Starting Off 2021 With a Pong
Updated: Feb 22
Contrary to what many in the video game fandom or public like to spout, Pong was not the first arcade video game. Technically that honor goes to the 1971 Nutting Associates game Computer Space. Computer Space (based on the early computer game Space War played in computer labs in the 60's) was hard to understand for the player, and expensive for the operator leading to its lack of success in the amusement market. Atari founder Nolan Bushnell helped develop both Computer Space and Pong, but with Pong in 1972 he hit the Grand Slam he had been hoping for with Computer Space. Pong was simple to understand, fun to play, plus it came in a cool yellow cabinet.
The electronic video game version of computer Tennis wasn't exactly a new thing either once Pong was officially released. Some variations of the game had been played by computer students and engineers on oscilloscopes for many years prior to 1972. The original Odyssey home video game system (developed in the late 60's but released in 1972) had a very similar game to Pong but without the dynamic angle deflection which made Pong unique at the time. Pong actually instituted several game play changes over these earlier "Computer Tennis Style Games" that made it more interesting to play. First, the paddle was programmed to have 8 "zones" which would control how the ball would ricochet back to the other player and at what angle. The angle was more dramatic the farther out from the center of the paddle were the ball struck. Second, the ball in play would speed up as successful back and forth volleys between players would go forth. Lastly there is a small section at the top of the virtual playfield which cannot be protected, a permeant "gutter" if you will thanks originally to a programming mistake, but left in so players couldn't play the game forever.
Pong's simple rule set (your can see in a photo to the left), accessibility, and ease of comprehension made it a huge hit. Anyone could play Pong, and since it was only a two player game it allowed for a new type of social interaction. Atari however was essentially a start up in 1972 and had a hard time keeping up with demand for orders for Pong and the demand was very large.
The challenge to meet with demand for machines was hampered also by a lengthy patent process. Atari had also used off the self components developing the game PCB (the monitor is an off the shelf black and white 12 inch TV anyone could buy in 1972). There are much better articles about the development and brilliant hardware of the game I could recommend such as this one http://www.pong-story.com/LAWN_TENNIS.pdf. This ease of getting these off the shelf parts lead to countless bootleg and copycat machines flooding the market mer months after Pong was released. Atari was also new to the vending industry which was filled with strange territorial rules and loyalties about distribution. This would eventually lead Atari into creating its own sub company called Kee Games to help circumnavigate some of these strange self imposed regulations the vending industry held onto.
It's hard to say how many Pong machines Atari actually manufactured. I have read on various sites anywhere from a low of 5,000 to a high of 19,000. I think an estimate of around 8-9,000 is probably the most accurate one. The serial numbers on the back are coded to hide true production figures, and are not necessary sequential with an odd letter number format.
It seems that Atari started out the production of games with ZZZ-001, then switched to AAA numbers, and then back to YYY...etc. Not all numbers were used evidently and this was done to hide the number of machines sold from the competition. Thousands and thousands of clone Pong machines were sold by many manufactures. These bootlegs probably outnumber legit Atari Pong machines by at least 5 to 1. Atari of course would solider on and continue to make other excellent video game titles throughout the 1970's and beyond. Most of these early 1970's games however saw little life after Taito's Space Invaders would be released in the last bit of the 70's or once the avalanche of home Pong systems invaded the marketplace starting in 1975. Pong machines were either shoved in the back of a warehouse to eventually find homes with future collectors like myself, or simply destroyed. I would estimate that maybe 5-10% of all the original Pong machines manufactured still exist.
This Pong came from a fellow collector in the Washington State area and is somewhat complete but non-working currently. It also has the bonus of an autographed control panel by Atari's founder Nolan Bushnell (although it is important to point out here, that Atari engineer Al Alcorn developed the game itself). It includes the original style bread loaf pan coin collector bucket, and overall is in good shape despite a wack in the top that was unfortunately caused by us loading the game into our van (this is easily fixed thank goodness). I have two wiring harnesses, a non-working TV, the board set which looks pretty clean, and I found one knob the the bottom of the cabinet. The knobs were frequently stolen and had several different versions installed through the manufacturing run of the game. I am also missing the inner bezel (early ones were cardboard, later ones made from formed plastic). Earlier cabinets such as this have a slightly angled front/bottom which can cause them to tip over easily which we found out the hard way (hence the wack it recieved towards the top of the cabinet).
The cabinet has a tiny bit of damage on the bottom as any almost 50 year old vending machine will have. Once I got the TV home I realized it probably won't be rebuildable. No schematics for the TV are available or a new flyback for it which is desperately needs. Atari used whatever TV's they could buy for these machines but they are often Toshiba, Mitsubishi, or Hitachi models. Luckily 70's 12 inch black and white TV's are easy to find and I scored a working one of the same model as mine in mint condition for a whopping 80 bucks. Once we get it we will have to examine if the PCB is indeed working or not, and connect some new pots for the paddle controllers hopefully we will be in Pong battle bliss.
You could make the argument that video games really started with the success of Pong, and at the very least it was the starting point for one of video games all time classic corporations. There is a charm to Pong not only in the game itself but the simplicity of the cabinet build and design. Atari's obsession with woodgrain starts with this cabinet as well, definitely a sign of the era in which it was made. There is no on/off switch, only one option for gameplay on the PCB, and the monitor bezel is literally just taped to a TV, It's an honor to have this game in my collection and I can't wait to get it back to it's former glory. Here is to you Pong rocking along for another 50 years.