Best Games - Pang (or Pomping World or Buster Bros.)
The early 80s were a time of wild experimentation for computer and arcade games. Game ideas would come from clever bits of code that someone managed to write in their bedroom more often than any sort of high level concept. If someone figured out how to create a smooth scrolling background, they turned that into a game. Figured out how to make it look like you are travelling down a road or tunnel by cycling colors or scaling sprites? That’s a game idea. You can make a block or character jump when you press a button? Gotta make a game out of it.
Two games, Galaxian and Asteroids, came out right at the start of the decade. There were about a thousand riffs on both concepts. A two dimensional shooting gallery and a game where you shoot one thing and it splits into two smaller things. Both of these games are built on extremely basic concepts and probably no small amount of clever code entirely unrelated to creating a game.
It didn’t take long for someone to merge these two ideas. In 1983 Hudson Soft came out with the game Cannon Ball for the Japanese MSX series of computers. A game where you guide a character back and forth across the bottom of the screen shooting ropes upward at bouncing balls. When you hit a ball, or a ball ran into one of your ropes, it would pop and split into two smaller balls. At some point fairly early in the development of the MSX computer, someone figured out how to make balls bounce. They thought, why not make a game out of that.
Cannon Ball is pretty bare bones. It came out very early in the life of the MSX and what people were looking for out of their entertainment software was probably just that it existed and ran. Still, the core is already there.
It would be another six years before Mitchell Corporation would do something that was rarely done in those days, they would license Cannon Ball from Hudson Soft to create an updated version. They would call this new version Pomping World. Typically companies would just steal game concepts and move on. Just ask Mitchell Corporation who’s own concept for Puzz Loop would be lifted by Popcap to create Zuma. You could ask them, except Mitchell Corporation shut down only a few years later.
Treachery of the game industry aside, have a look at these two games. I think old MSX Cannon Ball polished up quite nicely.
In Pomping World (later retitled Pang) you direct a character left and right across the bottom of the screen and fire ropes upward. There are balls bouncing around up there and if you hit one of them it will split into two smaller balls, or bubbles. The object of the game is to clear out all the balls and their debris, without the character being hit by any of them.
While Pang does offer a nice graphical upgrade over Cannon Ball, the main difference between the two games is the power-ups.
You start out only being able to fire one rope projectile that disappears when it touches any barrier. You can pick up a power that lets you fire two ropes, one that lets you fire a rope that grapples in place, only dissolving after a set amount of time unless it’s hit by a bubble, or a gun that fires quickly but leaves no ropes behind that you can use as barriers or shields.
That’s the main mechanic in Pang that makes it different from something like Galaxian. When you shoot a rope up the screen, the bubbles can crash against the side of it and pop. That means, ropes aren’t just an offensive weapon against the bubbles. You can fire one and then step to the side, putting the rope between you and any bubbles coming to hit you. It’s not enough to just aim up-screen like you would in Space Invaders. In Pang you have to plan for bounces and deal with the smaller bubbles when the larger ones burst. It’s an action game that boarders on the strategy of a puzzle game. There are other power-ups that play with time, but none of them are an instant win. They all have upsides and downsides that you will have to get used to if you want to succeed.
Pang, and it’s sequels, are such simple and refined games. It takes a few minutes to develop a winning strategy. After a few more minutes you will discover that strategy was terrible and you will develop a new one. This will keep happening for as long as you play the game.
Pang may be one of the last games that sprang directly out of some clever thing that someone figured out how to do on a computer. Game development now is a much wider field. If you can think something up, there is probably a way to do it. Some clever person probably already has.
Pang is truly one of the best games.