The Friday Game: Pongs
New old games, today: dozens of them, in fact, in the form of some witty variations on a theme. The theme in question is one of videogames’ true elders, too – an Atari classic that once bore the legend, “Avoid missing ball for high score.” Now it arrives with a brisk shout of, “CLICK TO PONG”. Dr Pippin Barr has reworked the original arcade super-hit, then, and the results are amusing, surprising, and uncommonly playable, too.
Pongs offers a range of different versions of Pong, and most of the fun comes from making a selection from the packed contents screen, and then seeing how the simple ball and paddle formula has been reworked. I won’t spoil that fun here, but I will offer a quick hint at the sheer variety that’s available.
So there’s Blind Pong, Ghost Pong and Epilepsy Pong for starters – the last of these, thankfully, is too mild to trigger anything that dangerous, I suspect – and then there’s Trophy Pong, Turn-Based Pong (isn’t Pong turn-based already?) and, my favourite, Unfair Pong. Some of the Pongs on offer riff on classics like Tetris and – appropriately, given the lineage – Breakout. Some turn to the contemporary indie scene for their inspirations, such as B.U.T.T.O.N. Pong. Many of them are good for a second or two: you load them up, get the joke, and then move on. A handful, though, will keep you plugging away all lunch break if you’re not careful. Bring a friend, too. Pong for everyone.
It works, I guess, because Pong is venerable, classic, and easily recognised. You know the basic game so well that there’s a weird little thrill waiting for you when the rules of a variant make a sudden left turn. It’s a bit like going to a performance of Hamlet where one of the actors suddenly starts ad-libbing.
It also helps, of course, that Pong’s basic rules – avoid missing ball, etc – are so straightforward that the game represents a sort of ludic chemistry set for designers. It has a handful of crucial elements – ball, bat, angle of rebound – so what happens if this variable changes, or this one over here? What happens if the bats are twice as long, or if there are three balls in play at once? Is it still fun? Is it still Pong?
Tetris is another game that often benefits from the same kind of playful reworking, as does Snake (or Blockade, to give it its original name), and Breakout, and Solitaire. Geometry Wars 2 could have been called Robotrons, now I think about it. In video games, this is how we treat the classics, I guess: an HD update is always nice, but it’s so much better to delve into the code where there are rules and traditions waiting to be creatively broken.