Are there fans of Pong? Atari's breakout hit is the first video game to pierce pop culture, although certainly not the first video game ever made. Its simple interactions wowed everyone, and gaming's grand tradition of cloning great ideas began. For a while, video games were Pong clones, just as shooters grew out of their DOOM clone infancy. Can such simplified gameplay satisfy a modern audience? That's the question posed by Pong Quest, a game by Chequered Ink that layers RPG elements, dungeon crawling, and a charming personality onto the arcade classic.
You play as a Pong paddle hopping around a world of sentient Pong paddles like a character from South Park. You arrive at a castle and your king has a mission for you. A Quest if you will. He has four dungeons, each more dangerous than the last. You have to crawl through each one and defeat the monsters within, eventually acquiring enough magic MacGuffins to unlock a spooky door at the end of the hallway. It's the most standard of stories, but the writing has enough wit to give you a few chuckles as you go through the motions.
As you might guess, you have to combat the monsters by playing Pong, and a lot's changed since 1972. Each encounter features powered up balls that add tons of variety to the simple table tennis. There are Zip Balls that ramp up the speed instantly and Bounce Balls that cover your shots in rubber. You can heal yourself with potion shots and erect barriers to protect your field. Power-up selection happens on the fly as you play, forcing you to make quick decisions as each volley ramps up the difficulty. It basically does what Arkanoid did for Breakout, adding in enough variety to give the standard gameplay an exciting new lease on life.
Speaking of, your quest eventually takes you through dungeons based around older Atari titles like Breakout and Centipede. This could have just been an aesthetic change, but the way that each new area alters the gameplay drove me forward. Balls based on each game's mechanics appear frequently, including an extremely powerful choice used by the dungeon's boss. For example, the Centipede stage has you summoning mushrooms, dodging poison orbs, and eventually defending against the titular insect as it crawls towards you in its distinctive pattern. For anyone familiar with these classics, it's a thrill to see.
You may wonder how you get these powerups. Simply put, the game throws them at you with reckless abandon. Defeating enemies and opening chests give you piles of items, more than you can even take advantage of without several inventory upgrades. New power-ups also spawn in on the battlefield to refill your coffers during a long volley. It does encourage you to use items rather than horde them, but it also feels like you lose any chance for strategy along the way. Since you never know what's coming in your next battle, you quickly learn to discard balls designed to counter attacks. They're unreliable in the long run, taking up valuable space that could be used for a jack of all trades option.
My closest comparison is the combat system from recent Paper Mario games. These consumable attacks are so ephemeral that you never feel a sense of ownership of how you play. It is fun to introduce so many desperate mechanics to something as simple as Pong, but it all just feels random in the end. Your inventory changes so frequently that you eventually stop paying attention to it. I wish I could learn regular ball alternatives and use them on cooldown, with only the rarest attacks relegated to this inventory system. Then, at least, I could build up some sort of gameplan and increase my skills. As is, Pong Quest feels like a grindy game of attrition where your input is secondary to the proceedings.
The only place where there's a little more control is Pong Quest's head to head options. The Quick Play options will throw you into a standard match from the campaign, but both Anything Goes and Competitive will give you set funds and a selection of balls to choose from. Suddenly, you're able to pair skills together and work out new ways to play. The design immediately makes more sense in this side mode, and it's hard to go back to single-player questing once you've seen such a better alternative.
Pong Quest Review | Final Thoughts
Whether playing along or enjoying some competition, Pong Quest sports a charming but simple presentation. The music is jaunty, with small hints of arcade themes past. The characters have some funny lines, but you run into too many of the same NPCs far too early in your adventure. Once you see that each level has the same bonus challenges with the same characters on each floor, you quickly lose interest. Some improvements here really would have given players more to invest in. You can add all the mechanics you want, but Pong is still Pong at the end of the day. You really have to dig deep to overcome that.
Pong Quest will certainly find an audience. It seems like the perfect game for whenever the launch of Atari's VCS console ends up being, as it honors the company's history in a modern context. Still, the simplistic gameplay and random combat mean that players will tire of Pong Quest long before the quest is over and done. Even so, it's great to see Atari honoring the legacy of their first game with such precision. The clone game that launched a thousand clones returns to a world of indie games inspired by its reckless abandon. With digital marketplaces filling up with copies upon copies, it's good to see the master return. Atari once again takes inspiration from various sources and shows everyone how it's really done.
TechRaptor reviewed Pong Quest on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the publisher.
- Quirky Presentation
- Fun Nostalgic Elements
- Simplistic Gameplay Holds Up
- Consumable Power-Ups System
- Repetitive Story Elements
- Mind-Numbing Progression