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Game Name:  Pong (Atari: 80 Classic Games in One!)
Developer:  Digital Eclipse
Publisher:  Atari, Inc.
PC Release Year:  2003
Review Date:  May 15, 2015

Do you enjoy sports?  Demographically speaking, you probably do not if you are a fan of this site.  Older readers, like me, grew up in a world where gaming was an intellectual pursuit.  At the same time, gym class was home to a generation of physical education teachers who allowed the jocks to run roughshod over the athletically uninclined.  Amid those aggressive games of dodgeball and humiliating sprints, a clinical disinterest emerged in me around physical tests of skill.  While I am not a complete stranger to a pickup game of basketball, I prefer solitary physical activities like cycling and jogging.  Developers have long sought to let folks like me satisfy competitive urges in a less confrontational arena, with Atari’s Pong being one of the earliest examples.  Although just about every gamer has heard of this 1972 arcade classic, only the most serious of today’s retro collectors can say they have played it.  Knowing how biased such opinions from a rabid fan base can be, it was time to put this piece of cultural history through the wringer.  While the PC port that I played suffers from a pretty frustrating design flaw, which mirrors a problem found in the original arcade cabinets, the underlying experience is still not engaging enough to warrant a playthrough on an alternate platform.

From a gameplay perspective, Pong is best classified as a cross between air hockey and table tennis.  The objective itself is simple; knock a ball past your opponent to earn a point, and the first side to score 11 points wins.  It all plays out on black 2-dimensional board, which is enclosed by rails on the top and bottom, and is vertically subdivided by white hash marks.  This string of dashes is the service line, and the game’s primitive AI will use it to lob a meatball at whichever side was last scored on.  Returning the ball is done via a simple white paddle, which travels as if it were stuck on a track.  Upward and downward motions are allowed, but it is impossible to tilt this instrument or go forward and backward with it.  Despite this limitation, the game’s physics engine offers a surprising amount of control, based on the speed and direction of the paddle’s movement when it strikes the ball.  Connect squarely and from a stationary position, and the ball will return lazily back across the board on a pretty direct trajectory.  However, catch it with the corner of the paddle while you are rushing to intercept, and the ball will become a much harder target to hit as it careens wildly from one sidewall to the other with a series of distinct pinging sounds.

Given the laws of physics in this virtual world, it should come as no surprise that gamers are ultimately their own worst enemy.  To avoid a boring match and prove one’s mettle, Pong essentially begs a fancy return attempt.  Nothing else in the title provides the same sense of satisfaction and fun; so far too many balls will fly off the end of the table while trying to make a fancy play.  Ironically enough, this is a good thing because it levels the playing field for game's computer opponent.  This is not to say that the enemy AI is horrible, but the maximum speed of its paddle movement was limited to match the dial control on the original game.  Transitioning from a standalone arcade system’s rudimentary interface, to that of a PC, means players can use a fancy mouse with the sensitivity cranked up to give themselves a distinct advantage, which would not have been possible in the past.  As a result, it will only take two or three attempts, at most, to proclaim victory.  After that, the challenge ends and there is nothing to keep today’s players engaged in the same way that video game novelty kept folks hooked in the early ‘70s.

Still, the kernels of something even a modern gaming audience could appreciate are readily present in Pong.  With how popular games like Rockstar’s Table Tennis and Wii Sports have been in the past decade, I daresay Atari would have a winner on their hands if they pursued a fully-realized franchise reboot.  For starters, they could save the player a lot of heartache and frustration by allowing paddles to reach the top of the board.  A simple circuit defect was the cause for this flaw in the original prototype, but it was never fixed since designer Allan Alcorn wanted to limit the duration of matches between skilled players.  Frustrating does begin to describe failing to make a play because the ball entered into this void, from which it is impossible to make a return.  A new coat of paint in the way of a 3D overhaul would be well received too, as would providing a range of difficulty levels to give each player an appropriate challenge.  Past that, they could get creative by placing obstacles on the table or putting multiple balls into play at the same time; the sky is really the limit.  Sadly, this is all just wishful thinking.  Like ancient Rome in its twilight years, Atari’s once mighty gaming empire is sick and in the final stages of decline.  There is little hope of seeing anything but classic game compilations and online gambling from them, as they slowly fade into irrelevance.

Pong was created in a world that few of today’s gamers would recognize, and many of its design conceits are a byproduct of those earlier times.  Games are short because Atari wanted players to keep feeding the machine with coins, and substandard AI was acceptable because competitive multiplayer was the intended way to play.  Imagining back to the early ‘70s, I could easily see myself crowded with coworkers around one of these machines at happy hour, as an alternative to billiards or darts.  However, this is not the way that video games are generally played today.  As gaming has evolved into a more insular hobby, enthusiasts have appropriately demanded greater depth and longer playtimes for their hard-earned money.  While there are few who would bemoan giving any title, even a bad one, five minutes of their precious free time, that still does not mean that the flawed and superficial gameplay of Pong is worthy of a recommendation today.

Verdict:  Not Recommended