Pong (Arcade) review
"Russell's quote rings true in this instance too; if Pong never caught on, we’d simply be crediting a different title for introducing the product to the market, perhaps even a better title. Thank Asteroids, or Joust, or Defender. The entrepreneurs that tried to bring video games to the mainstream – your Bushnells and Baers – were determined men. Many of them dropped out of schools and mortgaged their futures on the hunch that this would become a viable medium of entertainment. And they suffered setbacks before, having seen their ideas rejected by countless manufacturers. They persevered through those. What makes anyone think Nolan Bushnell would have suddenly abandoned his dream if just his second attempt at an arcade game failed? What makes anyone think video games wouldn't exist without Pong?"
The first video game was Tennis For Two, designed by engineer and inventor William Higinbotham, an employee at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York in 1958. Looking to have an exhibit that would entertain the public on visitor’s days, Higinbotham felt "it might liven up the place to have a game that people could play, and which would convey the message that our scientific endeavors have relevance for society." A simple program displayed on an oscilloscope at the lab, Higinbotham’s two-dimensional tennis game was an exhibit at the institute for two years and a hit with crowds. In its second year, it even provided options to the player: tennis on the moon, with low gravity, or on the denser atmosphere of Jupiter.
The first computer video game was SpaceWar!, designed by Steve Russell, a computer programmer at MIT in 1962. Looking to create the ultimate piece of demoware for the PDP-1, a mainframe computer, Russell and a group of colleagues devised the game, which featured two competing spaceships, each equipped with missiles. Said a modest Russell on his accomplishment, “If I hadn't done it, someone would've done something equally exciting if not better in the next six months. I just happened to get there first.”
The first video game played on a television set was Ralph Baer’s Chase in 1967. Baer went on to be a leader in the development of the 1972 released Magnavox Odyssey, the first ever video game console, which incidentally featured a ping-pong type game eerily similar to Pong…
…but was not Pong.
The first arcade game ever, 1971’s Computer Space, was designed by Nolan Bushnell – the Atari founder credited for Pong himself – and Ted Dabney, and was based on Steve Russell’s earlier SpaceWar! Though it was the first game made widely available to the public, even faring well on certain college campuses, it was too complicated to grasp for first-time players and flopped in bars and taverns.
Yet again, it wasn’t Pong.
What was Pong? Pong was the first commercially successful video game, and that’s all it can claim. It wasn’t the first game. It wasn’t even the first ping-pong game. In all honestly, it wasn’t the first anything; it was simply the first time the general public took notice to the technology flourishing beneath their noses.
And because of this, Pong has been given more credit than it ever deserved.
How many times have we heard it said – typically by the oblivious, wannabe-serious, lamenting critic – that we wouldn’t have this game or that game if not for the granddaddy of them all, Pong? Hundreds I’m sure for you, and countless for someone who’s followed video games for as long as I have. They do it to try and sucker you into thinking they’re a credible source, a cheap gimmick used to show they have “an appreciation for the classics” and thus know what a good game is. So critics blindly thank Pong.
The assumption is that since it was the “first,” without it, all innovation and technological advancements would cease to exist, even if Pong was neither innovative nor a technological advancement. Thank Pong we have Super Mario Bros. Thank Pong we have Ocarina of Time. Thank Pong we have Halo, and Final Fantasy, and Gears of War.
Thank Pong for nothing.
Russell's quote rings true in this instance too; if Pong never caught on, we’d simply be crediting a different title for introducing the product to the market, perhaps even a better title. Thank Asteroids, or Joust, or Defender. The entrepreneurs that tried to bring video games to the mainstream – your Bushnells and Baers – were determined men. Many of them dropped out of schools and mortgaged their futures on the hunch that this would become a viable medium of entertainment. And they suffered setbacks before, having seen their ideas rejected by countless manufacturers. They persevered through those. What makes anyone think Nolan Bushnell would have suddenly abandoned his dream if just his second attempt at an arcade game failed? What makes anyone think video games wouldn't exist without Pong?
In fact, Pong wasn’t even the game he wanted. Bushnell envisioned a driving game, yet the electronic engineer he had recently hired to work for him, Al Alcorn, was fresh out of college. Worried that such a game would prove too complex for Alcorn to handle, he set him to work on a ping-pong game instead. When said ping-pong game actually turned out to be fun, Bushnell went ahead and had the project marketed. Originally premiering in two small bars in California, the game quickly took off from there, and eventually video games were being rushed to the public everywhere.
Only there’s another truth behind Pong, one conveniently left out whenever the sheep revere it; it wasn’t an original idea. After seeing the Magnavox Odyssey’s ping-pong game in action, Bushnell directed Alcorn to devise a similar game, and guestbook records verify Bushnell played it at a Magnavox event. Magnavox, of course, had a patent on the concept behind their ping-pong game; Pong was based on an idea already copyrighted. Perhaps better executed, and perhaps more accessible, Pong was nonetheless a stolen idea. Magnavox quickly filed a lawsuit against Atari and the two sides eventually reached a settlement out of court, with Atari agreeing to pay 700,000 dollars to license the Magnavox patents. The game so often credited as being the first is nothing more than a copycat.
It’s about time we stop worshipping this false icon. Pong doesn’t deserve recognition as one of the top ten video games of all time; it’s an archaic piece of programming, often wrongfully credited for its place in history. If it never existed, gaming would exist in the same capacity it does today; simply a different title would have introduced it to the mainstream media (maybe even a refined version of the Magnavox ping-pong game Pong was inspired by). And there’s a reason video games have evolved so much since the days of Pong; novelty only stays entertaining for so long, and no game survived as much on novelty as Pong did (because for so many of its players, there literally was no comparison).
Staff review by Winston Wolf (October 02, 2010)
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