As a child raised on the Nintendo Entertainment System I failed to realize that I’m a generation removed from the opening era of videogames, contrary to what I believed in my own little head canon.
Anything before Super Mario Bros. was inconsequential in my eyes; that was my benchmark for the beginnings of the medium I so enjoy. I don’t ascribe to that mentality anymore thankfully, but even so I can still see why I thought that way. Saying that Atari and ColecoVision looked antiquated, even by 80s standards, isn’t that much of a hot take. And really, while I still appreciate and enjoy these digital relics today, they don’t often hold up even to hindsight. But that’s not the point; what matters is how they were received and perceived when they first arrived on the scene. I didn’t realize how meaningful those moments were until a casual conversation during Christmas turned into a personal history lesson on Pong.
While talking to my youngest brother about Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration (which I highly recommend you play!) my father’s (heretofore known as Pop) interest was piqued because a) he loves to tell a good sentimental yarn an b) he was around when Pong was a thing. I mentioned how this bare-boned arcade game that helped bring videogames into popular culture got a dismissive reaction from one of my sons, only for his opinion to turn a quick 180° when we actually sat down and played it, which I’ll get to in a bit. There wasn’t anything particularly insightful about Pop’s story, but the fact that Pong had impacted him (more so with one of its many home releases, but to wit) enough for him to remember it was my biggest takeaway.
It’s an unsurprising but subtle reminder that games did in fact have a huge impact well before not only Super Mario Bros. but my time on this earth as I know it. With a little bit of imagination I could picture how wild it must have been to have control of what was happening onscreen. Obviously Spacewar! came first but not many people would have had access to it. Pong was the great introduction to the masses of digital leisure and, much like when man first landed on the moon, my parents were around for both historical events.
So I put the cart before the horse a bit in this little allegory, none of the above would have happened if I hadn’t conned one of my kids into playing Pong with me in the first place. I mean, you could play it by yourself, but it’s a way more fun than just letting the ball slip by the non-existent A.I. to dabble with it or try and control both of them in a pat-your-head-and-rub-your-belly kind of scenario. Besides, it’s as good an excuse as any to spend quality time with your offspring…by playing a game that’s older than both of us.
I have a tendency to lazily turn what I want to be a critical essay into a furtively half-assed review, but in the instance of Pong there’s not much to say beyond that it works really well fifty years after the fact and there are zero bells and/or whistles. It does have a beep though! Even though Pong is the most facile of experiences that is in by no means an indictment to it being enjoyable. Even though I knew it would be a good time in the periphery sense, it held its own not just to me who went in wearing an amateur historian hat but to a 12-year-old who placated my whims but had a look on his face that he thought his old man was joking and not being serious about sitting down and playing Pong on our large, 4K television.
Control quibbles notwithstanding (I didn’t realize how wonderful dials were until I had to move my paddle with an analog stick), the barebones, nitty-gritty smack a ball back and forth until somebody scores 11 points still induces a competitiveness that overrides Pong’s simplicity. I didn’t need to worry about learning mechanics or systems, I just needed to have fun with my boy and try not to laugh so hard at a mishap caused by the sheer physics of the thing that I can’t breath and my son gets a point. I often forget that games can be played with others for mutual enjoyment because I often gravitate towards genres that are the opposite of that or require you to go online and play with basest of trolls. All that mattered is that I spent quality time with my child while playing a quality game. What better way to be reminded than with the O.G. of the concept.
In one of the interviews on Atari 50 Al Alcorn mentions that Nolan Bushnell, the head of the company at the time, wasn’t interested in Pong beyond using it as a testbed for his grander aspirations, but lo and behold on a market test in a bar it made so much money that it literally stopped the arcade machine from working anymore. The power of Pong isn’t just that it helped launch a medium, but that it did so because it helped bring people together and it’s remembered fondly because of it.
I always appreciated Pong for its historical relevance, but I’m earnestly surprised at how endearing it still is.
DEVELOPER: Atari | PUBLISHER: Atari | RELEASE: November 29th, 1972 | PLATFORM: Arcade | PLAYED ON: Nintendo Switch (Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration)