I am sure that you have heard by now that Atari’s Pong celebrated 40 years in existence this past Friday. I did not forget, I just figured it would be nice to do an article about it as this site dedicated to arcade games celebrates a birthday of its own (and it gave me enough time to do the writing), which being the 3rd of December is the sixth birthday to the site here. Happy birthday to us!
Now I do not need to write a whole history about how Pong came into being, for one that has been done already (to which EDGE Magazine has a nice write-up, thanks to The Stinger Report for that link) so I would like to go into a slightly different direction. I want to take a different look at the influence Pong had with the variations that came out of it. You know you have a real hit on your hands when the concept (or the game itself) is copied ad nauseum on the market soon afterwards and while that doesn’t happen as often as it used to, it still can. One modern example is how Fruit Ninja FX launched the new craze of porting mobile games to the arcade, a trend that is still just getting started on today’s market.
It did not take long for the arcade market of the early 70s to expand rapidly and where Atari couldn’t fill orders, many others found a way to. Williams/Bally/Midway had Paddle Ball, Pro Tennis, Crazy Foot, Winner, Winner II, Winner IV, and Leader; Taito had Elepong; Sega Pong Tron, Pong Tron II, Mini Hockey and Table Hockey; US Billiards called theirs TV Tennis; Allied Leisure loved their Pong-a-bees with Tennis Tourney(which looked a lot like Willams’ Pro Tennis), Super Soccer, Futsball, Paddle Battle and Robot; Ramtek had Volly, Hockey, Soccer and Wipe Out; Meadows had Flim Flam and Ckidzo; among many, many others. Of these Nutting Associates might have had the most interesting one with Wimbledon, which offered four players like Atari’s Pong Doubles but it also had a color screen and sliding controllers.
Now this didn’t keep Atari from sitting idly by without responses or new twists on the Pong idea, which some of the games mentioned above in turned copied as well. Pong Doubles came out in 1973 to introduce 4 player Pong to the market; Superpong (1974) increased the variations as well as the number of paddles; Rebound (1974) changed the position and physics of the idea to make it more like volleyball; Quadrapong (1974) a cocktail table variation of 4 player Pong that gave each side of the screen a goal; and on top of these they made a few copies through their Kee Games company such as Elimination or Spike, taking the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” mentality full speed ahead with other copycats.
As you can imagine, people started to get bored with all of these clones – there had to be something else fun that video games could do and after failed attempts like Space Race, a new winner was found in 1974 with Atari/Kee Games’ Tank. But even where Tank showed how you could do a non ball-and-paddle kind of game that was fun, there was still plenty of life to suck out of the Pong concept. An interesting variation came from the forgotten company Ramtek with a game they called Clean Sweep(1974). It is a predecessor to the concept Atari did with Breakout where you have a paddle at the bottom of the screen and you hit a ball into the air to try and clear the playfield above from the balls there. While Clean Sweep isn’t recognized anywhere as much as Breakout is today, it did manage to get a clone made of it by a company called Volly. They called theirs Flip Out and it’s noteworthy just for the flyer alone (pictured below the Clean Sweep video) showing the sophisticated life as lived daily in the 70s. I love how one guy hired to model as a part of the crowd couldn’t peel his eyes away from the overexcited blond in the center. (More flyer goodness from this one at The Arcade Flyers Archive)
Which brings us to the obvious game to change things up again, with Breakout(1976). This game has gained some extra fame in recent years thanks to the worked that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak did on it before they created Apple but even before their fame was attached to the game, the concept was innovative enough to change how people looked at ball-and-paddle games. Breakout would produce a similar effect on the market that Pong did before it – with various fly-by-night companies creating clones to jump onto the market and nab some of its success while it was still hot.Atari would produce Super Breakout as an advanced sequel to this and years later, Off The Wall (1991). Perhaps the most interesting and entertaining variation to come from Breakout would be Atari’s own Warlords, which is one of the best classic games to play as a group.
One company that would have a long, steamy love affair with the basic concept that Breakout gave to the world would certainly be Taito. They first created a Breakout clone with T.T. Block in 1977 and again with Super Block in 1978. You had Trampoline and Acrobat using clowns in a circus launching their companion into the air on a trampoline but these were essentially tweaked clones of a concept made by Exidy in 1977 that was a creative variation on Breakout called Circus. A lot of people are familiar with Circus although most likely via Circus Atari which was on the Atari 2600 home console. Finally in 1979 someone at Taito had an apifany and started to create some variations that were not just clones, first with their full color game Field Goal. As the game title implied, you try and get a field goal but the ball is a football and you are blocked by a player int he middle of the field and by colored rows of football helmets.
After Field Goal they gave the Breakout-variations a nice long rest until 1986 when they would release their most well-known variation, Arkanoid which brought brick smashing into the modern game scene with power-ups. This was updated shortly after release with Tournament Arkanoid(1987) and found some sequel love with Arkanoid – Revenge of Doh (1987) and Arkanoid Returns (1997), both of these games making brick smashing far more interesting than the original intent might have been. I imagine that if Taito ever revisits Arkanoid in arcades, there would be interest from the player base in such a game. Sega had an answer to Arkanoid called Gigas which came out the same year as Arkanoid and Namco did as well with Quester (1987) but neither failed to gain the same level of fame, coming after the fact. One variation on all of this that isn’t very well known is Plump Pop(1987) where they made smashing stuff cute and you could control either a dog, cat or pig, that you threw intot he air to smash a weird variety of objects and of course it included boss battles! One last ball-and-paddle game Taito would create was Puchi Carat(1997), which was like combining Arkanoid with Puzzle Bobble, although a little less so than the obvious crossover of the two with Yunsung’s Cannon Ball from 1995. Also among weird Arkanoid variations was Toaplan’s Ghox, which has graphics that remind me a little of Namco’s Splatterhouse.
Jumping back in time to some other twists Atari would come up with on their own to squeeze some extra lives out of Breakout, there were a couple of “reverse Breakout” games. One was Canyon Bomber(1977), which didn’t involve a paddle in any way, you simply blow up rocks in a canyon for points. A more exciting but not as well known reverse Breakout came from their game Avalanche (1978) where the player stops falling rocks from the top of the screen with a column of paddles on the lower half of the screen. It was a very fun game but did not find great success in the arcade market, only to be copied by Activision a few years later with their blockbuster hit Kaboom! I can understand the greater success of Kaboom! though, as it has a little more personality to it since you have a villain constantly dropping those bombs on you.
After Visco Games released Bang Bead back in 2000, “Ball And Paddle” Type games have evaporated from the arcade scene. On one-hand it is understandable that the general concept was explored in great detail between 1972 and 2000 although I wouldn’t say that it has been exhausted completely. With some creative thinking, I am sure more could be done in this area that is still suitable for today’s market, although it is obviously more of a challenge to create something that can be successful when you have light-gun and racing games to compete with. At least one company is trying that on a limited level, in particular with Galloping Ghost Pong which is located at the Galloping Ghost Arcade in Brookfield, IL.
So that’s all for some trans-Pong history for now. It’s incredible the effect one game had and how long it has lasted but even though ball-and-paddle type games aren’t really a thing anymore, the effects they have had on gaming were important. It’s among the reasons Arcade Heroes is here and once again thanks to all of you who follow and read the blog, stay tuned for further improvements to the site throughout the year!