It came from Flatland…
When Pong invaded living rooms everywhere in the 1970s, it started a proud tradition of bleary eyes and living room trash-talking that’s been a part of our culture ever since. Looking back at where it started, you have to think that it can’t be easy to update and bring depth to a game concept that’s basically as flat as it gets. It’s just two paddles and a ball, right? Supersonic Software, the folks who did the original design and development for Pong: The Next level have taken their best shot, injecting scads of color and a whole new dimension to the game responsible for the first generation of vidiots, which MacSoft’s now brought our way as a part of their family-friendly arcade game lineup.
Thankfully, the designers at Supersonic skipped past one of the worst pitfalls updated arcade classics often get saddled with: a sad attempt at a (back) story. The paddle isn’t a space ship, there’s no kidnapped Ms. Pong, and the survival of the universe does not depend on your ability to smack a ball around. At its core, Pong: The Next Generation tries to be no more complicated than the ol’ paddle meets ball, paddle loses ball, paddle gets ball back and lives happily ever after love story.
Still, we’re all a bit older, and those of us who remember Pong the first time around need a little something to get excited about, so Pong: The Next Level offers twenty different levels scattered across 7 zones. The zones are arranged in a fantastical futuristic tower, spanning ever higher as you progress though the game. At the risk of digressing, if Leonard Cohen was a gamer, he would have perfectly summed up the introduction of this Pong iteration into my life with this lyric:
Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on
I’m just paying my rent everyday, in the Tower of Pong
Each zone of the tower has a number of stages, and each stage contains three arenas that are variations on a theme. Although the zones themselves are numbered 1 through 7, the stages are all represented by 3D figures, and named things like “Puck Pong,” reflecting the environment or gameplay featured on that level. Defeating the increasingly challenging levels earns you gold bars, which in turn unlocks new arenas. The whole unlock-to-play-new-stuff bit is nicely managed, in that you don’t necessarily have to win all the games in all the preceding levels in order to move on to new territory.
From the old school, new school, and everything in between school
When Pong: The Next Level is most successful, it doesn’t stray too far from the traditional paddle-meets-ball gameplay. Bringing extra paddles, power-ups, and environmental effects to the table in most cases adds new challenges without damaging the fun of the original concept. In one of the game’s best levels, Dervish Danger’s Robot Wars, the playing field features a wandering robot which, when you hit it with the ball, lobs explosive charges at your opponent. If the bomb connects, your torched opponent slows down considerably, giving you a solid advantage for a few moments. It works because it’s fundamentally the classic concept, revitalized by a few choice accessories, but not overdesigned. Other variants include the soccer field, which gives each side two paddles and quirkily stacks the stands with multicolored pong paddles, an Inca-like temple which introduces rolling logs that can dramatically affect a ball’s direction or spin, and arctic ice flow arenas which feature penguins that can knock the ball off course, or polar bears that can be cued to lean on your opponent’s side of the ice, making it almost impossible for them to clear the ball.
Like the robot-bomber described above, environmental effects are cued by the players (or the AI opponent), either by hitting a trigger on the board with the ball or by using a collected power-up. One of the strongest additions to Pong’s gameplay is how these power-ups are gathered; they appear on the board as spinning tops, which can be brought towards your side of the playing area by nudging it with a ball that last touched your paddle. Should your opponent hit the power-up with a ball instead, the power-up will start waddling their way. It adds a rare bit of strategy to the game, especially given that the power-ups usually offer a significant advantage. Beyond the power-ups that are closely tied to the playing field itself some arenas offer more general ones that pop up from time to time, like “Grab” which allows you to snag the ball and hang on to it for a few seconds as you try and position the ball’s angle for best effect, and “Whack”, which packs more punch than the standard paddle bounce and will also allow you to throw a suprise angle at your opponent if you’re good enough.
The arenas where Pong: The Next Level moves away from the paddle vs. paddle notion are a little more uneven in terms of their fun factor, offering gamers mixed tasks with equally mixed results. There’s color matching levels where a platform must be balanced to maneuver balls into bins with matching colors, and an egg-catching game where eggs need to be bounced and sorted, again by color, into their appropriate nesting place. Even less “Pong” but still moderately successful are the watering-hole fishing levels, where you have to “cast” a ball into the pool and hook fish out (missing scatters the fish outwards into the path of a circling alligator), or the Pongball Wizard arenas where the gameplay gets more like Breakout, only with pinball bumpers as targets instead of blocks.
