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Happy 45th, Pong (You’re Old, But We Still Love You)

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Nolan Bushnell was quoted in NEXT Generation (Issue #4, April 1995) predicting that “the nonlinked computer will be technically and entertainment-wise obsolete within five years.” While some might say he missed the mark by just a couple years, he wasn’t wrong. Today, every console connects to the internet. Internet personalities are born on Twitch, and eSports are constantly gaining global traction; Blizzard Entertainment is about to enter its first season of their newly created Overwatch League, with notable owners of various sporting teams entering deals with Blizzard to own teams around the United States, as well as London, Shanghai, and Seoul. And that’s just one example.

With such a focus on multiplayer, “linked” entertainment, what is it about Pong that has endured through the decades? Is it the historical significance? Its simplicity? The boardroom drama that was the Magnavox lawsuit against Atari and all the copycats spawned from Pong’s commercial success? Whatever your opinion, Pong’s pop-culture influence lives on. From music videos like Eisenfunk’s “Pong” from their 8bit album, to The Goldberg’s episode “A Goldberg Thanksgiving,” this 45-year-old game still captures the interest and the hearts of gamers and pop-culture enthusiasts across all generations.

Pong started as an arcade game, and arcades were a cultural mecca for the time. Wright Bagwell, CEO and co-founder of Outpost Games, mentions this in his post, “The Rise of Performance in Games.” “Players gathered around arcade cabinets to watch the action and cheer each other on. Often, players were pitted against each other, creating further incentive to put on a show. Leaderboards gave every player a shot at notoriety in their community. Like all great games, arcade games encouraged social interaction and performance.” (How many of you walk into an arcade and still stop to watch someone moving their feet at inhuman speeds on Dance, Dance, Revolution?) The importance of those leaderboard rankings cannot be understated; they were a badge of honor, a race to the top. It was the end of the world to lose a spot on the leaderboard, as perfectly illustrated in season two of Stranger Things.

Photo credit: Rob Boudon.

We may have an incredibly complex system of multiplayer games that bring back the retro era of performance with a modern twist, but Pong has the power of nostalgia. For many of us, we all have one quintessential moment in which we remember playing our first video game or our first classic game, or the first time we played Pong, or even when we made our own Pong machine. These are some of those experiences that personal friends, colleagues, and other people from around the internet were kind enough to share with me and re-post in this article.

The World’s Largest Pong Tournament

“Back in 2012, the company I ran with two friends (Replay Events) was commissioned to provide retro gaming exhibits to a new community event in Margate, UK. We wanted to do something unique to make the event stand out and initially wanted to play the world’s biggest game of Tetris by projecting it onto the side of a tower block. But, we couldn’t agree to the logistics so instead came up with the idea of holding the largest tournament of the oldest commercial game, Pong.

After a bit of research, and after speaking with the Gamer’s Edition of Guinness World Records, we concluded that the biggest tournaments previously documented were in the US for around 100 players. So, our plan was to hold a knockout tournament for 256 players, and on February 19th 2012, with eight Pong machines, an army of helpers and umpires, we signed up the required number of entrants from the event goers. It was quite difficult to keep them all in check and have winners wait around for the next rounds as the event had over 200 retro consoles, arcade machines, and pinball tables available to them, but about two hours later we had whittled the 256 down to the final four. I had managed to last seven rounds, but was knocked out in the semi’s, with Robert Dixon (AKA Retro Lord Bob) going on to take the title. Gaz Deaves, Gaming Editor of Guinness World Records 2012 Gamer’s Edition, was on hand for the day to adjudicate and verified the result later that evening, presenting certificates to both the show organizers and myself as tournament organizer.” – Gordon Sinclair

Pong champion Robert Dixon (left) and event organizer Kate Kneale (right) of Marine Studios. Photo credit: Dave Moore.

