The sad, slow decline of the Atari brand, which began with the US video game crash of 1983, has been increasingly painful to behold. The once-beloved brand has been absolutely run into the ground over the decades by a series of missteps, catastrophically poor decisions and just outright brazen opportunism.
Yet the logo and what it means to a good few generations of gamers still holds considerable appeal. Are we foolish for still holding out hope, even in the face of face-palmingly awful announcements such as the hideously overpriced Atari VCS PC/console hybrid, Atari Hotels and Atari NFT Sneakers? Note that I haven’t linked to any of those products or ventures – nor have I elaborated on them too much. It’s just too depressing.
There’s still the odd beacon of hope, with the brand having been recently attached to some intriguing, if not entirely successful, products. IDW released a small selection of board games based on Atari arcade/console hits; though I played the Centipede game and found it somewhat lacking in terms of its game design, it was at least beautifully designed from a visual and physical point of view. Console game Pong Quest took the iconic bat-and-ball arcade title – that made Atari such a huge brand in the first place – and married it with RPG gameplay; while it wasn’t universally well received, at least it tried something different.
It’s neither of those more recent Atari-branded products that have caught my eye, however. On a recent visit to a seaside resort in the UK, I happened upon a beautifully retro-inspired arcade machine containing a wonderfully physical-feeling adaptation of that aforementioned Atari classic, Pong.
I’d never heard of or seen it before, but this machine was apparently released in 2019, clearly with little fanfare – yet it deserves a lot more exposure than it’s been able to get thus far. The project started as a hobby by two fans with no prior mechanics or electronics know-how; they secured the official licence from Atari and ran a successful Kickstarter campaign for the table; following this, it looks as if it’s made a very limited showing in the UK with units appearing in small numbers.
Far from being a simple, straightforward update of the original 1974 game, this one is a retro-futuristic, rainbow-LED lit wonder with a physical bat and square ‘ball’, moved by magnets, motors, pulleys and rails underneath the playfield. Two players can challenge each other – using the nicely responsive, tactile paddle controllers – or one player can face off against an AI with three levels of difficulty. The first to eight points wins. Simple.
There’s a real tactile pleasure to be had in playing this new update of the old classic; not just because of the magical movement of the magnet-powered components on the playfield, but also because of the reaction of the LEDs surrounding the table, which flash white when the ‘ball’ hits the side or a paddle and pulse with rainbow brilliance when a goal is scored. The bright dot score display and iconic sound effects give it further retro appeal, though it definitely feels like a modern creation – despite it not being particularly state-of-the-art from a technological standpoint.
The highly reflective glass on the surface made it difficult to take photos that truly represented how good it looks in person, but I have included some of my own personal photos in a gallery here so you can check out how it looks in a real world setting.
If you do get the chance to play this apparently rare machine, I’d urge you to do so. It’s quite unlike anything I’ve seen in recent years; a tribute to the video game that kickstarted the entire industry, as well as a neat throwback to the electromechanical games that were more prevalent when the original Pong first showed up. There’s even a very slightly cut down version that’s designed for home use as a coffee table/game hybrid – with some neat features including the ability to use it as a Bluetooth speaker, USB-charging ports and even the addition of Atari-branded soft seats to accompany it – though again availability seems to be fairly scarce (and it’s not a cheap objet d’art by any means.
Atari’s Pong Table is a beautiful glimpse of the past that never was, as well as a look at a future that may have been if Pong had never come along in its original form and shook up arcade – and home – gaming forever.
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