Retro Archives Part One – Pong

The Adman Grandstand 3600 MK3 started my life-long love of gaming.

The year was 1978. As an elite operative, in the employ of Her Majesty’s Secret Services, My life was at a near constant risk. Every road I walked, every corner I turned was fraught with danger. Every room I stayed in had to be thoroughly checked for possible entry points — and not just the obvious ones. I was on a recon mission in a relatively large town in Scotland, just outside of Glasgow and under an apparently unending rainstorm.

One day, in particular, is burned into my mind forever. I had just returned to my, supposed safe house, the one place where I should have been able to relax — at least a little. I opened the door and started climbing the stairs, desperate for a warm shower, after spending all day in the freezing rain.

Death Around Every Corner

Not two steps from the top of the stairs I heard it — a creak from a floorboard. This in a house where I should be the only moving object. My hackles were instantly raised. I drew my High Standard HDM – a non-standard issue for British operatives at the time, from its holster. Quickly, and quietly, I pulled my body in tight to the wall. Slowly, and silently as possible, I moved toward the corner. Then in what seemed like a slow-motion sequence from a movie, I flew myself, low, but aiming high, into the room and fired off several rounds in an attempt to catch my opponent off guard.

Unfortunately, as I didn’t know the exact location of the intruder, my aim was off. My over-eagerness to succeed had once again proved to be my downfall, as the little square target generated by my Adman Grandstand 3600 MK3 raced across the screen and I was once more greeted by the harsh bleeping of failure.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that back in “ye olden days” of gaming, when all we had on our screens to engage us were little squares and, depending on the game, rectangles — imagination played a big part in the enjoyment you got from these things. That was certainly the case for me and my friends.

Let’s begin — properly

All of which brings us to the start proper, of my series of retro articles. On our journey through gaming we will be looking at all of the systems I’ve owned — and still do own, bringing us right up to the systems of today. So, what better way to start, than where I did. With my Adman Grandstand 3600 MK3 — A Pong clone which, like many, took the formula beyond just the classic “tennis” game we know and love.

I’m sure pretty much everyone reading this will have some idea of Pong and its history. So we’ll just do a little recap. In the early days of the 1970s, the idea of playing a computer game at home, on your own TV was practically science fiction — at least it was to a little shite tike such as myself. They had existed, of course, in arcade form. But actually playing them in the home? That was an entirely different matter altogether.

An Industry Is Born

However in May of 1972 what we now know as the video game industry was born. Brought to life by the Magnavox Odyssey. Nonetheless, it wasn’t really until November of that year, when Atari launched its own home game (and the proliferation of subsequent clones thereof), that the home Video Game industry really exploded onto the scene.

The game, of course, was Pong, made by Al Alcorn. An engineer working for the legendary Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, who themselves had only recently founded the just as legendary Atari company. This is a trio of people who we would consider to be responsible for (mostly) popularising the early days of video gaming.

The Very First Video Game

Of course, video gaming didn’t actually start with the Magnavox. If my ageing memory serves me well, that honour goes to Alexander Douglas’s OXO from 1952. Or Naughts and Crosses if you prefer. A simple game running on the EDSAC (Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator) mainframe at the University of Cambridge. (I’m sure if I’m wrong, there will be plenty of you to correct me — and yes, it was technically a computer game.)

Pong itself wasn’t even the first game to implement the idea of bouncing a ball around the screen to simulate the game of tennis. That honour goes to William Higinbotham and Robert Dvorak, with Tennis for Two, using an oscilloscope as the screen during an open day at Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1958. Sadly this momentous creation, which we could likely consider to be the worlds first dedicated video gaming system, was not recognised as such and the machine was dismantled a year later.

After A Long Wait

The world had to wait a few more years for its next entry in video games. 1962 was the year when one of the most famous games in computing history was born. Using the DEC PDP-1 mainframe at MIT, Steve Russel, Martin Graetz and Wayne Wiitanen conceived and created Spacewar! This was the result of truly incredible engineering and about as many man-hours as go into some modern AAA games. Spacewar! was further developed over the years by other students and employees of universities in the area.

Spacewar! was also moved onto other PDP-1’s over the years, which really makes Spacewar! the worlds first multi-system video game. Spacewar! had many clones and spiritual successors over the years, including the worlds first commercially-sold arcade video game, Computer Space, in 1971. Computer Space was designed by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney for Nutting Associates and was, well, a bit of a commercial flop.

A Gaming Legend Rises From The Ashes

Fortunately for us, this setback did not dissuade Nolan Bushnell, an engineer with a good eye for commercialism. Seeking an idea of simplicity to appeal to a new world of gamers, Bushnell had Alcorn create Pong, something so simple anyone could play it. Bushnell and Dabney founded Atari in 1972 and the rest is history…… Well, just about.

It would be incredibly rude, not to mention inaccurate for me not to mention someone else in this little story. Mr Ralph Baer, who actually designed the first home video game console — the previously mentioned Magnavox Odyssey. Having come up with the idea of a television video game in the 1950s. Baer tried for years to gain support for his novel and unique system, but unfortunately, due perhaps to the uniqueness of the idea, he failed to gain enough support to even make a prototype until well into the 1960s.

