Pong: infinite - Retro Reflection

Pong: infinite by developer and publisher Atari Inc.—retro reflection written by Hamza.

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes.

Contra.Quake. Zork. Monoymity may be associated closely to the Greek philosophers of the old or to the music celebrities of the now, but it doesn’t hold reservations there and has transgressed to books, movies, authors and video games. The three aforementioned are names that everyone, from the non-gamer to the most obsessive, has them rested on the tips of the tongues and at the front of their minds. These are names that gamers will never forget, just as how audiophiles will never forget Madonna, Prince and Cher, and how the politically interested will always recognize Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini on a whim. But... who was gaming’s first mononymous superstar? But first, let’s dabble in a little bit of history.

In 1962, Steve Russell and a team of five developed Spacewar! for the PDP-1 computer – one of the earliest examples in video gaming, with many go as far as to say as the first commercial video game. PDP-1 stands for ‘a computer you’ve never heard of, have never seen one, and will probably never own one in a million years’-1. It took Steve and his team 200 hours to realize the final product. Very reminiscent of Asteroids, this game sees two spaceships engaging in war. A portal rests in-between and serves as a transporter to random areas on the screen to a player who comes in contact with it. The objective is simple; destroy the other spaceship. Spacewar! was meant for two-players simultaneously; there was no option for single-player.

But since digital entertainment was a new and unprecedented medium for the general public, a majority of them treated the new phenomenom with trepidation, while the others did with severe lack of interest. The idea was scrapped and due to low sales and even less power to ignite excitement among the masses, Spacewar! suffered the same fate as its near-contemporary, Tennis for Two, released in 1958 by William Higinbotham, did – Abandonment and Rejection!

It was apparent to everyone that this form of digital entertainment was a fad and quickly passed. It would only be a decade later, in 1972, that one man, who was not only present in the time of Spacewar!’s first demonstration, but who was also one of the earliest to actually play it, would resurrect this project and usher the world into a new age of expression and entertaiment; though, of course, the expression part came much, much later. That man is Nolan Bushnell, modern video games’ first superstar.

Nolan Bushnell’s experience with Spacewar! convinced him that this still unborn medium could be spat on, rubbed and polished and made shiny for people who didn’t have the luxury of being in a college, or having someone who did, because it had the potential of being a beast entire. Apparently, Nutting Associates thought that, too.

Founded by Bill Nutting in 1965, Nutting Associates was one of the earliest video game developers, but not a successful one; but it does have a distinction of taking part behind a video game that would be heralded in retrospect as the true forerunner to modern video games. In 1971, Nutting hired Bushnell when the latter expressed a desire to clone Spacewar! for the masses and not just for college campuses. This partnership ultimately resulted in Computer Space, developed and produced by Nutting Associates and designed, game and machine and all, by Bushnell and Ted Dabney. As the first video and arcade game availabe on the market, it proved to be popular but not a success. A multi-directional shooter, Computer Space saw you in control of a spaceship battling against a horde of flying saucers. Every 90 seconds, the game went into Hyperspace, or negative zone, and if in those 90 seconds you managed to rack up more points than the flying saucers, you would get 90 more seconds of gameplay and ad infinitum. But Computer Space’s difficult learning curve proved to be a problem and Nolan’s and Nutting’s predictions that it would not be a success came true. Of the 1,500 machines produced, only 1,000 were sold. When Bushnell proposed to make a sequel, he demanded that he be made a stockholder... but Nutting refused. With this rejection, Bushnell and Dabney left Nutting Associates to form a company of their own. The company they co-founded was Atari, Inc.

One of the first things the duo did after settling down was hire Allan Alcorn, an ambitious 24 year old engineer; their first employee. Originally wanting their first game to be a driving game but fearing that it would be too complicated for young Alcorn to work on, Bushnell insisted that he design a coin-op version of a tennis game he, Bushnell, had witnessed when he attended a Magnavox Odyssey demonstration of that game, simply titled Tennis.

Under Bushnell’s supervision, Alcorn set about to fulfill his wish, while incorporating a few touches of his own, such as sound and a scoring system. Thus, Pong was born. Easily the simplest video game ever made, Pong sees two large pixels either side tossing a small pixel back and forth, with a single row of pixels stacked vertically in the middle of the screen, and scoring system on the top. Pong is basically a rudimentary representation of the table-tennis, or ping-pong, sport in digital form. Now do you know where the game got its name from? Set against a black background, the white pixels and the sounds they emit at each successful hit have become iconic household sounds and images. One ‘bleep’ one needs to hear from this game to recognize it straight away. You take away the sound and you’re practically taking away Chaplin’s moustache or da Vinci’s beard.

What makes Pong’s history and development so delicious is that Bushnell had originally intended it to be a warm-up exercise for young Alcorn to test his abilities and skills. In short, an experiment that, if proved unsatisfactory, would have to be trashed. But it ultimately culminated into something fresh and worthy of being sold in the market. Thus, from the minute Pong hit the market to the video game crash of ’84, Atari, Inc. were the indisputable champions of the arcade and their name equalled to video games. The triumvirate – Nolan Bushnell, Ted Dabney & Allan Alcorn – throughout the 70’s and early 80’s kept changing the name of the game (literally) through their legendary consoles, the Atari 2600, 5200, 7800 and the release of Breakout in 1975, developed by the Two Steves; Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, and other legendary titles such as Combat, Pitfall, H.E.R.O. and Adventure, just to name a selected few.

So this is the story of how Pong came to be, how its developers got the idea and how a harmless experiment opened up previously unknown roads and single-handedly created a massive empire. Pong doesn’t boast itself as the first video game ever made, but it does take pride in calling itself as the first world-wide successful video game ever made. It kickstarted an industry that nowadays is being forced to hear such terms like lucrative, dangerous and unsafe being shouted at it in the most negative sense. It kickstarted an industry that over the time has been corrupted by the depressed and the demoralized and invented a whole new study in psychology and sociology. New chapters on controversy opened up, with blood and vice and a General raping an Indian poring from its pages. In short, mediocrity with that occasionnal release of thought-or-emotion provoking found a new outlet. Despite video games’ tendency to go epic and seemingly never-ending, Pong and its short bursts at ageless fun and entertainment hasn’t rusted one bit, and proves to us that simplicity is sometimes the only city worth living in.

Now that my review/history is over, I now realize why there’s a serious lack of legit Pong reviews on the internet. How much can one write on a game that’s practically made up of 4 pixels? Just as how reviewers suddenly become blank when attempting to review a very wordy film, such as the excellent My Dinner with Andre, and seem to opt for an analysis, I guess a full review just cannot be done on this game, as this game doesn’t have much to show, and don’t be surprised if your review ultimately boils down to the game’s history and its impact, with only few lines dedicated to the actual game itself. Like they say, “Pong is... Pong!”


Note: Screenshots from all platforms that were available at the time can be found here at Moby Games.