Atari’s original home game claim to fame, the home version of their 1972 arcade smash first reached consumers in 1976, though its Sears-branded counterpart launched for Christmas 1975. The console played one game and one game only–plain ole’ vanilla Pong, in which two players paddled it out to 15 points. Having only one game, glorious as it was, put it at a disadvantage to the rival Odyssey 100 and Odyssey 200, which had two and three games, respectively. But unlike the Magnavox systems, Pong had color graphics and digital on-screen scoring (both of which were major selling points at the time, believe it or not). It also had simpler and more approachable controls. It ran on either C-cell batteries or a 9V Battery Eliminator (a.k.a. AC adapter), and its unique pedestal-styled case has since become iconic, even if it did force you and your opponent to huddle unnaturally close around it to use the control dials.
Today, Pong is primarily a collectors’ piece since, as we shall see, there’s really no reason to buy one (and they’re usually not cheap) if you just want to play Pong when subsequent models do everything this one does and more.
Super Pong (1976)
Hot on the heels of Pong, Atari released Super Pong. Leapfrogging the Odyssey systems of the time, Super Pong could play four games: Pong, Catch, Solitaire, and Super Pong. Pong is exactly same as it was on the previous console, whereas Super Pong made the simple (yet important) addition of a forward paddle for each player. This subtle update could really mix up the flow of the game as players could now employ some rudimentary offensive (or defensive) strategy. Catch was essentially Pong in reverse; players moved a space in their walls in an attempt to let the ball pass through. Solitaire–as the name suggests–is a single-player game where the player tries to hit the ball through a gap at the top a wall, which can be adjusted with the Player 2 dial to make the game as challenging (or not) as desired. As with Pong, all games played to 15 points.
The original Pong system was and is a classic, but most players probably got a lot more mileage out of Super Pong; its former popularity is evident today by the ready availability of Super Pong consoles on sites such as eBay, often at very reasonable prices.
Super Pong Ten (1976)
Still in ’76, Atari followed up Super Pong with their new Super Pong Ten. This one was essentially the same system as Super Pong, but now two additional remote hand-held paddle controls could be connected for up to four-player games (players one and two still had to hunker together around the unit, but still…progress!). The “Ten” in Super Pong Ten came from the ten games it was advertised as playing: Pong, Super Pong, Catch, Basketball, and Handball, each in either one/two- or three/four-player varieties. However, Basketball and Handball are actually the exact same game; somewhere along the way, Atari got the clever idea to take the Solitaire game from Super Pong and, depending on how it was set up, call it two different games. Basketball is the game as originally intended (hit the ball through a gap at the top of a wall), while Handball is the exact same game with the stipulation that the wall is solid (which seems pointless since scoring is impossible). Minor deception aside, Super Pong Ten allowed owners to turn the already great Super Pong into a party, and Atari could technically claim the system played 10 games when most competitors’ machines usually had between three and six. Still, Super Pong Ten doesn’t appear to have had the same success Super Pong had, possibly owing to the Pong Wars reaching fever pitch by the time of its release. It’s uncommon to find today, but hardly impossible.
As an aside, the wedged shape of the controllers (which first appeared with the Sears version of Super Pong, the Super Pong IV) would inform controller design at Atari for years to come, notably with the Atari 5200, Atari 7800, and prototype Atari 2700 consoles.
Super Pong Pro-Am (1977)
The Atari Super Pong Pro-Am, released in 1977, was both a step forward and a step backward from the Super Pong Ten. It added switchable Professional and Amateur ball speed and featured a new case design that looked like some kind of funky transistor radio. More importantly, it had remote handheld controllers; finally, players could sit a comfortable distance from each other*! But, it went back to 1-2 players only, although it stuck with splitting Super Pong’s Solitaire game into two games in its advertising for a total of five. In essence, it’s Super Pong with remote controllers and a difficulty toggle.
