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Pong (Arcade) artwork

Pong (Arcade) review




Atari's first title swept the country like a disabling plague. Patrons of bars and arcades everywhere spent all their change in 1972 on a fascinating machine where elongated glowing bricks could reflect a square back and forth. Pong singlehandedly began the multi-decade craze known as video gaming. 


Before I actually review Pong, there are a few myths surrounding the game that must be cleared first. 

Myth: Pong was the first video game. 

Fact: Willy Higinbotham created a ''table tennis'' game that displayed on an oscilloscope in 1958, almost fifteen years before the name ''Pong'' was even uttered. Ralph Baer claims the invention of video games since he had the idea of integrating simple interactive games into TV sets in 1951; however, he would not build a working model until 1967. 

Myth: Pong was the first arcade game. 

Fact: Computer Space was the first arcade game in 1971. Made by Nolan Bushnell, future founder of Atari, Computer Space was a clone of Spacewar, a 1961 game coded on a mainframe by Steve Russell. Computer Space failed failed due to its unintuitive interface and poor marketing. 

Myth: Pong was as fancy as games could get in 1972. 

Fact: Most historians agree that even Higinbotham's original game was more complex than Atari's Pong. Also, Pong did not even utilize a microchip: to cut costs, Atari just used transistors. You could buy the parts for pong for a few dollars. The problem was: one could not buy top of the line technology for a handful of dollars in 1972. The DEC PDP mainframes could pump out some comparatively impressive games, but the cost of one of these exceeded the GDP of half the world's countries. So Atari chose the cheap route and used a bunch of capacitors and resistors instead of million dollar parts. Makes sense to me. 

Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney started Atari in 1972. While both were experienced game programmers, they needed more than two people to run their company. They hired Al Alcorn who wrote a ''simple'' table tennis game as a practice exercise. This game became Pong. 

So why all this history? It is important to put things in perspective. The important points from this brief history are: 

- Pong was invented almost fifteen years after the original Pong-like game.
- Pong was Bushnell's second attempt at making video games public.
- In 1972, the concept of a table tennis game was so simple, it was used as a training exercise for new programmers. 

So why is Pong so important to video gaming? After all, Pong was just a clone of a fifteen year old concept made by some rookie in some crummy startup company. Sometimes, an idea isn't enough; none of Atari's predecessors properly marketed their products. Also, you cannot start off the public with some hard to play geek game, which is what quickly felled Computer Space. 


I do not believe graphics worse than Pong's are possible; Pong makes the display on your seventy-five cent calculator look like 2001: A Space Odyssey in comparison. The ''pixels'' are literally about one third of an inch by one third of an inch. The ball is one pixel while the paddles are two pixels stacked together. In the top right and left corners are obnoxiously large numbers which represent the players' respective scores. Down the center is a dashed line that represents the net of a tennis or ping-pong game. The graphics are functional, however; you can clearly see the ball, both paddles, and the scores, which is all that is important. 


Pong has a beep or two for the ball's reflection off of the paddles or the wall and that dreaded deep bass tune when the ball slips by. All sounds are simple modulations of a square wave; your local ATM or Coca-Cola vending machine makes more entertaining noises than Pong. 

Controls and Mechanics 

''Avoid missing ball for high score'': a rather roundabout way of stating ''Hit ball to win''. This cryptic phrase was the only hint at how to play the game. Computer Space was a comparatively complicated game and came with a comparatively long list of instructions. No one wants to read instructions, so most simply paid the machine and attempted to play without knowing what to do. These people quickly became frustrated and gave up. Bushnell was so afraid Pong would suffer the same fate that he and Alcorn agonized over the length of the instructions. They deemed the famous six words as adequate. 

As the six word phrase succinctly described, the object of Pong is to hit the ball with your paddle. The opposite player will either ''hit'' the ball, reflecting it back toward the first player, or miss, causing the ball to disappear off the edge of the screen and advance the first player's score by one. The situation in opposite holds true. The first player who reaches ten points wins the game, though the game ends regardless who wins; someone must cough up another quarter for the next game. 

Note that Pong does not follow official table tennis rules in general, but I doubt that was much of a concern in 1972. In particular, Pong only supports single games, not matches, table tennis is won at twenty-one points, not Pong's ten, and the ''table'' is not of proper dimensions. 

If the creators of Pong did one thing right, they sure did it in the controls, an amazing feat considering the poorly designed controls of so, so many successors. Pong uses ''analog'' knobs to throttle the paddles. The beauty of this is Atari actually did it right: move the knob slowly and your paddle plods, move it fast and it whips across the screen: pure genius. Bushnell and Alcorn spent considerable amount of time tuning the sensitivity of the knob for optimal playability, a wise consideration. 

The paddles are very small at two pixels, but the ball moves so slowly that is not much of a problem. Being a simple game, Pong supports only a limited number of angles with which to reflect the ball. 


Most of this review is sterile history and explanations. The real test of a video game is its overall enjoyment and satisfaction. Unfortunately, Pong is quite difficult to rate in this area and many factors must be taken into consideration. The fact that Pong was the first video game most played versus the fact that Pong was a slight modification of a fifteen year old concept must be weighed. The fact that there was no widespread comparison to Pong makes rating difficult. The fact that companies were already starting to line up in attempts to bring video games to the public limits Atari's perceived foresight. Finally, the fact that I was born in 1980 puts me about twenty years past the point where I could appreciate what Pong had to offer. 

Love of Pong was not universal. Many existing pinball players and future video game players did not enjoy Pong much. Pong was designed to be so simple that a drunk could play the game while continuing to drink, a probable reason why the ball moves so slowly. The whole concept just was not that amusing to a lot of people, me included. 

Another problem with Pong is its two player requirement. Even simple artificial intelligence was far beyond Pong's technology and Alcorn's programming skills, especially since Pong did not even include a processor to be the brain of any programmed opponent. Arguments over who pays and finding a buddy when you just want to play a few rounds at three in the morning were two common problems. 


Pong is regarded as the grandfather of video games, and while many do not enjoy it, most acknowledge its important to the development of video gaming. Pong gave enough momentum to propel Atari for a decade of a near-monopoly on video games before terrible management led to the infamous 1984 video game crash and Atari's subsequent downfall, bankruptcy, and sell-outs. 

Pong is a noble attempt at getting a video game out to the public. Atari deserves a 10 for succeeding in that respect. However, just like the first of anything is rough and unpolished, so is Pong, hence I cannot give it a 10.

whelkman's avatar
Community review by whelkman (May 26, 2008)

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