There are certain milestones which make you feel depressingly old. A friend recently told me that if the Smashing Pumpkins had released their hit 1979 today, it would be called 2005, and equally depressing for others of a certain age will be the news that Atari’s Pong has just celebrated its 50th birthday.
Released on November 29, 1972, Atari managed to shift 8,000 Pong arcade cabinets, and it became even more of a success in homes around the world with Home Pong selling about 150,000 dedicated consoles.
That in turn led to the company making the Atari 2600, which kicked off the whole trend for home consoles from the NES to the PlayStation 5. Not a bad legacy for a project originally intended to train its creator — Al Alcorn — on the art of making games.
It was, as Alcorn described the brief, the simplest of games: “one moving spot, two paddles, score digits.” It’s so simple that even lab-grown brain cells can play it, but despite — or possibly because of — this, it proved ridiculously popular, with arcade cabinets’ coin boxes reportedly jammed with all the money they were taking.
While it may seem like ancient history, it’s interesting to think of what might have been had Pong not become a phenomenon. Not only might Nintendo have stuck to making playing cards, but Apple might never have been founded.
Atari, flush with cash after the initial success of Pong went on a hiring spree, and one of the beneficiaries was one Steve Jobs — who actually leaned on Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, then at Hewlett Packard, to refine follow-up title Breakout (and apparently conned him out of bonus money).
Maybe it’s sour grapes given Jobs left the company after three years to found Apple, but it doesn’t sound like he was the most popular employee in the building. “He was kind of a pain to work with and he had this real problem with body odour, so we made him work nights,” Alcarn told the New York Post earlier this month. “It was better for everyone.”
Regardless, raise a glass to Pong. Or better still, play a round in your browser right now, and marvel at how you can do so without installing a giant arcade cabinet in your living room.