Pong, considered by many to be the grandfather of all games, returns every so often to bring us the simple gameplay of the olden days once again. The franchise has showed up on Genesis, PlayStation, Nintendo DS, and has now made its way to PC and Nintendo Switch. Some of these versions tried to update the formula to include new challenges, like moving boards or power ups for the paddles. PONG Quest tries to go for a new approach and turns the game into a Dungeon Crawling adventure, filled with encounters, traps, and puzzles. The question is, does the game do enough to set itself aside from other games in the series, or is this just a gimmicky addition to the franchise?

Gameplay

The Gameplay in PONG Quest is divided into two parts. The exploration, and the Pong Battles. Exploration is done inside one of the several, procedurally generated, dungeons of the game. These dungeons are very reminiscent of those found in the first Legend of Zelda game, or, more appropriately, The Binding of Isaac, seeing as rooms can be larger than one screen. Each room can have one, or more, of the following inside: Enemies, Puzzles, Treasure Chests, NPCs, Challenges, or boss battles.

Encounters with Enemies, Bosses and Challenges consist of short games of Pong against a computer controlled player or an obstacle. In regular combat, both you and your opponent have a health bar, and once one of these gets depleted, that character loses the encounter. Challenges, on the other hand, pit you against an obstacle that needs to be destroyed within a time limit, which is a nice way to break up the gameplay. 

To add spice to this formula, the game allows the usage of items in battles. By selecting one of the items in the inventory AND hitting the ball, items can be used to activate one of the many effects. Some of these effects will increase damage dealt per hit or goal, while others might heal, give the ball new angles, change the playing field and other effects. With over 50 different items, there is sure to be something for everybody. 

At the time of writing this review, challenges have a nasty bug. Challenges can NOT be paused. Any attempt to do so WILL pull up the pause menu without actually pausing the game. Closing the pause menu will give you control over both the Paddle in the challenge, as well as your paddle in the dungeon. This means you can freely walk around and “dislodge” the camera from the challenge screen. However, after tweeting this bug to the development team, they assured me that this will be fixed in the upcoming patch they are currently working on.

After battle, you are awarded with items, money and experience. With each level up, you are given the option to pick one of three choices. These choices can increase maximum health, maximum item capacity, restore your health, and other things. 

The restore health option highlights one of the issues I have with this game. In order to fight, taking damage is mandatory and you are not automatically healed after combat. Health pickups can be rare to come by and as such, you can be losing a lot of health without an option to restore it easily. Potions can only be used in combat and random health pickups from scenery and treasure chests is rare. It can make a run feel unfairly balanced against you as you cannot 100% prevent damage in combat.

An additional issue I am having with PONG Quest is that, once you find out that battles aren’t really necessary besides gaining levels, the game falls flat pretty fast. By the time I got to the later parts of the game, I skipped most battles, collected a couple of nice items from treasure chests, and bee-lined it for the Boss battle, skipping most parts of the dungeons. 

Finally, there are the puzzles. These are short challenges that usually give smaller rewards. Also, losing the puzzles carries no consequences outside missing out on the items you would’ve obtained from solving them. These puzzles mainly consist of Memory, Simon Says, Lights Out, and finding all of the lights in a dark room. Personally, outside of lights out, these puzzles do not pose a challenge and act as nothing more than another break in the gameplay.

At the end of each dungeon is a boss battle. These bosses have increased HP (300) and unique items to make the battles stand out from regular fights, inspired by the theme of the dungeon. But you cannot simply walk into a boss battle. In order to reach a boss, in true Zelda fashion, a boss key has to be found on the last floor of the dungeon in order to open the boss door.

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PONG Quest also has several multiplayer modes, but these are the same as the regular Pong matches in the game, with the exception that you can play this with 2-4 players.  One of the modes is Classic Pong, which is a 1-v-1 match to see who can get 11 points first without any items. To top it off, there’s also online multiplayer, but I could not test this as there were no people online to play with. This is unfortunate as launch is supposed to be the busiest time to play online in a game’s life cycle. 

World Design

The main hub in the game is the castle of King Pong. The main attraction of the game are the four doors that lead to the dungeons within the castle. At the end of the hub is “The Spooky Door” which sets the events of the game into motion. The hub is very straightforward, and its simplicity is appreciated. However, despite the fact that it is only one long hallway, I still found myself using the fast teleport as the movement started to feel a bit slow the further I got into the game.

