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Pong (Arcade) artwork

Pong (Arcade) review

"The True Beginning of the Video Game Industry"

Back in the fall of 1971, Nutting Associates released one of the very first commercial video arcade games, Computer Space. Inspired by computer scientist Steve Russellís popular mainframe tech demo, Spacewar!, Computer Space had players blasting pairs of flying saucers to pieces with an armed rocket ship in the middle of a simulated starfield. Nuttingís early space shooter earned positive reception from college students and computer enthusiasts, who were drawn in by the gameís futuristic arcade cabinet, and were fascinated by the complex rocket physics. However, when it came time to release the game to mainstream markets, Nutting found that Computer Space was too complicated for the average Joe.

The main reason why Computer Space did not become an instant hit with the general public is its control system. Having to operate a rocket using four buttons, on top of needing to have a basic understanding of physics, made the gameplay hard for many to grasp, especially since most people at the time have never played a video game before. In order for the video game industry to take off, it needed to begin with something accessible. It needed a game that was easy to learn, and challenging to master.

Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, the creators of Computer Space, departed from Nutting Associates to start their own video game company, Atari. The duo had initially planned on producing a driving game as their debut title. However, their first employee, Allan Alcorn, had no prior experience with video game development. Bushnell decided to assign him what was originally meant to be a training project in order to get him started. Bushnell asked Alcorn to create a basic ball-and-paddle game, which the former got the idea for after playing Table Tennis for the Magnavox Odyssey at a promotional event. While Bushnell honestly thought that Table Tennis was a mediocre game, he felt that its unsophisticated design was simple enough that Alcorn shouldnít have too much trouble replicating it. When Alcorn finished his work, Bushnell and Dabney were so impressed with his improvements to the gameplay that they decided to put their initial plans aside and market the game, now known as Pong, as an official product.

After its initial release in November 1972, Pong quickly became the first commercially successful video game. With a cash cow on their hands, Atari went on to create several follow-ups, such as Pong Doubles and Quadrapong. Many of these sequels would later be included in Video Olympics, an excellent Pong compilation that was released in 1977 as a launch title for the legendary Atari 2600. An entire legion of dedicated Pong consoles was released throughout the seventies, along with many clones and knockoff products from Atariís competitors. But does the arcade original stand the test of time? Letís find out.

Although the concept for Pong was inspired by a table tennis video game, the actual gameplay of the former feels closer to air hockey, as the ball behaves more like a hockey puck and cannot fall off the sides of the court. The game is viewed from an overhead perspective, with a vertical dotted line dividing both halves of the court. The original arcade version of Pong lacked AI programming, and was designed to be played by two human players; modern ports will usually also include the option of facing a computer opponent of varying skill level, ranging from slow and stupid to having cat-like reflexes.

Each player controls a small, rectangular paddle. Players move their paddles up and down by twisting an analog dial on the control panel. At the beginning of each rally, the ball is served automatically from the dotted line in the center of the court. You must use your paddle to deflect the ball when it approaches your goal, while also trying to maneuver the ball past your opponentís paddle and into their goal. During a long rally, the ball will start to move faster, making it harder to return. The speed of the ball will reset after the rally ends. A player earns a point whenever the ball enters the opposing playerís goal. Your objective is to be the first player to earn 11 points. Some machines let you play a 15-point game instead.

The overall premise of Pong is very easy to understand, featuring a significantly lower learning curve than previous games, but that does not mean that the game lacks any depth. When the ball hits your paddle, the angle of the ballís bounce depends on exactly where it hit the paddle. For example, if the ball hits the center of the paddle, it will travel back on a straight, horizontal path, making it easy for your opponent to hit it back. On the other hand, letting the ball hit the edge of the paddle will send it back at a wide angle, so that it bounces off the walls and becomes much harder for your opponent to return. Also, there are two small gaps at the top and bottom of the screen that cannot be reached by the paddles. Itís a little tricky, but if the ball is in the right place at the right time, you can bounce it into one of the gaps and your opponent canít do anything about it! Some people may find this unfair, but itís a skill that anyone can learn with enough practice. You canít curve the ball like in Table Tennis, but since that game practically requires you to do so in order to win, Pong feels more strategic by comparison.

Pongís presentation is typical of first-generation video games, and many of its clones are almost indistinguishable from each other. The paddles look like small, thin rectangles, and the ball is oddly square-shaped. If youíre playing Pong on its original hardware, or if you have simulated scanlines turned on in one of the modern ports, itís a little easier to tell where the individual hitboxes on the paddles are located. A vertical dotted line divides both halves of the court, as mentioned earlier. Unlike Table Tennis, Pong actually displays the playersí scores on the screen, and in a large and easily readable font size. The graphics are monochrome, with the score numbers and in-game objects being a bright white, and the background being pitch-black. Overall, the graphics are as basic as can be, but they get the job done.

The minimalist graphics of Pong are complimented by a similarly simplistic series of sound effects. There is a total of three sound effects in the game: a beep when the ball strikes a paddle, a boop when it bounces off a wall, and a longer boop when a player scores. On the original hardware, these sound effects were produced by the machineís sync generator; modern ports have faithfully recreated these sound effects digitally. Pong has a notable lack of music, but the sound effects are so iconic that most gamers probably wonít mind. If anything, the absence of music makes it easier to focus on the action.

Pong is one of the greatest examples of a classic video arcade game. Sure, the general concept may lack originality, and the game may be extremely basic by modern standards, but its simplicity is part of its charm. Pong is easy for anyone to pick up and play, and yet it has just enough depth to encourage multiple gameplay sessions with different people. The game has certainly aged with more grace than other first-generation games, especially Table Tennis. Itís unlikely that you will come across a working Pong arcade machine today, but fortunately, the game is available on several inexpensive compilations, such as Atari Vault on Steam. Regardless of how you choose to play, you will definitely be entertained.


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Community review by Midcore (May 05, 2018)

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