Review by Midcore
Reviewed: 05/12/17 | Updated: 04/18/18
The Game That Inspired Pong
Table Tennis is one of the twelve default games that were originally included with the first home video game console, the Magnavox Odyssey. As the title suggests, Table Tennis is a simulation of the racket sport of the same name. Players control white square paddles on a black background, and use them to volley a smaller white square, representing a ball, back and forth over a vertical line. If this premise sounds familiar, you have probably played at least one version of Pong, Atari’s first big hit and the first commercially successful video game overall. However, Table Tennis made its market debut first.
Pong was directly inspired by Table Tennis, and the former’s success eventually led Magnavox to sue Atari and other video game companies for copyright infringement. At the same time, some consumers started buying the Odyssey just for Table Tennis, as it was the closest thing to a home version of Pong before Atari made their own official Pong console in 1975. Pong wasn’t a straight clone, however, as there are several notable differences between the two games in terms of design. Is Magnavox’s first home video game still worth playing, or was it quickly doomed to obsolescence by its arcade rival?
The rules of Table Tennis are based on an outdated version of official table tennis rules. Your goal is to be the first player to earn 21 points, rather than the 11-point milestone commonly used today. Also, the leading player needs to have at least two more points than their opponent in order for those 21 points to count as a win. Otherwise, the game will continue until a two-point margin is reached by one of the players. Points are earned by hitting the ball past your opponent’s paddle and off their side of the court.
Before starting a proper round of Table Tennis, the players have to engage in a brief rally to determine the first server of the game. The first player to hit the ball past their opponent’s paddle will get to serve first, provided that the ball has successfully crossed the net three or more times during the rally. The server and receiver switch roles after every five rallies, not including the initial pre-game rally.
Like other Odyssey games, Table Tennis can only be played by two human players, as the console does not support computer opponents. Each player controls the horizontal and vertical movement of their paddle by turning the two knobs on their controller, similar to the way a person would operate the stylus inside an Etch A Sketch. A small dial on the horizontal knob allows you to put “english” on the ball, meaning you can curve or steer the ball after it bounces off of your paddle. This is an essential technique for maneuvering the ball around your opponent’s paddle, as it is unlikely to go anywhere otherwise. However, players must avoid letting the ball leave through the top or bottom of the screen, as this will make them lose their opportunity to score a point. The reset button on top of the controller is used to serve the ball. A black dial on the Odyssey console itself allows players to change the speed of the ball.
It should be noted that Table Tennis does not actually keep track of most of the rules written in the Odyssey’s instruction manual. Because of this, players can ignore many of the more detailed rules and stick with their own preferred methods of playing the game. You can even act like a jerk and move your paddle onto your opponent’s side of the court! Unfortunately, this lack of rule enforcement also exposes one of the game’s major flaws. Unlike Pong, Table Tennis does not show the players’ scores on the screen, so they will have to keep track on their own. Pong veterans will find that having to stop inbetween rallies to manually write down their scores really slows down the pace of the game.
According to the Odyssey’s instruction manual, Table Tennis was designed to serve as a tutorial for the basic features of the console, allowing players to become acclimated to using their new system. Because of this, it is the only Odyssey game that does not require the use of screen overlays or other accessories. Table Tennis only features the bare minimum of Odyssey game presentation: two white squares representing paddles, a smaller square for the ball, and a solid, vertical white line that serves as a net dividing the court. It may not be the prettiest game for the console, but the good news is that it’s the easiest one to set up. As with every other game for the Odyssey, Table Tennis does not contain any music or sound effects, as the console lacks audio capabilities.
Table Tennis was a decent demonstration of what the Magnavox Odyssey and future home video game consoles could do. The game is easy to pick up and play, and the fact that it plays like an actual video game rather than the glorified board games that make up most of the Odyssey’s library makes it arguably one of the best games on the system. However, unless you’re a collector of vintage video game hardware and software, you probably won’t find much value here. Table Tennis simply doesn’t hold a candle to Pong, despite being released only about two months prior.
Pong sacrificed the “english” technique and horizontal paddle movement in favor of more accessible controls and deeper gameplay. Each paddle was operated with one analog knob instead of two. The paddles were given multiple hitboxes, affecting the angle that the ball bounces off of them, and the ball speed would increase automatically during lengthy rallies in order to adapt to the players’ skill levels. As the final nail in the coffin, Atari made it a top priority to include the essential on-screen scoreboard. While Table Tennis initially had the advantage of being playable at home, the numerous Pong consoles released throughout the seventies would soon make the Magnavox Odyssey and its library superfluous.
In recent years, some gamers have questioned why they still need to choose from multiple gaming consoles and systems, as opposed to having a universal platform for playing video games. The answer is that competition provides video game companies with incentive to continue designing better products. Even after winning a hefty sum of over $100 million in their many lawsuits over the Odyssey’s patents, Magnavox knew they would need to form a new strategy to compete with Atari. They started by building several Pong consoles under the Odyssey brand, and eventually created the Odyssey 2, a true successor to their original console. While Table Tennis may have been forgotten, it deserves recognition for its role in starting the home video game industry.
Rating: 3.0 - Fair
Product Release: Table Tennis (US, 05/31/72)
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