You have to feel sorry for Pong to some small degree. As one of the first and most recognisably important game franchises to grace and kickstart video game history, It’s lasting legacy seems to be forever relegated to being that monochrome low-fi tennis game that is instantly recognisable yes, but just can’t seem to break free of being just that.
I can only imagine the Atari pitch meeting for Pong Quest, a single player game in which you play as a left paddle as it quests through dungeon-like levels to gain strength to take on a challenge in the form of a scary door at the end of the kings doorway. How exactly do you instil character into a pixel block with no real defining features at all? Isn’t adding a story to something as pure and featureless as Pong some kind of sacrilege? How do you even mix up the gameplay of this near fifty-year-old experience to accommodate such a scope?
Well, the answers are predictably simple and to varying effect. The RPG side of Pong Quest helps fill in what could have been glaring gaps in the concept. Instead of trying to shoehorn some prescribed character onto your paddle, you instead adorn it with colours, items and clothing that you happen across as you play, the paddle being a blank canvas of sorts. There are brief breakups of character dialogue, but the player is never really given any agency over this other than pressing X to skip through the meaningless text that gets spouted by the NPC populace. Luckily, this is all taken in jest, none of the dialogue or characters are meant to be taken seriously with utterly benign interactions taking place relatively infrequently.
It’s fair enough really, you were never going to craft some sort of epic adventure out of something as simple as Pong and I certainly won’t be scoring anything down because of this. What I will say is that the developers clearly recognise the silliness of it all and has turned this into something somewhat humorous to sit through, but otherwise mundane in the comedy stakes. You would lose nothing by simply skipping through if you just wanted to get the action of each stages and the battle scenes.
The action is mixed up between the dungeon crawling and enemy encounters and plays very simply. In the dungeon areas, you venture through, either encountering loot, enemies or other characters that spout one-liners at you. Your ultimate goal in each stage is to find the exit, while also taking on any optional tasks that greet you, like defeating every enemy to clear a path for a princess or mapping every room for an adventurer which is again, benign stuff. Dotted around each dungeon area are a few distractions. These range from small match card puzzles and homages to games like Centipede or Breakout, but these do little to break up the core of what you are ultimately doing in an RPG sense. Where the game differs from others is within the combat and you guessed it, each fight is a game of pong between yourself a colourful paddle which represents your archetypal RPG monster.
Cleverly, the team at Chequered Ink have done something to change up the Pong formula. When an enemy encounter you in the dungeon, you are whisked into a familiar battle screen where your success is determined by hitting balls, either at your opponent or past them. As you do, you and the enemy take damage and the victor is decided by their opponent being knocked out. The interesting play here is that by returning the ball in a rally will knock one HP off your paddle each time, so there is an incentive to finish your foe quickly so that you can conserve energy to get through the rest of the dungeon. For the record, when I first saw that gradual sap of health happen, I thought it was the worst idea in the world as you start with 50HP and just a few rounds of tennis would have ended up in a restart of some kind. Thankfully there is some help.
As you progress, you can pick up balls which have a wide variety of effects, these powerups change the way the ball act when you return it from your side and can make or break an encounter quicker. These range from potion balls that keep your health topped up, zip balls that speed up the trajectory of your shots and whackier effects that create barriers, send spiders at foes to slow their paddle movement down and more. There are a whole ton, but I will say that while this does change up the Pong gameplay to an interesting degree, a lot of these can feel somewhat boring to use. Some are clearly designed to create a sense of panic in human players, whereas the computer controlled paddle does not have the same reaction, most notable earlier on is the ghost ball, which turns the ball invisible mid-flight which is an absolute pain to handle when the ball is at apex speed, but the computer is almost always able to parry when it comes back their way.
Instances such as the ghost ball scenario have a habit of turning Pong Quest into an unbalanced experience. These can turn the simple act of progression into a chore as sometimes you will feel utterly unequipped to continue onwards. In the end, to get through each stage I found myself sticking to just a small set of powerups, with the predominance being the potion ball which is an utter necessity as you encounter tougher enemies. I realise that this is an RPG and gaining levels/ the arbitrary stat boosts is kind of the point, but it feels at odds with the fact that this is at heart a rudimentary retro tennis game with admittedly a bit of charm and quirk to it.
In terms of gameplay, everything mentioned in the stanzas above are about it really. I initially enjoyed my time with Pong Quest, but as repetition sets in around the second dungeon area, I found it difficult to be motivated to continue, which I did and I can say that this is not the kind of game you want to play in a couple of sessions over the thankfully short campaign. This is a game that is made for short bursts, so the repetition fatigue will be different for players that ration things out, but from my experience, Pong Quest is a fun idea, just not something that can rise above the standard set decades ago to any suitable degree.
This is further felt in the included multiplayer portion of the title. This is essentially a choice between playing Pong with powerups from the single player or playing Pong as originally intended. The power-ups make sense here, but, it’s hard to find other players who would prefer a pong game with bells or whistles, if you can find them at all with the anaemic online matchmaking.
This doesn’t mean that Pong Quest is a lost cause. It’s a fun enough distraction if you want something truly simple to play, that doesn’t require a lot of learning. It’s just that you would likely find a similar experience playing any one of the hundred other pong variants out there for a quick burst of forgettable nostalgia if you wanted and chances are, you’ll want to play one of the multiple thousand other games out there that have not only left Pong behind as a quirky milestone, but rendered it completely obsolete as a franchise.
+ Doesn’t take itself seriously and seems to recognise its own ridiculous concept
+ Fun enough in short bursts
- Balance unravels as you get further in
- The Ball Powerup system is hit or miss