Pong World (iOS) review

Pong World is a new iOS game from Atari and zGames. The new title is a free-to-play app, released in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the original Pong’s release to arcades in 1972. It’s available now from the App Store.

Pong World sees players working their way through a series of themed stages in an attempt to unlock everything the game has to offer. Each stage must initially be played in “Conquest” mode — a one-on-one match against a computer-controlled opponent in which the first player to reach five points wins. The basic mechanics are identical to the original Pong, though the game screen is presented in portrait rather than landscape perspective, and each stage has a variety of obstacles in the middle for the ball to bounce off as well as various destructible items that yield coins and powerups when broken.

Following the completion of a level in “Conquest” mode, players may then move on to play in either “Survival” or “Battle” mode. Survival mode sees players simply having to not let their computer-controlled opponent score a point on them for increasingly-lengthy periods of time, while Battle mode allows two players to compete against each other on the same device.

The player begins the game for the first time by choosing a paddle to play with. Unlike the simple white rectangles that they were in the 1972 original, in Pong World all the paddles are small, strange creatures, each with their own special abilities. The player is only given a vague textual description of what each paddle’s special ability is when choosing, though additional paddles may be unlocked later when enough in-game currency has either been earned or purchased. Each paddle may also be upgraded with a variety of different skills, including a unique special ability and passive skills that increase its size or ability to collect powerups from a distance.

The trouble with Pong World is that all the things it has added onto the simple, basic pure Pong formula actively make it a worse game. The obstacles in the middle of the play area often cause frustrating rebounds into your own goal, the unpredictable and sometimes bizarre ball physics see the ball curving back around towards you without any real explanation, and the computer player seems to trigger various powerups at will, making it extremely difficult to score a point on them at times, even early in the game. The fact that it’s not clear at all what some of the special abilities do doesn’t help matters, either — after several matches playing as “Razzle” I’m still mystified as to what its “Nicely Charm” ability is supposed to do, as following the instructions to tap the paddle doesn’t seem to do much aside from make Razzle make a peculiar noise.

The game monetizes through sales of its in-game currency, which allows for the unlocking of additional paddles or the upgrading of currently available ones. When playing Battle mode with two players, only content that the player has unlocked in single player is available, meaning both players will be stuck with the same paddle to begin with. It would have perhaps been better for the local multiplayer mode to have been cordoned off into its own separate area rather than making it dependent on the player’s progress through the “campaign.” It would also have been nice to see online multiplayer, but there is no such facility on display here.

Ultimately, Pong World is a failed attempt to modernize Pong for today’s mobile players. In doing so, the purity and simplicity of the original game has been lost, only to be replaced with bloated features designed to drive monetization coupled with a bewildering physics model that makes scoring points more a matter of luck than any real skill. It’s not a particularly fitting tribute to one of the first ever video games to attain mainstream popularity, and as such it’s tough to recommend Pong World to anyone in its current state.

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Hardly a fitting tribute to the 40 year-old classic.