Somebody’s heart was in the right place when Atari came up with the idea of celebrating the 40th anniversary of Pong, one of the most well-known and influential arcade titles published by the legendary studio. However, after a clever beginning, things got muddled up with a big, fat desire to exploit players in an attempt to earn a pile of cash.
Atari decided to hold a competition to find teams of independent developers who would re-imagine some of its classic arcade games for the iOS platform, the first of which was Pong. If you’re not familiar with Pong, it’s video tennis at its most simple – two moveable paddles sit opposite each other on the screen, batting a ball between each other until one misses – and it could be played against the computer or at its best, against a friend. Bringing it up to date, subtly, was quite a challenge.
The competition was won by zGames, who introduced elements seen in other Pong variations and Brick Breaker games over the years, such as power-ups, different paddles and collectible items. Atari then smothered it in freemium elements, called it Pong World and released it on the iTunes App Store.
Pong World is a very different beast to those first, monochrome versions of Pong, but I can’t help thinking it would have been better to keep some of that simplicity instead of the rampant weirdness injected into this version. The paddles have now become strange sausage-like creatures with evil little eyes and sometimes, massive mouths filled with teeth. In an odd opening sequence, they’re shown to be pets, which is fine provided you like the idea of a leg-less cat where its face is stretched down the side of its body.
None of this seems to matter in the game though, where you’re pitted against another bizarre paddle creature in a game that’s the best of five. Instead of a featureless court in-between you, there are obstacles and blocks which can be destroyed. These leave power-ups and coins, which are collected when the ball hits them and can be put towards upgrading your paddle or unlocking new levels.
The control system is simple, as you move the paddle from side-to-side using a swipe, and a tap will deploy its special feature. It’s obvious when these become available, as it fizzes with energy and there’s a handy “tap me” indication. You can add some spin to the ball by moving the paddle in a certain way too, although this is as harmful as it is beneficial, as should the ball hit an obstacle it can turn back towards you instantly, and often heading in an unusual direction.
Pong World looks bright and unusual, while the stages are interestingly designed and offer a considerable challenge, not least because the AI is very good at the game. There’s one power-up that adds a foggy cloud over the AI’s section of the screen, almost completely obscuring the ball as it enters. Not once did it miss, and not once did it deviate from tracking the ball as it came towards it, no matter the weird angle and the fact I couldn’t see it at all. Here’s where you get the hint the odds are stacked against you.
But, after a few tries you can pass the first level and it’s onto the next. Oh, wait, you need to use some of the coins collected to unlock the next stage? Fine, it’s 1,000 and I earned how many from three games…oh, 120 or so. Help is at hand though, as Atari will sell you plenty of coins through its in-app purchase system. That’s £0.69 for 3,000, which can be spent on unlocking levels, power-ups and so on. Trust me, it won’t go very far. A “daily spin” system of a Wheel of Fortune-style spinner gives you the chance to get some free coins, but it’s not enough to give any long-lasting enjoyment, as there are simply too many ways to spend the coins.
Play the Survival mode – where you get a single life and must survive in the game for as long as possible — and you’re even given the option to spend 200 coins to continue when you miss the ball. There is a two-player mode, which is unlocked after you’ve beaten a stage, which is decent enough, but the game has already been soured by that point. If you’re after a Pong/Brick Breaker mash up with a great two player mode, there’s a sadly abandoned game named Splash Duel HD for the iPad which is huge fun, and doesn’t rely on in-app purchases at all.
Yes, Pong World is free to download and a moderate degree of fun to play, but Atari will push you into buying coins after a single level, and it’s unlikely you’ll get past the second without having to buy them. Pong World is Freemium gaming at its worst, as it exists solely to make money from in-app purchases, at the detriment of gameplay and fairness.