“ten games PONG is better than”
by tim rogers
Pong was released in 1972 — that’s forty years ago. Forty years is a long time for something to exist without anyone else bothering to make anything better than it.
If you put a gun to my head and told me to prove beyond the shadow of all doubt that any one particular game ever invented was better than Pong, you’d end up having to pull the trigger. Or — at least you could stop pointing the gun at me.
If you told me “Design a game that’s better than Pong”, it’d have to be some sort of remake of Pong. It’d have to be a darn sight better than Pac-Man: Championship Edition, and that game sets the bar for retro remakes so high that said bar is literally in space.
Rather than give myself a third massive headache today, instead of trying to imagine games better than Pong, I’ll list ten games that aren’t as good as Pong. By the end, maybe you’ll see what I mean when I say that Pong is the purest video-television-contest in history.
1. Angry Birds
Pong is better than Angry Birds. Angry Birds is a game about winding up the world and watching it go. You make a tiny little choice — how hard are you going to shoot that bird, and at what angle upward or downward — and then you watch the elements of the world react. It’s a perfect little thing, deliciously sticky-wet with personable video-friction. (If you found that last sentence obnoxious, please let me know.)
Pong is the founding father of personable videofriction. It is also the first video game made for mainstream sale or rental. Like Angry Birds, it encourages addicted fervor because it has sumptuous physics. Like Dead Or Alive, it encourages slack-jawed staring because of its voluptuous bouncing. The game is alive, Jell-O on a minimalist platter, jiggling forever.
Why is Pong better than Angry Birds? First, let me say that I find Angry Birds to be perhaps the best video game of this software generation. (Warning: previous sentence engineered for maximum controversy.)
Simply put, Pong is better because the birds in Angry Birds, in addition to being angry, are also kind of ugly. Pong, meanwhile, needs no cute characters: here is a game whose appeal is solely between the players and the friction.
Also, nothing about Angry Birds’ jiggling is perfectly predictable. Sometimes, I just don’t know where my little cartoon bird is going to go, and it worries me, so I pause and reset. Fling, pause, reset, fling, pause, reset, et cetera. It starts to feel like a board game, almost — like Go played between two players seated ten feet away from the board. One might throw a stone at the table and say, “Oh, sorry, I meant to put it over there.” “Go ahead and try again, bro.”
Pong is like this: you move the paddle. You put it where it needs to be. You yank it at the last moment to shank the ball up or down. You trust your opponent to return it. If he or she doesn’t, you earn a point. There is about as much joy in earning a point as there is in losing one. There is no “hit, pause, reset, hit, pause, reset”.
Pong needn’t quest for faithful visual and mechanical realism the way Madden eternally must. Madden is a slave to a real sport. Pong is a sport in itself. It’s abstract: it is its own sport. If they televised Pong matches, video game simulations of “Professional Pong” wouldn’t need better graphics or updated rosters every year. Pong is an abstract sport free of charisma. “Star” Pong players could possibly have personalities, though if you select them in the game, what would that do? No “star” Pong player could, say, hit the ball any harder or faster than another. In Pong, the playing field is perfectly equal. Pong is a brainsport of gentlepeople. Meanwhile, simulation games resembling real-life televised athletic contests grow in pomp; beer advertisements swell to ridiculousness; politics run so deep that sometimes teams lose on purpose. The simulations of these sports bloat to accommodate this. With Pong, there can be no bloat — well, not in the video game, anyway. I’m sure professional Pong could find plenty of drug scandals or what have you.
3. Connect Four
When I was in college, me and a couple of math guys played a lot of Connect Four with a metronome. This tradition got started the same way our weekly hallway beer-cup miniature golf championship tradition got started: it was late, and we had coffee. We took bets and received complaints from do-gooders who were just trying to sleep. “I have a lecture in the morning.” “So do I,” I’d say. Et cetera.
Our dorm was full of music students — this being Indiana University in Kirk Hamilton’s hometown of Bloomington, Indiana — so there was no shortage of metronomes. Once I got the great idea to borrow one from a guy who played the violin so peerlessly he could go an hour without a metronome and be just fine.
The idea was this: one tick, one play. We started it slow. We sped it up. Hilarity ensued.
“I could write a computer program right now that could do this,” one guy said, after I beat him. “I so could. I swear to god I could.” He was, in fact, an atheist. “I could write it right now.”
“We are not computers,” I said. “Computers are not welcome in this exercise.”
Eventually, the metronome was so fast we needed a referee. We knew a guy whose dream was to be a tennis umpire.
Action Connect Four is a heck of a thing. When you have less than a second to make your move, you make all sorts of mistakes you wouldn’t make otherwise.
“Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast,” someone once said. Well, I say that even a math genius’s brain can snap in half when you’re playing Connect Four at speed-metal tempo.
Pong is something like that — except no one can argue with the referee. And the decision tree is pared down to a single elegant trunk:
A ball approaches. What do you do?
Miss, and you fail. Don’t, and you don’t. The game goes on. An infinite rally may ensue. Ahh, infinity — in Action Connect Four, we can have ties, though ties do not exactly suffice for infinity. Pong wins yet another round.
4. Any Pinball Game Ever
I love pinball — I love the feel and heft of the machines. I love the sounds and the lights. Some days, though, I wake up and I decide to not kid myself: pinball machines are places money goes to die. Behold the gaping gap between the flippers. Feel with your brain the memory of that time your brain flailed, wrestling itself, wishing those flippers could reach a little further.
Skill in pinball requires the player to feel when to activate the flipper; to learn the feel of each machine — the distance between the flippers and the nearest targets (and the angles of said targets) — so as to never put the ball in a situation where it’s going to slide helplessly into the flipper-gap (note: people definitely can learn how to do this).
With Pong, there are no too-late wishes of “just a little further”. The paddle goes to where you point it. If you miss the ball, it’s because you failed to react with precision and grace. It’s not about the wrong decision, and it’s never about any of the action on the screen being mechanically impossible.
It’s always just about you — and it’s about someone else.
They play Starcraft II on television. I won’t knock it. It’s the best-designed and most thoroughly, monstrously balanced competitive game in existence. I’ve played it for dozens of hours and would not dare say I even half-perfectly understand its nuances. It’s a thrilling, incredible game.
Having said that, have you ever tried watching it on television? Good god, it stabs my brain. Maybe I’m just the weird sort of person who wants and needs to consider every bit of rationale behind even the tiniest decisions. Decisions are being made with lightning speed in Starcraft II. Starcraft is, then, decision-making as a sport. It’s like NASCAR (another sport I respect) in that regard, only NASCAR doesn’t ask its competitors to micromanage six hundred termite-sized brain-spawns every twelve seconds: just to drive the car, and be mindful.
If you put A Non-Gamer down in front of a professional Starcraft broadcast, what would they say? I would research this on my own, though I’m afraid the friend I’m thinking of would certainly think I was making fun of her, and she’d probably never talk to me again.
Pong is better than Starcraft and NASCAR combined. The two white rectangles and the single white bouncing square immediately communicate the rules of the contest. The spectator understands immediately what is at stake — and who is winning or losing.
6. Street Fighter
I once met Yoshiki Okamoto, director of Street Fighter II. I was interviewing him about something fairly boring. He quite frankly told me that they made Street Fighter II because Capcom wanted a game that had
1. characters bigger than any characters in any other arcade games
2. more buttons required than any other existing arcade games.
These requirements forced the developers to make the game one-on-one. Capcom already had a one-on-one game — Street Fighter — so they made it Street Fighter II.
It was wildly popular, because it was hyper-competitive and well-balanced. Soon came a “Championship Edition”, which balanced the game further, and then a “Turbo” Championship Edition, which continued balances and tweaks, and sped the game up to better allow the communication of its most expert players.
The entire fighting game genre — Virtua Fighter (sort of) excluded — issued forth from there: big characters, a bunch of buttons, arcane key-press requirements for special moves.
Eventually, there was Soul Calibur, with fluid animations and ornately ornamented characters. The fluidity of the animations require the player to memorize the game’s visual presentations en masse: maybe Xianghua does a little upward pokey-flourish with her sword before she spins around and does her leg-sweep low-kick.
In short, eventually, these games got around to disingenuity. The heart of them is that one player is testing his or her reaction time against the other. It took flashy graphics to win the hearts and minds of players in 1991 — players who had, in the near-twenty years since Pong, seen and heard a good slice of “everything”. Now that twenty more years have passed, I — for one — am not a teenager anymore, and I can look at Pong, and out flows this deep admiration for its elegance and ingenuity.
7. Call of Duty
The main complaint PC gamers have about playing a first-person shooter on a console is that first-person shooters absolutely must be played with a mouse and a keyboard. “I don’t play FPSes with controllers,” they will say, immediately dismissing well-made entertainment experiences like Halo or Gears of War. They would rather play Counter-Strike or Call of Duty on their PC. The preference of mouse to analog stick is clearly reasonable, if you think about it: a first-person shooter is about pointing a gun and pulling the trigger. A mouse is a pointing device. If you jack the mouse speed up to maximum, should your graphics card have racing stripes and an amazon warrior princess and a robot and a dragon on its box, the first-person view on-screen will shift butter-smoothly with the velocity of a live human spectator’s gaze in a heated tennis match. This is enough to give some first-person shooter newbies intense motion sickness: they have yet to learn the subtle zen technique of moving your real-life head as little as possible while staring at the screen.
