Pong (1972, Atari) was the first commercially successful arcade video game cabinet. It marks its 50th anniversary this year.
Often considered “the first video game”, it was not. But it was the first popular, commercially successful video game. Atari released Pong after Computer Space, which was a bit more complex to play, and wasn’t as well received. Pong was simple enough that it was easy to pick up and play. This success made it a pioneering milestone in the history of video games. A simple, yet engaging 2D simulation of table tennis, Pong was a sensation at the time of its release, and spawned an industry which quickly established itself as a culturally significant fixture.
Coin-operated arcade machines were already a thing by this time, but prior to the video game revolution they were electro-mechanical games like pinball tables and shooting gallery games.
In 1972 dollars, $0.25 is worth about $1.78 in 2022 dollars. That’s how much people paid to play Pong back when it was new. It’s a bit surprising to consider that a single credit to play a video game once cost this much. I’ve always been willing to put a quarter in a game, but I’ve always felt reluctant to insert more than that for a single credit, no matter what the game was.
Home Pong systems quickly appeared in the market, introducing the video game console to hundreds of thousands of homes. Pong is older than I am. I was born in 1975, and as such it was a few years before my time, but I still remember it well — in its home incarnations. But I don’t have any experience of what it was like when it was brand new. I never saw a Pong arcade cabinet in the wild, not until many years later, when I got to see and play one at the CCAG Show one year, in 2004 or 2005. I was surprised by how small the cabinet was, compared to the arcade cabinets I was more familiar with from childhood.
My first video game memories date to 1981 or ’82. We got an Atari 2600 for Christmas, I think in 81, and at this time I was barely old enough to see over the control deck of a stand-up arcade cabinet to play. Games like Space Invaders, Asteroids, Pac Man, and Donkey Kong were in their heyday. Pong was already almost a decade old, but we still knew about it. Even if I didn’t see it in any arcade, there were still home console versions of it.
Arcade games were literally everywhere by this time. It was the Golden Age of arcade games, and a very special time in history for those of us who were young then. You could go to a convenience store or gas station, and there’d be a couple of them out by the door. Sometimes other vending machines were found nearby: gumball machines, or soda machines, and the vending machines never went away. But in the early 80s, video games were in these spaces as well, even in the space after the checkout at the supermarket. Bored kids would drain quarters into them while waiting for their parent to pay for the week’s groceries. In 1982, a quarter was worth about $0.74 in 2022 dollars.
This ubiquity made games mainstream, not just something you could only find to play at arcades and carnival midways, but something you could find almost anywhere. They encouraged, even invited you to loiter. Whether you had a quarter, or just had to watch someone else play, it was exciting to be around these tall cabinets, full of technology and glowing, electronic life.
Galaxian. Moon Patrol. Pac Man. Space Invaders. Scramble. Frogger. Joust. Dig Dug. They were mesmerizing to watch, and if you were younger than 6 you could pretend you were playing during the demo sequence and it felt real, and you got that rush of excitement for free. Put in a quarter and you’d maybe last a minute or two, often less, and you’d lose all your lives before you could even get started, so it kind of hurt. But I wanted to become their master.
And it wasn’t long before I wanted to create games of my own.
And it all started with Pong.