One of our industry's more long-term drinking games is imbibing a bottle of whiskey every time the re-animated corpse of Atari rises, once more, under new management. The smooth burn of a high quality single malt helps distract the mind, its vaguely numbing properties help you gaze without fear, and so the inevitable bad news stories, terrible reviews, and lacklustre exploitations of old properties can somewhat wash over you. For anyone who loves what Atari once was, the company's afterlife has been a disjointed, distressing spectacle.
In this light, Pong Quest is unusual. Not because it's picking up on one of the company's classic properties – that's par for the course – but because it's trying to do something with it. Even more shocking, this is a charming game. It has a sense of humour. It has some ideas about how to switch up Pong in order to build a larger structure about it. Hell, it brings in other Atari properties in clever ways such as boss fights and special challenges. You can give the paddle a moustache!
And the idea of Pong Quest itself is funny: taking a game of utter simplicity, then embroidering a world and challenges around that core. The gag is a good one and gets things off to a decent start with the paddle King sending you off to cleanse his lands of some curse or other (while his jealous knight paddle grumbles in the background), which in practice means conquering five themed worlds, each of multiple levels.
The 'quest' in the title, and indeed the early presentation, had me expecting something of an RPG-lite. But Pong Quest is much simpler than this, and to its detriment. Each floor of a dungeon is a series of box rooms, containing various enemies, chests, the odd challenge puzzle, and occasional NPCs. The first thing to say is that your thoughts immediately go to that other Atari classic, Adventure, because there's more than a touch of that here: the top-down presentation is an echo, and it even uses the same keys for chests and doors.
This is the kind of touch that makes a player feel they're in good hands, and there might be more to come. There is. But also a fairly big problem. The moment-to-moment play in the dungeons is initially diverting: a bit of exploring, a bit of combat, and onto the next floor. This formula stays the same, however, and rapidly begins to pall. The few NPCs in the dungeons repeat, and the minor quests they offer are both repetitive and offer little reward worth the effort. Same with the puzzle rooms and even the one-off 'Atari' challenges that start turning up: too simple, too much repetition, and the rewards aren't exciting. These elements are supposed to be the diversions from the main play.
So, dull as they become, that's not even what you're doing most of the time. The box layout of the dungeons means there's little interest or surprise in exploring: it's just a matter of finding the teleporter to the next floor. Enemies are in almost every room, and for the first three dungeons are far too easy to beat. And you can dodge them to avoid a battle.
What ends up happening is you play Pong Quest as a kind of stealth game without the stealth, pelting through each floor, ignoring the non-battle elements, and trying to avoid the battles. The question of why you'd want to avoid the battles is an interesting one, because this is by far the game's strongest aspect.
Pong has two paddles and a ball. Pong Quest layers atop this a slew of power-ups that can alter the properties of the ball, the paddles, or add elements to the playing field. There are a lot, and most are great. The curve ball will leave your paddle and then immediately swerve either up or down, and bounce along that surface. The whirlpool ball creates a giant whirlpool on the court that will suck in the ball over multiple turns and spit it out in unpredictable fashion – something that can harm you as often as it flummoxes an opponent. There's a ball that shrinks your opponent when they return it; a ball that mimics your opponent's last power-up; a bullet ball that shoots straight ahead at great speed, regardless of the angle you catch it; a ball that teleports when it hits the top or bottom of the court; ghost balls that disappear halfway through their flight path; balls that create oil slicks to speed themselves up; balls that set paddles on fire, or simply knock their hats off.
What I initially found to be a dizzying range of options turned out to be the best thing about Pong Quest, because the core of Pong is so simple. As you play, your ball-carrying capacity increases, and soon enough you're entering every battle with ten different types of ball ready to go. When the AI eventually reaches a stage where it can give you a run for your money (world four for me), you start to see why this game was made: it really does, at times, make extended matches of Pong exciting, unpredictable, and a lot of fun.
I've had some brilliant matches. When the enemies start really using power-ups against you, the challenge becomes fierce and you're cycling through balls desperately after every shot, trying to select something that will work extra-well in a given situation. Some enemies put up barriers and clutter the court, which could be the perfect opportunity for a bulldozer ball, or you could up the ante by adding even more elements and hoping the ball gets trapped on their side. Some enemies freeze you in place temporarily, making you scramble for something like the ricochet ball which might slow down their return and possibly sneak past while you're immobilised.
The problem comes with something fundamental to Pong Quest's design, which is a constantly declining health bar. Each paddle has health, itself a major departure from Pong, and each time you return a ball it leeches 1hp. When a paddle's health is critical, the next miss is a KO. This adds an attritional element to matches that is in all honesty probably required to stop them dragging on. However it also means, in the later worlds, that each fight drains a chunk of health, and getting your health back between matches is a serious problem.
This is why you end up running around trying to avoid fights. You can't avoid them all, and you'll have a limited supply of potion balls to restore HP, so the game becomes all about trying to scrape through each floor with half-a-dozen fights. The attritional nature of your health can make this extremely frustrating: later enemies will go straight for you with HP-stripping fire balls and a wide range of other tricks, making each fight a tough challenge. I don't mind this at all, but what is annoying is winning a match by the skin of your teeth and coming out with really low HP. You then have to either find one of the rare health top-ups held in chests or use several potion balls at the start of the next match, or it'll be Game Over the next time you miss. To emphasise: you cannot avoid losing HP, even if you return every ball perfectly, and the longer the match the more you'll lose.
It seems wrong-headed that, at a stage where the standard enemies have a decent chance of beating you one-on-one, the structure forces you to accumulate and heal damage over what could be anything from five to fifteen encounters per stage. The game could have healed you, even partially, after a victory, made healing items more plentiful or more powerful, but it doesn't. So Pong Quest ends up in this extremely weird place: just as the matches themselves start to offer a real battle, the structure around these encounters makes them a slog. I'm on world 4-3 now, and the individual matches are superb, but the dungeoneering, such as it is, now feels like an impediment to enjoying what the game's good at.
Multiplayer may be where Pong Quest truly takes flight, but sadly I'll never know. The online servers for this have been dead since launch: I've tried finding a match many times over the past few days, and not a sausage. This is a real pity because I suspect, shorn of all the fluff, this reimagining of Pong could be a fantastic (if limited) multiplayer experience. The game also includes a 'classic' Pong mode, as well as a local multiplayer mode.
As you may have noticed, Pong Quest leaves me slightly befuddled. First of all, it's great to see a developer outside of Jeff Minter doing something worthwhile with a classic Atari property: you can feel that, for all the problems, this is a game that's been made with some love, and a sense of history. Then the reimagining of Pong itself is great. It's not quite as radical as something like Drawkanoid, but builds a surprising amount of complexity on top of minimalist mechanics, and delivers some furiously exciting matches.
What lets this down is the quest part. This badly needed some more imagination, and quickly feels baggy and repetitive before eventually becoming a frustration. The bosses are great, and incorporate Atari tributes in fun ways, but there are so few and they're so spaced-apart.
Pong itself, with a few mod cons, still delivers a fun experience. Pong Quest gets that much right even if, ultimately, it drops the ball.