Baer developed his ideas for several more years, developing different gaming experiences to his original “tag” creation — a game composed of two squares which, well, I probably don’t need to explain the game of tag to you. During this time he was, unfortunately, unable to secure the support of a major manufacturer and it wasn’t until 1971 that he finally received an agreement from Magnavox. The following year a refined version of Baer’s idea was released as the Odyssey Home Entertainment System 1TL200 — catchy name isn’t it.

The Seeds Of Pong Are Sown

It was at a Magnavox dealer demonstration in mid-1972 that Nolan Bushnell played a ping-pong game on the Odyssey 1TL200. Supposedly, and one can see why this is where the inspiration for Pong came from. Although Bushnell claims it was tennis on the PDP-1 which was his original inspiration. Either way, Bushnell believed the Magnavox ping-pong game lacked a certain degree of quality for mass market penetration and assigned Alcorn the project which would become known to the world as Pong.

The difference between the two, though quite subtle, does give them quite different approaches to the same form of game. While ping-pong on the Odyssey made a good attempt at adhering to the real world game and its rules. Pong stripped everything back to its most basic form, with just an up/down movement for the paddles and directional movement of the ball dictated by where it hits the paddles. Also unlike ping-pong, where the top and bottom of the screen were, just like the real game, areas where the ball could leave the table. Pong instead used these areas as a solid boundary for the ball to bounce, further changing its course of direction.

Despite the differences in game style, Magnavox did win a patent infringement lawsuit against Atari. Resulting in Atari having to pay a hefty cash settlement fee and further licensing fees. However, nothing could stop the huge success of Pong as a game to appeal to the masses. Bushnell naturally wanted to capitalise on the success of the game and when Atari created a home version of the game in 1975, released under the umbrella of the retailer Sears with their brand name Tele-Games, the system was a massive success. Prompting Atari to release a version of the game just a year later, with their own branding.

The First Gaming Bandwagon

The incredible success of Pong caused many companies to jump on the bandwagon, creating their own versions of the games — thanks to a one-chip Pong clone from General Instruments. Simplifying the underlying technology in order to reduce the manufacturing costs and licensing out the technology to other companies to make their own branded versions of the game.

The variations on the basic theme of Pong expanded and morphed as time went on, giving rise to Squash, Hockey, and others. With the addition of the Light Gun peripheral, a fairly simple device, wrapped up in a big plastic gun-shaped controller. Skeet Shoot and other variations on the shoot-a-square game were added to the TV Systems. This is where the Adman Grandstand 3600 MK3 comes in.

Although as you will have likely guessed from the name, the MK3 was not the first TV Game released by Adman under their Grandstand brand — nor was it their last by any means. None of them, to the best of my knowledge, were of their own creation. They were all licensed systems, generally imported and re-badged. Underneath there was little to separate them from any of the other mass of Pong style TV games. Which needless to say was the ultimate downfall of these systems — a story for another day you’ll be pleased to hear.

A Lifelong Obsession Begins

But it is where I come in. As my first experience of video gaming at the tender age of 4, it was an absolute marvel to me. To have something, anything on my (tiny) black & white TV which I could actually control was a pretty magical experience. Video games may have been around a lot longer than me, but this was all new to me. I had never seen such a magical little box, none of my friends had any games machines — we hardly lived in a wealthy suburb shall we say.

Sure looking back now, after decades of development, technological advances and experience, batting a small square around a screen with a simple rectangle may seem, dull, boring and probably something you’d get hit with if you placed it in front of today’s gaming kids. But to us, it was an experience like no other, our young minds couldn’t even begin to grasp how this tiny little box of magic was doing what it was. Yes, no matter what variation of game you played, you used a fair dose of imagination to fill in the gaps. But that was no bad thing. We enjoyed every minute of it for a few years until the next technological marvel took over from these simple Pong TV boxes.

Shaping A Childs Future

For me, this most simple of gaming experiences is single-handedly responsible for creating not just a life-long love of gaming, which I’m still enjoying at the ripe old age of 44. But it also contributed to shaping my later life. That it instilled such a wonder in me of how this little box of wires and bits and bobs could do what it did. Led me to a varied career including owning video games shops, electronics, engineering, programming games and applications myself and now, writing about them too.

Had it not been for Pong I don’t know if my fascination with technology would have developed. I don’t know where my life would have taken me — do any of us? One thing I do know, I’m glad I ended up where I did.

So there we have it, part one of my gaming life. I’m sure many of you “oldies” out there might have similar experiences. Next time we move into the exciting world of, what we would probably call, proper video gaming consoles with a wide range of interchangeable cartridges.

Written by Stuart McLean

Self confessed technology addict. iOS software developer, avid gamer and living embodiment of too much to do, not enough time. Insert something nice about spending time with wife and family in the "real world" blah, blah, blah.