going to play a puzzle game by Compile, I suggest you stick to Puyo Puyo. All that Gorby's Pipeline really has going for it is the completely pointless appearance of Mikhail Gorbachev on the title screen.

My, but he is adorable. And here I thought that creepy, "cutesified" drawings of famous people were a product of the internet age - I should have known Japan was already riding that particular wave.
As mentioned, Gorby's Pipeline doesn't really have anything to do with Gorbachev. Appearing on the title screen was nice and all, but what Mikhail really wanted was to be the star of the show. Happily for him, Sega decided that what the Game Gear needed was a puzzle game starring a truly global celebrity. The Pope was busy, (and in truth he was more of a Game Boy man himself,) and so once again the call went out to the former Soviet leader.


Again, his name is shortened to Gorby. Is "Gorbachev" particularly difficult to transliterate into Japanese or did the games developers of the early nineties just feel close enough to Gorbachev that they could give him a pet name?
Anyway, this is Ganbare Gorby! - something like Good Luck, Gorby! or You Can Do It, Gorby! to English speakers like myself. Mikhail has been promoted from title-screen cute-haver to full-on, action-packed hero of the masses in this title Game Gear puzzle game. Another puzzle game? I guess Tetris' influence was so overwhelming that Russia became synonymous with using your brain instead of your reactions.
Ganbare Gorby starts the same way that many eighties action movies did: with the wholesale slaughter of generic Russian soldiers.

I have to assume this game is set before Gorbachev took power, because if you can't boss soldiers around then what's the point of even becoming a world leader? Horrified by the injustice of the Communist system, Gorby has taken it upon himself to break into factories all over the Soviet Union and give the goods they produce directly to the suffering peoples of the Eastern Bloc. These people are desperate! They need food!

And medicine!

And the brand-new Sega Game Gear™ with full-colour display and a library of exciting new titles (games sold separately)!

Nice work, Sega. Very subtle. In order to supply the masses with the basic human essentials / consumer electronics they need, Gorby has to manipulate the inner workings of whichever factory he has infiltrated whilst avoiding the guards and solider that are trying to kill him.

The items travel around on conveyor belts whose paths can be altered by pressing the colour-coordinated buttons on the floor. In the picture above, the meat will keep heading around in circles until you stand on the red switch, changing the red junction point from a straight line to curve that will deposit the meat right at the feet of the people who have gathered at the factory gates. Supply the required amount of items to the correct people and you'll clear the stage.

Your task is complicated in various ways - most levels have a multitude of different coloured switches, the factory guards are not shy about shooting you on sight and so what if you are the most powerful man in Europe, and the stages are timed. There are also junk items on the conveyor belts and if you give someone an item they don't want or a junk item, they get grumpy and a chunk of your remaining time is lost, the ungrateful twats. Luckily, a career in politics has at least given Gorby a means of defence, and he can shout at the guards to stun them.

I don't know if those clouds that fly out of his mouth when you attack are supposed to represent a severe talking-to or extreme halitosis, but either way they can be very useful in keeping the guards off your back for a while. You can even use it to push the guards across the stage and deposit them somewhere away from the action, allowing you to get back to important task of breaking down the oppressive police state one factory at a time.
Once you've cleared a few stages of conveyor-belt-switching action, the grateful populace emerges from under its brutal yoke of oppression to give you some flowers.

Aww, he's gone all shy, look. Celebrations over, Gorby can get back into the factories and back to work...

Except now everything has changed! There a new gameplay mechanic introduced, and for the next few stages the buttons and junctions are replaced with a build-it-yourself conveyor belt kit. Items move down the conveyors, and whenever they reach a branch to the left or right, they turn down it. You see the orange-red bit of conveyor that's placed across the two right-hand belts? Those can be picked up, moved around the stage and placed between conveyors to get the items where they need to be, always obeying the rule that they turn down any branch they come across.

Once you've done a few stages with the movable tracks, you go back to the push-button stages for a while, (with the addition of junctions that chance direction on their own,) then some final moveable track stages and then you're done: Gorbachev has fed, medicated and provided quality hand-held gaming to every person in the USSR.

Ganbare Gorby is a fun little game with a pair of gameplay mechanics perfectly suited to portable play, (although the lack of a password system is a bit infuriating,) with a nice line in colourful and cartoony graphics. Oh, and all the factories appear to be constructed entirely out of minarets, because that's how things are done in the USSR. Unfortunately, despite being much more fun to play than Gorby's Pipeline it's actually more limited, because once you've played through it and solved all the puzzles, there's not reason to ever go back to it. Apart from to spend more time with the adorable, pudgy little Gorby sprite, of course.

This game was actually released in Europe, but sadly the Gorbachev connection was removed and the game was re-titled Factory Panic.

I know, it's terribly disappointing. Gorby has been replaced by a chubby blonde kid but aside from that the game is, as far as I can tell, exactly the same.
So why did 1991 see the release of two Mikhail Gorbachev-related games? Well, they were released the year after Gorbachev won his Nobel Peace Prize and I imagine that the game developers of Japan saw him as the man responsible for the end of the Cold War, which is reason enough to celebrate his achievements through the medium of 8-bit puzzle games. They weren't released (intact, at least) in the West presumably because despite his efforts at reform Gorbachev was still the leader of the USSR, and that shit wouldn't fly in the USA of the early nineties.

Still, I'd like to see more games based on Nobel Peace Prize winners, and by that I mean I'd like to play a side-scrolling beat-em-up where you control Lech Walesa and beat up KGB agents in the Gdansk shipyards. Seriously, that could be really excellent. He could team up with Haggar to thaw out the Cold War! Okay, that's getting worryingly close to fanfiction so I'll stop here and say "Hey look: Mikhail Gorbachev is in a couple of videogames. Now you know!"

Thanks to notablegamebox on Tumblr for posting the Gorby’s Pipeline box and reminding me that I’d been meaning to write about it for a while. It’s a good Tumblr, you should check it out!

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