Last month I talked about the game that, for me, represents the beginning of the end for arcade gaming. This month, for my final Classic of the Month, I'm going to talk about the game that was the beginning of my love affair with video games — and yes, it really is Pong! I really am that old!
I was born in May 1975, by which point video games had just got a foothold in arcades. Before then, arcade games consisted of mechanical devices, such as shooting galleries, one-armed bandits, shove penny games and of course, pinball machines. That all changed in 1972, with Atari's Pong, a table tennis game designed and built by Al Alcorn and Nolan Bushnell. The first Pong machine was sited at Andy Capp's Tavern, a bar popular with students in Sunnyvale, California. The game was a huge hit. Legend has it, a few weeks after being installed, Bill Gatiss, the owner of Andy Capp's, complained the machine had stopped working. When Alcorn opened the machine to check it, money started pouring out of it — it was stuffed with more quarters than it could handle.
There had been electronic games displayed on a monitor and controlled with buttons and dials before Atari's Pong and there's a lot of debate about whether Bushnell plagiarised Ralph Baer's designs in those early days, but however you look at it, Pong is the game the established video arcade games as an entertainment medium. All too often when people talk about Pong, what they end up talking about is those halcyon, but controversial, days at Atari, before they were first taken over in the late 70s. There are the tales of lawsuits, drug use on company premises, Steve Jobs working for Bushnell while he and Steve Wozniak built their first Apple computers and more, but all of that stuff is well documented. What I want to talk about is Pong as a video game.
Full disclosure time, I've never played an original Pong arcade machine, because by the time I was old enough to enter an arcade (around 1984), Pong was ancient history. However, I played one of the many (and there were a great many) home Pong clones. In fact, my earliest memory of playing any kind of video game was a machine called (generically) TV Video Game 5 in 1. My brother-in-law gave it to me when he moved on to home computers and it became my first video game system (the word console seems too generous for such a basic a machine). As its name suggests, it included five variations on the Pong theme, from the original two bats and two-players, to a version with both bats at one end and a wall at the other, which was Squash, to a four bat, two-player version generously called Ice Hockey and even a single-player mode called Handball. Like all of those early machines, the TV Video Game was controlled using paddles with variable resistors (or rheostats) that connected via 2.5mm jack plugs. I mainly played this Pong game with my brother-in-law, who, despite being 13 years my senior, was generous enough to let me win every now and then.
Like he real Pong, the idea was as simple as it gets. A square white block bounces around a black court, with various white lines representing the edges, the centre net and the players, who had to knock the square block hither and thither in an attempt to get it past the other player and score a point. However, as simple as was, it still contained everything that makes gaming such great fun: direct, intense competition between two players, each trying to out-do the other. It's the same formula that worked for countless other Pong and tennis games, as well as fighting games, racing games, sports games, flying games and military simulators. The number of players and the intricacies of each game may vary, but that kernel of competition and skill remains in all video games.
As my simple TV Video Game system demonstrated, Pong could be easily adapted into other games and mine wasn't the only one to do so. Atari themselves adapted the game to create Breakout and in thousands of homes across America, the Magnavox used the same building blocks as the basis for a dozen different "games" for their Odyssey console (the world's first console, based on Ralph Baer's designs). The idea lives on today, not such in the countless tennis games on the market, but also retro-inspired games, such as Bit.Trip Beat.
There are a lot of video of Pong on YouTube, but this is the only one I've found of a Pong arcade machine in its natural habitat, an arcade — something I've not seen myself. Plus it has a Jo Garcia in it, so you know — blokes!