Review: Pong: The Next Level
Developer: MacSoft (product page)
Requirements: G3-based Mac, Mac OS 8.6, 64 MB of RAM
I can’t help but be struck by the minimum requirements to play Pong: The Next Level. Born in 1958, the game of Pong is considerably older than I am, and it was first played on a computer both larger and less powerful than any Macintosh ever conceived. Yet here I am, reviewing a version requiring a G3 processor, which installs from a CD-ROM with 720 files, resulting in a 264 MB folder on my hard drive. And it still requires the CD ROM in order to play. We’re all familiar with the basic Pong concept, using a moving paddle to hit a ball across the screen to an opponent; what does this version have to offer?
How It Begins
When you double-click on the game’s icon, you are prompted for your name, so your progress can be saved. After that, you’re subject to a seemingly endless barrage of animations celebrating the various companies involved in making the game, which you can’t click through. After about 45 seconds of this, you’re presented with a screen where the options are Select and Options.
From Options, you can change the number of players (Pong can be played against the computer or up to three human opponents, in person or over a really fast Internet connection), and set up controls. The game can use the keyboard, mouse, or a joystick. Unfortunately, keyboard controls are only configurable in a multi-player game: if it’s you against the computer, you’ve no choice but to use the arrow keys, which can be somewhat uncomfortable.
Once you hit Select (and wait out even more animation), you are presented with a menu letting you choose from a few possible scenarios in which to play. There’s only one option if you’re a new player, but as you play, harder versions of games will become available.
Finally, you’ve selected a game. Before you can start, however, you have to wait out yet more animations, panning around the field of play at different angles, and a slow countdown showing 3-2-1-GO. It’s not that the animation is bad: it’s kind of cute, really. It’s that Pong becomes a game that consists largely of waiting. If you fail to win the round, you’re asked whether you’d like to try again. If so, you have to sit through the same old opening animation. It gets old really fast.
The first field of play you hit has an Arctic sort of theme, taking place on a plate of ice floating freely in the sea. It’s not stationary: it slowly twists around as the game continues, which either looks cool or makes you nauseous, depending on how long you play. In the middle of the play field are two penguins walking about: hit one with a ball and the penguin lays another ball in the direction of your opponent. I’ve seen up to four balls on the field at once. If the last ball falls off the screen before either player has won, you wait through more animation as the field of view pans toward your opponent, which does a little dance before the game can continue.
Most of the rounds also have tops that occasionally appear in the center of the play field, referred to in the manual as Power Ups. Hit one with the ball, and it moves towards you. If you catch it, it gives you some sort of help, once you select it. You might get a character standing behind you to help keep the ball in play if you miss, or the ability to slap the ball, or to catch it and release where you like.
Depending on the game you’re playing, there may be a special play off that takes place if you and your opponent are tied at nine-all. In the soccer-themed game, you’re essentially screwed: your opponent takes a shot at a goal, which you’re tending. The paddle you control moves hopelessly slowly. Unless your opponent shoots the ball directly at you, you don’t stand a chance at stopping it. When it’s your turn to shoot, there’s no graphical representation showing in which direction you shoot the ball, though it’s controlled by the arrow keys. When the ball shoots, the computer opponent moves to stop the ball quite easily. If I’m missing something about how to work this scenario, it’s not for lack of consulting the manual.
After several rounds of Pong, you’re faced with a rather un-Pong-like round. No longer is there any computer opponent moving around across from you. You’re on a platform, a ball rolls toward you, and you have to hit it into each of eight boxes. When you move, the platform tilts to that side. Sometimes if your ball fails to fall into a box, you’re given another chance, no harm done. Other times, the game ends and you’re asked to start again. In a lot of cases, the ball looks like it’s going into a box and doesn’t, or it looks like it’s not and it does, so the round becomes largely luck.
Fortunately you’re not stuck with that round; you can go back and select some other game to play, one that’s more Pong-like and based more on skill than chance.
43 years after its initial invention, this version of Pong is loaded with graphics and animations. While it’s easily more pleasant to look at than a handful of ASCII symbols, overall gameplay ends up much slower, because you’re frequently stuck waiting for animations to play out. For an arcade-type game to gain that coveted quality of addictiveness, you have to be able to build up momentum, and the animations in Pong: the Next Level make that absolutely impossible.