When it landed in arcades in 1972, Pong wasn't the first video game ever made – but Atari certainly based it on the game that was. There's a strong argument to be made that Pong needs a modern revamp more than any other gaming classic.
But not like this. Not like PONG Quest. It's far from unusual to splice RPG elements into a hitherto unrelated game or genre, but PONG Quest's combination of simplistic virtual tennis with old-school adventuring never quite seems to gel. The undercooked execution simply doesn't justify such a left-field smooshing together.
The game adopts a suitably bright and breezy tone – one of its few smart moves – as you take control of an anthropomorphised paddle on a quest from a fickle king to gather four orbs... look, the story doesn't matter. It's standard fantasy video game guff. What it ultimately amounts to is an excuse to traipse through the four randomly-arranged floors on each of four distinctly themed dungeons. You'll take part in battles, encounter mini-game diversions, collect loot, tackle bosses, and level-up your character.
All of which sounds a lot like any other RPG – but the key difference lies in the battle system. Rather than take turns to hit one another, you'll take part in a good old game of bat-and-ball. There are RPG-inflected embellishments, of course. Each time the ball hits a paddle, it counts as an attack landed from the other party. Send the ball past your opponent, and you'll score a critical hit. Land one of these when your opponent's health is low, and you win the battle.
Special attacks come in the form of different types of ball, which are collected from downed enemies, bought from shops, found in treasure chests, and scooped up from battlegrounds. These stackable single-use balls are ostensibly quite varied, including various exotic bounce patterns, poison balls, those that temporarily halve the playing field, and even those that spawn a defensive centipede.
Activating these balls mid-battle can be tricky, as the game doesn't pause or slow the action one jot. You must quickly highlight the required ball with the shoulder buttons, then activate them with A – all while reacting to your rival's last shot. It becomes trickier as you level-up and increase the number of ball slots in your inventory. That's something you'll want to do pretty sharpish, as you'll very quickly grow frustrated by the sheer number of discarded balls you're leaving littered around the dungeons.
Indeed, you'll quickly realise that special balls are something to be used and even spammed rather than saved, while there are loads that prove to be of limited practical use. We quickly established that the bog-standard health-giving potion ball was by far the most important of all – an inevitability when every successful shot with your paddle is interpreted as a negative hit sustained. Perhaps a timed button hit to 'parry' the shot would have been in order here?
It would certainly have livened up the staid Pong formula a little. As it stands, perhaps PONG Quest's biggest flaw is that the game of Pong at its heart feels so overfamiliar and wooden. There's a woolly disconnect between the Joy-Con/Pro Controller stick and your paddle, with a certain degree of analogue range, but not enough to enable you to make those last-minute lunges for a fast-angled ball. At the very least we would have liked a risky 'move fast' button, but the developer has placed all its eggs in the 'special balls basket'. The core action feels dull and one-note as a result.
Moving through the game's randomised yet repetitive dungeons is similarly uninspiring. The layouts are extremely basic, a series of single-screen, largely empty rooms patrolled by a sparse selection of enemy paddles. Each of these has its own attack tendencies, and you'll soon identify the ones to avoid on a given run. One particular regal stooge in the second dungeon, for example, spams the hateful mushroom ball, which led us to try and dash past them at every opportunity.
Indeed, simply moving through the dungeons in PONG Quest soon feels like a total chore to be endured rather than explored. We're glad that you're offered the choice of running rather than fighting, but when such a choice becomes deeply preferable (other than to gain experience points and level up), it's a bit of a bad sign.
PONG Quest's world design is bright and colourful, and we like that it never takes itself seriously. But it's also perhaps too stripped back for its own good, without a clearly defined sense of character. There's something vaguely amateurish about some of it, like it's a fan-made indie game rather than a mainstream resurrection of one of the most recognisable properties in gaming.
In fact, just about the most fun you can have with PONG Quest is the local multiplayer mode, and you could argue that this is simply Pong as it was designed to be played back in the early '70s. But there is the potential for four-player doubles here, and the various power-ups do seem to make more sense against flawed human opposition. There's online too, but who wants to play online Pong?
It all speaks to a generally slapdash and uninspired attempt to paddle fresh ideas out of the Pong formula. We're not saying that a Pong RPG couldn't work in principle. But it really needs to be knocked back and forth a bunch more times before it's ready for a critical hit.
Sparsely laid out, mechanically simplistic, and generally a bit of a bore to play, PONG Quest fails to do anything meaningful with this most neglected of gaming properties. The adventuring element is paper-thin, and even the game of bat-and-ball at the heart of its battle system feels flat and lifeless. As always with Pong, local multiplayer is your best bet for fun, but there's little that's fresh about that.