Those cynical and hyper-critical of the first-person shooter genre as a whole will say, of the likes of Counter-Strike, that the game rewards only obsessive thirteen-year-olds’ ability to zip a mouse and stop on a tiny dot. So it is that a “champion” of an FPS is a would-be Mister Miyagi, able to snatch flies out of the air with chopsticks.
If you’ve ever played an original Pong machine, you know that the game’s controller is unique. It’s not a paddle or a big rotary dial. It’s a tiny little twisty-switch. Movement of the paddle in Pong is a magnificently nuanced action: twist the dial clockwise, and your paddle zips to the bottom of the screen, compressing against the wall for a moment before expanding again. Twist the dial counter-clockwise, and the paddle instantly zips to the top of the screen, again compressing. To move the paddle a fraction of the field width, you must master minute twists of the dial.
The paddle in Pong is, therefore, not a “character”. It’s not even an “avatar”. It’s a “pointing device”: the player silently speaks, through the interpreter of a tiny little twisty knob, at the high-speed action on the screen. The connection between player and paddle, then, is almost psychic.
FPSes have big graphics. They have particle effects. They run at sixty frames per second. They have Shocking Story Moments in single-player campaigns designed to invite new players in, in hopes that they’ll stick around to grind on the multi-player enough to want to pay for the eventual DLC, keeping the machine oiled.
Pong has no middlemen. It is purely boiled down to the essence of a first-person shooter: zip, stop, shoot, zip, stop, shoot.
It should have its own Super Bowl. They could televise it on MTV.
Any social game is like, “Tell your friends about your farm, and you’ll get more stuff for your farm!”
Pong is like, “Tell your friends about Pong by playing Pong with them, and then you and your friends will be better friends because you’ll have fun together using a well-designed minimalist entertainment software tool which requires you to be immersed only in your reaction times, not in its aesthetic theme.”
In other words, Pong is a conversation lubricant. Farmville and Castleville are conversation-simulator-simulators. That’s technically a simulation of a simulation.
Castleville, for example, literally says “Congratulations! You have emptied your inbox” when you finish clicking “OK” on every “request” in your inbox.
Pong just says you win, or you lose.
Pong is a social game. You play it with your friends. You have a good time. You don’t need to project yourselves into its “worlds” or “characters”. It is an Enjoyment Tool. It’s perfect.
9. Super Mario Kart
Nintendo got this idea, at some point, that players who sucked at games should be given unspeakable power at the crucial moments of a race. Using this power, they can disrupt all players’ fun and destroy the possibility of some players winning the race. One of these unspeakable powers is the Lightning Bolt. You can only get it if you’re in last-ish place. When you use the Lightning Bolt, it slows all of the other drivers down, making it so that everyone else playing the game is groaning through their teeth that the jerk who sucks enough to be in last place used a Lightning Bolt to ruin everyone’s fun.
It’s like, in Mario Kart, if you have a Lightning Bolt, it’s already sort of a lost cause. When you use it, you’re probably thinking, “This isn’t fun if I don’t win, so I don’t want everyone else to have any fun, either.”
Pong has nothing like that. The player of Pong who loses knows only that he or she did not play as well (or concentrate as hard) as the other player.
Maybe if Nintendo wants to keep all gamers welcome, they could stop cramming their games with mudslides and banana peels and heat-seeking red shells and gophers that jump up out of nowhere and squids that shoot ink in your god darn face.
“Remember the paddle; remember the ball; remember Pong.”
Me and my colleagues’ iOS game, ZiGGURAT, is definitely not as good as Pong. We really tried, though, with a “pointing device” sort of aiming system that snaps your gun aim to a location relative to where you touch your finger (or thumb) on the bottom edge of the iPhone screen.
The truth is, we just released the game. You can buy it now. It’s just a dollar. No — it’s just ninety-nine cents. So it’s the reason I came to write this article. I thought, “What commercially available videogames are better than my commercially available videogame?” I went all the way back in history to the very first commercially available videogame: Pong. And there it was. Oh, well. We’ll try harder next time!
EIGHT MONTHS LATER: Instead of publishing this article, I decided that Action Button Entertainment should make a video game. So that’s what we did. It’s on the iOS App Store and on the Android Google Play store. It’s $1.99. So please be checking it out. Thanks!