By the time the Super Pong Pro-Am came out, consumers were getting burned out on Pong. The market was flooded with dedicated Pong clones from dozens upon dozens of companies, and the Pro-Am’s features weren’t justification enough for most Atari owners to upgrade from their Pongs or Super Pong/Tens, especially during a recession. Furthermore, it was rendered redundant by the Super Pong Pro-Am Ten and Ultra Pong systems, and when it joined those systems in bargain bins in the late ’70s, customers naturally opted for the more fully-featured models at only marginally higher cost. Consequently, the Pro-Am is a pretty rare find today; even photos of the system are few and far between.
(* Granted, Sears owners already were as long as two consoles ago. Minor details.)
Super Pong Pro-Am Ten (1977)
The ultimate Super Pong system, the Pro-Am Ten was the deluxe version of–you guessed it!–the Super Pong Pro-Am. Supporting up to four players, selectable ball speed, and 10 video games (but really only four, if you look past the marketing and the flimsy notion that adding players constitutes a separate game), the Pro-Am Ten was the top of the Super Pong line. And like all the others, it could be operated on either C-cell batteries or an AC adapter.
A kind of funny thing about the Atari Pong systems with removable controllers is that the number of players onscreen is manipulated by connecting or disconnecting controllers to/from the console. There are no player toggle switches or select buttons. To get a paddle to appear onscreen, simply connect a controller.
As fine a video game machine as the Super Pong Pro-Am Ten was, it, like the Pro-Am, was hurt by the industry shakeout that was happening in the late ’70s, which was rooted in a glut of mostly–and often literally–indistinguishable product and the rising popularity of handheld electronic LED games (Mattel Football, anyone?). It was also somewhat eclipsed by Atari’s Ultra Pong, Video Pinball, and Stunt Cycle dedicated systems that also launched in 1977, to say nothing of the next-generation, cartridge-programmable Video Computer System. By the time consumers were willing to look at the Pro-Am Ten and its ilk at clearance prices, most had moved on to programmable cartridge-based consoles. Today the Pro-Am Ten pops up on eBay from time to time, but prices tend to be on the exorbitant side.
Ultra Pong/Ultra Pong Doubles (1977)
The Atari Ultra Pong and Ultra Pong Doubles were actually the same exact game console; the only differences were the boxes they came in and the number of paddle controllers included (two with Ultra Pong, four with Ultra Pong Doubles). The Ultra Pong was Atari’s next-generation Pong system, such as it was. Housed in the same case as the Super Pong Pro-Am and Super Pong Pro-Am Ten, the Ultra Pong pulled out all the stops with full-color spectral gradient backgrounds (boasting an impressive palette) and a whopping 16 games for two players: Pong, Hockey, Barrier Pong, and Barrier Hockey, each in standard, Super, Hyper, or Ultra flavors (4 x 4 = 16). Pong is…well…Pong. Hockey is actually one of the more realistic (for lack of a better word) video interpretations of the sport up to this point, having actual goals that the
ball puck can fire around and behind rather than two simple walls with holes in them. Barrier Pong adds some…uh…barriers to the Pong playfield, which can fling the ball in unpredictable directions; think of them like the bumpers in a pinball machine. Barrier Hockey does the same for Hockey. The Super variety adds a forward paddle, the Hyper games add a forward paddle on the opponent’s side of the screen, and Ultra adds both. Three paddles?! Mind = blown.
Ultra Pong Doubles (1977)
The final Pong console to be released by Atari, the Ultra Pong Doubles added four-player capability to the Ultra Pong, doubling
Pong Doubles (N/A)
Pong for two to four players. As far as I can tell this was never actually released, although boxes for it have appeared. The Sears version, Pong IV, was released but is extremely rare. Its remote paddle controllers bear a striking similarity to the CX-30 paddle controllers that would later become staples of gaming on the Atari Video Computer System and Atari 400/800 home computer.
Hockey Pong (1976)
From what I can gather, this one seems to be an AY-3-8500 system in a Pong/Super Pong case that was only released in Europe. Consumers in North America got the Sears Telegames version. The gameplay experience should be indistinguishable from that of the Odyssey 300, Coleco Telstar, APF TV Fun, TV Scoreboard…