Surprisingly, very little has been written about Gorbachev’s glossy appearances in video games. I intend to correct this mistake. I’ll guide you through the gaming career highlights of the last prime minister of the world’s first socialist state, ranking each performance in turn. I’m not (totally) unserious: Before I put everything into writing about games, I was working on (without much conscious dedication, the way wind “works on” eroding stone) an academic career in Russian history.
But I am now a professional video game journalist, and to bring these two aspects of myself together, I will rate each Gorby against a selection of highly outdated criteria: veracity (how much does the game’s Gorby resemble the historical Gorby), graphics (the technical and artistic success of Gorby’s rendering), and the fun factor (how much would I feel like grabbing a slice of Pizza Hut pizza with this Gorby). Finished? Let’s start.
6: Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War (2020)
The most recent Gorbachev on the list, and probably the one most readers will have seen. It’s also the worst.
Probability: Black Ops’ Gorby is the ultimate party gear: a mediocre rung on a very high ladder, relaying orders from afar to the assembled rubes of the game’s cast. And he smokes, which the real Gorbachev didn’t. Now, to be fair, this is a man who has yet to rise to the heights of his power and naivety, but as it is, he comes across as a head-scratched and tyrannical middle manager rather than the man who got so carried away in an optimistic view that he did not notice what was right in front of him. 3/10
Graphic: It’s hard to deny that this is the most exquisitely rendered Gorbachev on the list. But honestly it is too good: the technical success only exacerbates the artistic failure. Look at this man, he’s so boring I’m tired of looking at him! Bring the other one back (opens in new tab) who shuffles when everyone starts talking about bunkers and looks oddly like Vladimir Mayakovsky (opens in new tab). Now there is someone I can turn to. 5/10
Fun factor: Absolutely not. Can you imagine having a drink with this man? He talked you through quotas for cement production and how he skillfully got all his political opponents posted to manage chemical plants in Samara. Boring, boring, boring. 0/10 General: 8/30
5: Reagan Gorbachev (2016)
A bird’s-eye view of Gorbachev who must team up with Ronald Reagan to fight his way out of a kidnapping situation.
Probability: The real Gorbachev was not trained to operate such a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher. On the other hand, he firmly believed in international cooperation. 3/10 Graphic: The retro style does Gorby some real favors, especially compared to the very goofy looking Reagan. This is a distinguished figure, a statesman, and his running animation looks like he has no conscious control over his legs, which I quite like. 6/10
Fun factor: This Gorby has some stories to tell, but is probably so scarred by his experience of kidnapping and killing a thousand men to escape that he’d rather just stay home. 2/10
General: 11/30 4: Toppler/Perestroika (1990)
Either a layered and meaningful game of the Soviet avant-garde or a Frogger ripoff that someone put together in half an hour with a budget of minus 500 rubles. I can not tell. You can play it in the internet archive
(opens in new tab).
Probability: Putting aside that Mikhail Gorbachev wasn’t a shockingly well-equipped fly by the name of “Democrat,” isn’t Toppler communicating something fundamentally true about the experience of battling the inevitable to reshape the shifting sands (or vanishing water lilies) of a stagnant politics? 6/10
Graphic: Mikhail Gorbachev was not a shockingly well-endowed fly called “Democrat”. 0/10 Fun factor: Are you joking? A night out with this man would be pure chaos. The only downside is that you would invariably drown and turn into a crucifix. 6/10
General: 12/30 3: Ganbare Gorby! / Factory panic (1991)
Released as part of a wider effort to cultivate better diplomatic and cultural ties between Japan and the USSR, Ganbare Gorby! is a Japanese version of Factory Panic in which Gorbachev mans a conveyor belt to deliver food to hungry civilians. It is also on the internet archive
(opens in new tab). Probability: Goofy Gorby! sees our protagonist intervene physically to restructure the Soviet economy, bringing food from endless, circular conveyor belts into the hands of waiting citizens. He also takes on deep-seated hardliners by…breathing on them? Secure! 8/10
Graphic: Gorbachev looks a bit like a Batman villain in Ganbare Gorby! He runs around in a red jumpsuit and, for reasons beyond my comprehension, has dyed his hair purple. Still, it’s undeniably recognizable, and at least it’s more fun to watch than the Black Ops version. 6/10
Fun factor: It would probably be nice to catch a breath with the police for a while, but this man’s life revolves mainly around spinning conveyor belts. Can he even take a break for lunch without people starving? 4/10 General: 18/30
2: Crisis in the Kremlin (1991)
A political sim that puts you in Gorby’s shoes: suppressing and removing the fruiting bodies of the political-economic rot that is slowly killing the Soviet Union. It is also on the internet archive
(opens in new tab).
Probability: The most truthful entry on this list. The Gorbachev in Crisis In The Kremlin is faced with all the horrible, exhausting, exhausting decisions the Gorbachev has made in real life. It is awesome. Granted, you may decide to completely reject everything he came to represent and strike down with an iron fist, but that’s up to you. 10/10 Graphic: There’s not really much of Gorby himself in this one, except for a photo – like a loved one’s headshot in their loved one’s wallet – in the top left corner. 6/10
Fun factor: This would actually be a day out with the real Gorby, so probably interesting for about an hour or two, but eventually you’ll realize you accidentally signed yourself up for a sedate college lecture. 5/10
General: 21/30 1: Street Fighter 2 (1991)
The classic arcade fighter. Gorbachev pops up at the end of Zangief to congratulate our hero and perform a Cossack dance. Not sure if this one was great for Japanese/Soviet diplomatic relations.
Probability: Street Fighter’s Gorbachev shows a historically accurate faith in the indomitable spirit of the Soviet people. He also performs a long and energetic dance at a time when he would have been about 60 years old, so there it is. 6/10
Graphic: This is probably Gorby’s best rendering on this list. You know who it is as soon as he jumps out of his chopper, and he jumps next to Zangief’s body with easy grace. 7/10 Fun factor: I would dance with this man until the sun swallowed the sky. 10/10
General: 23/30 Disclaimer
I must emphasize that this is purely a Gorbachev ranking. The quality of the game in which he appears is irrelevant and plays no part in the final decision. I welcome any comments and criticism that help me strive for a more perfect Gorbachev table, but please keep your teeth clear if you feel I’ve unfairly belittled Ganbare Gorby! We all know it’s a perfect video game.