Tag: Pong

50 years of PONG (1972-2022)

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.

RAMless Pong for Atari 2600

In contrast to the amazing Galaga port to the Atari 2600 that I discussed in a previous post, here is an amazing accomplishment: a full implementation of Pong in 1kb of ROM, which uses 0 bytes of RAM at runtime.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of an old computer system being hacked in such a way that its program doesn’t use any RAM. Several years ago, I saw a talk by someone who had done something similar on the Commodore 64. They eschewed storing any data in RAM by using the CPU registers and directly accessing other hardware components such as the controller ports, and were able to make a working program that used no RAM at all.

It’s truly amazing what can be done under such constraints.

I think, in appreciating the accomplishment of projects like this, it’s easier to understand my relative “disappointment” in learning that Champ Games had used a 32-bit, 70MHz ARM CPU in their Galaga cartridge to augment the VCS system, rather than figured out some way to get the game to run on stock (or minimally extended, as some later contemporary releases for the VCS were) hardware.

I regret that it sounded as though I thought that the game itself was disappointing — far from it, it’s amazing, easily one of the best ports of an arcade game to the platform that’s ever been produced. And the technical accomplishment of getting the ARM CPU to mesh with the much slower Atari hardware is likewise amazing, in a different way. But knowing what’s possible to do with zero RAM, for a moment I thought that just maybe someone had figured out a way to squeeze all that performance and graphics into a standard Atari cartridge.

But really, there’s no reason to judge one of these projects as superior to the other. They should both be appreciated. One accomplishes something through extreme minimalism, and is beautiful in that way. The other accomplishes something through an extraordinary joining of old and new technology, and is beautiful in its own right.