Some levels try and make the games more challenging by continuously warping the playing field, resulting in a mild psychedelic visual effect. It’s a little disorienting, but ultimately just feels like a cheap way to increase the challenge of the level at hand. Definitely annoying are levels like the ones contained in Frog Follies, where you need to delicately move a ball to the golden goal by tilting the playing field, much like those classic wooden maze puzzles that used to entertain children in pre-Pong days.
Adding to the frustration is that fact that many of these, such as the egg game, have almost no margin for error: one missed ball and you’re outta there. Given that in some of these games you need to score a dozen or so points to win, you can imagine the aggravation of a single flub forcing you to start from the beginning.
This brings us to an even bigger problem: control. Pong: The Next Level defaults to keyboard controls, which makes the game incredibly challenging simply by virtue of those controls being wildly difficult to use precisely. Hooking up my Gravis Xterminator gamepad didn’t help me out, since Pong didn’t recognize it, so it wasn’t until I switched to using the mouse that Pong started to become fun. Mouse control is so much better, in fact, that anybody stuck with the keyboard in Pong’s single computer party mode (up to four players can compete, with two on keyboard, one on mouse, and the fourth on joystick if your gear is lucky enough to be recognized by the game) is just about doomed to lose by default.
The control problems are especially unfortunate when you consider that the flaws in Pong’s singleplayer game could probably have been entirely forgiven if it had lived up to the promise of a great 4-player party game.
Does not play well with others
It only gets worse when you look to online action to rescue Pong’s multiplayer. Pong: The Next Level does offer networked gameplay, via a Local Area Network or even the Internet… but without GameRanger support. The awkward multiplayer arrangement is tragically old school and might work if everyone’s in the same room (as they would be for a LAN game), but makes it impossible to find an opponent for an internet game without much e-mail and planning going into it ahead of time. Why not just set it up with the popular (and still free) GameRanger multiplayer matchup service that is used with other MacSoft products?
What’s completely aggravating about both the lack of GameRanger integration and the miserable input device handling here is that MacSoft’s Centipede does both quite well. It would have been killer to have these features implemented consistently across MacSoft’s entire line of updated arcade classics, but unfortunately that’s not the case. Where Centipede shines in these areas, Pong, like Asteroids before it, just doesn’t measure up.
Other than those two complaints – and granted, they’re pretty key aspects of the game – Pong: The Next Level is fairly well executed. Textures may be blocky and pixellated, and the 3D models are very simple and comprised of only a few polygons, but this is to be expected given that this title (like the others that MacSoft has published in this genre) was originally developed for the last generation of consoles. The level design is nonetheless clever and occasionally cute, as are the characters that populate the game, and animated paddles that preen when they win and skulk embarrasedly when they lose add nice touches of humor and personality to the proceedings. The soundtrack and sound effects contribute to the title’s quirky feel, and although the tunes aren’t likely to make you laugh, cry, and become a part of you, at least they don’t immediately drive you batty.
Pong: The Next Level may be a great candidate for those who are looking for something for younger gamers. Just remember that although there’s no violence present, some of the arenas require a good bit of skill (or at least tenacity) to beat, and that the mouse may be the only useful controller available. Without a workable multiplayer aspect, however, it’s unlikely that this version of Pong would hold anyone else’s attention for any great length of time. There is some fun to be had, but in spite of shinier graphics and 3D hooks Pong:The Next Level misses out by not living up to the original’s legacy of head-to-head competition. In 2001, Pong can still serve as a casual distraction, but it’s just no longer close to being a revolutionary good time.
– Classic gameplay enhanced with new props and interesting variations
– Colorful and clever levels and characters
– Low system requirements; great for any present-generation Mac (and most older ones)
– No GameRanger support, so multiplayer internet games are a non starter
– Poor controller support
– No OS X support
– No difficulty settings
by Jaap O. Tuinman