First Time Playing Pong

“My father was the school district’s audiovisual coordinator, so early computers were in his purview. He brought home some sort of a cassette-using early copy, and loaded Pong into it for myself and my siblings to try. He used Pong as a reward when kids did well. 5th grade classroom. It worked as a reward like a charm.” – Wendy Delamter-Theis

“My parents had a weekend condo in a neighborhood with zero kids. I was always bored and alone. My parents golfed a lot and couldn’t understand why I didn’t like going golfing with them. I had an NES at home and always asked if I could bring it. (No.) One time we went my dad said he had something for me. I went into my room and saw the most beautiful Atari ever! My jaw dropped and I was in awe. The fabled ancestor of all the games I loved was here in my room! My dad showed me how to play with such care, and we played a few games and it was so fun. My dad knew he did a good job, but I don’t think he truly understood how much it just meant to me that he knew who I was and what I would enjoy doing. He dug [it out of] the spider filled shed to give me a video game to play, and it meant everything to me.” – Barbara Hutchinson

“Growing up in the 80s, we had a cabin in Lake Arrowhead. It had one working television that got four channels, and had Pong. I have very fond memories of playing countless hours of Pong while being snowed in. It’s amazing that such a simple game held my attention for so long. I don’t think my kids would last more than two minutes playing it now!” – Phil Dunbridge

“I played Pong on an Atari with my older brother when I was 7-years-old, or around that time frame. I had never played a video game before until then and it was so much fun, as well as frustrating! This was the moment I learned what addiction was all about.” – Brittany Friedman Cooper

“In ’75, we lived in a small trailer park outside El Paso, TX, and the laundromat had an arcade version. It was the first time I saw an arcade machine. Even way back then laundromats and arcade machines went hand in hand.” – Christopher Opher

Recreating a Classic

“Back in the day when Pong was King of the Video Games, my uncle took it upon himself to build his own. I don’t know if he was simply too cheap to buy one, or if he saw it as a challenge, but build it he did and we had hours and hours of 1-bit video gaming fun.
Recently he passed away and going through his belongings I found the game. I also found an old CRT-based TV. I hooked it all up and turned it on… clearly something had died in the box as the video output was unstable. Watching it reminded me of watching scrambled porn (80s teens will know what I’m talking about). You could kind of see a Pong game, but not quite. I sat down with a camera and just started taking pics like mad hoping that I could get even one stable frame. I got one.

Photo credit: Sooner70.

“As for the console itself, it had a few unique (to my knowledge) features:
1 – The score being kept on the LED display on the console rather than in the background of the playing field.
2 – The two knobs allowed for handicapping. The ball would come off your paddle at one of something like 12 different speeds as determined by the knob on the console. By setting different speeds for the two sides, you could handicap one team or the other so that kids could play with adults on an even playing field.
3 – The paddles could be moved forward and backward (not just up/down) so you could “charge the net” if so inclined. Both players of a particular side (it was a 2-4 player game) had to charge in unison, which was odd, but hey… it was like 1976.
“Dunno if there’ll be much love here, but I certainly have a lot of fond memories of that box!” – reddit user Sooner70.

Photo credit: Sooner70

Looking to Celebrate the Everlasting Influence of Pong?

If you are local to Redondo Beach, CA, drive on over to the pier and pop into the Fun Factory. There is an original Pong arcade machine ready for your quarters.

Why not brush up on your Atari history with Marty Goldberg and Curt Vendel’s book “Atari Inc.: Business is Fun.” At a whopping 800 pages (300 of which are rare photographs, memos, and court documents), it’s the most comprehensive historical collection of one of the most iconic studios in video game history.

Play the modernized versions of Pong and many other classics in the Atari Arcade.

Check out the upcoming Atari “Retro” Handheld, exclusively sold through Funstock Retro.

Join the waitlist and mark your calendars for spring 2018—for the first time in 20 years, Atari is making a new console called the Ataribox.

Go download the Atari’s Greatest Hits app for iOS and Android and stay up way past your bedtime with over 100 classic Atari 2600 and arcade games.

Add a last minute item to your Christmas list to complete your gamer den of magic and adventure.

Visit a museum, like the Classic Arcade Museum in Weirs Beach, NH, the National Videogame Museum in Frisco, TX, or The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY.

Or, you know, do the old-fashioned thing and play Pong on the Atari 2600.

So, in the words of Bob Hope, thanks for the memories, Pong. Here’s to many more of them.

Joanna Nelius is a Southern California native who was raised on age-inappropriate games, yet somehow turned out alright. She has been an editor and contributor for several small gaming publications, as well as speculative fiction and academic magazines, for the last few years. When she has some free time, she usually spends it exploring abandoned buildings or watching Unsolved Mysteries—and finding good homes for her twisted horror and sci-fi stories.

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