Each of the four main dungeons have specific themes. I won’t spoil all of them, but these are based on other games in Atari’s history. The first dungeon, Breakdown Penitentiary, is based on Atari’s Breakout. This means that enemies will carry items based on this game to build walls made out of the game’s blocks, just to give you a taste of things to come. The addition of these themes really lifted the game up for me and, at the end, had me wanting more franchises represented in PONG Quest.

Besides characters based around the dungeon’s theme, you’ll also encounter several RPG staples like Mimics, Ghosts, Slimes, Rats, Skeletons, Bats, Clowns, etc, as well as random NPCs that got lost inside the dungeons. These NPCs usually give a tip about the dungeon floor, or just spout some random dialogue and can mostly be ignored, which feels like a missed opportunity for slight additional lore or just some funny encounters. 

One interesting aspect is the “bushes” spread around the dungeons. These are also themed appropriately to the dungeon and seem unremarkable enough. However, these can sometimes contain money and health pickups, so running through all the small bushes in each room is worth your time if you’re short on money or need that extra pick-me-up when you’re low on health.

Story

When it comes to story in Video Games, John Carmack of Doom fame once said “It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important”, which holds true in PONG Quest. A story is here, but it’s not substantial enough to be important. The story is purely meant to give a reason to clear the dungeons within the castle of King Pong. 

According to King Pong, the appearance of “The Spooky Door” has caused the subjects of the kingdom to become defiant. Usually, King Pong would just send you straight to The Spooky Door to figure out why this is happening but the four orbs to open the door have disappeared. You are tasked with retrieving the four orbs instead of Sir Pongsalot (Derek) because that’s what young adventurers do. However, as soon as you talk with the people that roam the castle walls, including Derek, you may notice that they think the King has gone crazy. It is up to you to find out if The Spooky Door truly makes the subjects defiant, or if the king has gone crazy and the people are just revolting against his shenanigans. 

The writing is supposed to be witty banter and not to be taken seriously at all. However, I feel that it did not do enough to elevate the story above average. Characters feel, in my opinion, very one dimensional. 

Graphics / Art Direction

The graphics are very stylistically simple. Basically everything is either a square, a rectangle, or a tilted rectangle/square with very minor exceptions like coins. This is, however, not a bad thing. All the colors are vibrant and everything is easily recognizable. This was obviously done to be reminiscent of the original game from all those years ago. 

Everything in this game is paper-thin 2D, which would not look out of place on a smartphone, or even certain flash games. However, due to this, a lot of different stuff can be portrayed by making very little changes. These changes include your own paddle, which is fully customizable with basically any outfit you can see enemies wear in the game. If you wear the right combination of items, you might even see a familiar outfit or two.

While Pong: The Next Level has proven that the franchise can work with fancier, 3D graphics, I personally appreciate the simplistic art style used here. Why turn a rectangle into a cuboid, if the rectangle is more efficient? I don’t think the game would be as diverse and have as many customization options if a 3D aesthetic was used instead.

Music / Sound Design

Just like the graphics, the music is very vibrant and upbeat. The title theme makes sure to incorporate the original beeps and boops of the original classic, which is something I can always appreciate. The music inside the castle feels appropriately regal, and thematically appropriate music is heard throughout the entire game. Each dungeon, obviously, has its own unique theme, all of which give off a dungeon crawling vibe.

However, an issue I have with the game’s music is a problem that any game with random encounters can run into. There is NO variation in battle music in any of the dungeons, with the exceptions of boss battles. Seeing as battles increase both in length and number, you should be prepared to hear the same song over and over again. Sometimes, rooms can have 4+ battles before you can move on, and you’ll hear the same battle theme again and again. 

Final Score: 70%

PONG Quest was designed with gameplay first and everything else later. I have a lot of nostalgia for the original game from the 70s and will even still play that in short bursts. That is exactly the same sentiment I share with this game; something to be played in short bursts. Despite the catchy music, the simplistic yet effective graphics, and all the other additions that I enjoy, the core game-play is still Pong. If you aren’t a fan of that, the additions in this game will not win you over.

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