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Free Play Arcade community liaison Chris Delp, right, goes paddle to paddle against Beth Bacon in a round of Pong, a new, high-tech version of the classic arcade game that moves physical foam pieces across a cocktail tabletop instead of pixels on a screen.EXPAND
Free Play Arcade community liaison Chris Delp, right, goes paddle to paddle against Beth Bacon in a round of Pong, a new, high-tech version of the classic arcade game that moves physical foam pieces across a cocktail tabletop instead of pixels on a screen.
Danny Gallagher

Free Play Arcade Scores One of the First 3D Pong Machines Released to the Public

Atari's Pong may seem elementary compared with today's high-definition video games that can link up to players anywhere in the world, but it's one of the reasons video games are a billion-dollar industry.

Pong, a bare-bones version of table tennis consisting of just two vertical bars as paddles and a tiny square as the ball, is accessible and simple to learn. It's also challenging to master and competitive enough to still be playable more than 45 years after it was first plugged into the wall of Andy Capp's Tavern in Sunnyvale, California, according to the Computer History Museum.

Now it's been updated for our high-tech age in an eye-popping way. A successful 2017 Kickstarter campaign helped arcade game developer Unis create a physical, tabletop Pong machine that uses magnets underneath a metal surface to move the paddles and the square ball across the table just like the original Atari title. The machine earned even more buzz after making its first appearance on the floors of gaming and tech conferences like the Consumer Electronics Show, and it's starting to roll out to private owners and arcades around the world.

The arcade Free Play Richardson has the first model in the entire state that the public can play and is one of only 45 machines in current play around the world.

"It's the same game from the '70s come to life," says Free Play community liaison Chris Delp. "You're playing Pong in reality and it's perfect for retro arcades."

Delp says Unis approached the arcade about putting a test machine on the floor of their arcade and shipped it out last week for the public's competitive consumption. The machine will stay in the arcade until the test period ends unless Free Play decides to buy it for their customers.

"I can't see it not belonging here unless it totally falls apart," Delp says. "It totally fits in here."

The Pong machine plays just like the original game with a few notable exceptions. The players stand behind their foam paddle playing pieces using a turning, rubber grip knob to deflect a tiny moving square that can nudge or spin hard if they need to get it to the other side of the court. The game also offers a one-player mode that's just as challenging as the most experienced Pong player.

"All you see at the top are magnets attached to stepper motors," says Unis sales executive Logan Schneider. "We wanted to keep it as retro and classic as possible."

The sleek machine's casing also has responsive LED lights to respond to the action on the court and even its own techno soundtrack that builds as the game gets closer to the finish line.

"It's amazing how it keeps the same feel of the game," says Beth Bacon, who got to take one of the first test drives on Free Play Arcade's Pong machine. "It looks high-tech but it's the same, simple concept we grew up with."

Schneider says Free Play will host a special tournament on the cocktail table game on April 20, a day before the testing period ends and the arcade sends back the machine. That is, of course, unless they decide to buy one for their arcade.

"It seems like the most obvious thing in the world to have," Delp says. "It feels otherworldly. It's really cool. It's life imitating art imitating life." 

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