Arthouse Games
Review: Plasma Pong
by jcr13Friday, December 15, 2006 [2:47 pm] This is the fifth in a series of Slamdance Finalist reviews.

Plasma Pong is Steve Taylor's remake of Atari's 1972 arcade game Pong, but it's a remake with a very interesting twist. Instead of batting a ball back and forth in the 2D, gravity-free vacuum of the classic, Plasma Pong moves the game into a 2D fluid field.

As the ball bounces and the paddles move, they interact with the field through simulated fluid dynamics. The state of the field is presented with both a color map (showing---I'm guessing---the fluid pressure at each point in the field) and particles that are suspended in the fluid. The suspended particles help to reveal currents, eddies, and other features of the flow. The ball is also suspended in the fluid, and its motion can be affected dramatically by the flow. As the fluid gets stirred up, the ball's motion can become quite unpredictable.

You can affect the state of the fluid with more than just the motion of your paddle, however. The left mouse button sends a stream of fluid out from the center of your paddle, while the right button sucks fluid into your paddle. The suction is strong enough to attract and retain the ball. Once the paddle fills with fluid, releasing the right mouse button creates shockwave in the fluid that hurtles the ball back into the field.

As in classic Pong, the object is to push the ball past your opponent, but doing so does not simply increment your score. Instead, it pushes you up into the next "level" of play, where the fluid dynamics are supposedly more realistic and thus more difficult to control. If the opponent pushes the ball past your paddle, you lose a life, and once you run out of lives, the game ends. Thus, the challenge is to get as far as you can before the fluid dynamics become overwhelming.

The game is visually dazzling. Yeah, it's very 2D, but I still found my jaw on the floor---it's hard to believe that a computer in 2006 can actually produce such a display.

The game plays along with a thumping techno-orchestra soundtrack. As you level-up to more difficult fluid dynamics, the tempo (and, it seems, pitch) of the music increases. The mounting musical tension, combined with the increasing difficulty of the fluid dynamics, create a mood that can best be described as thrilling. This isn't your parents' Pong.

In fact, it almost feels like Mr. Taylor has dreamed up a whole new sport---I can imagine Plasma Pong matches being held in an arena from some kind of cybernetic future.

Ignoring the competitive aspects for a moment, I will also point out that playing with fluid dynamics in real-time is a fascinating experience. It's hard to explore properly during the Pong game, but the software includes an impressive sandbox mode that lets you manipulate the fluid field to your heart's content. You can insert fluid emitters, sinks, and walls into the field and watch the complex flows that result. I don't know enough about fluid simulation to judge whether this kind of fluid sandbox is novel or not (perhaps it's already present in educational software for physics classes), but regardless, it's amazing.

I was able to lift my jaw up off the floor eventually, however, and I found that the game still had about as much depth as the original Pong---and that's to say "not very much." Yes, the fluid dynamics are more interesting than deflections in a gravity-free vacuum, but they are too complex to control in any sort of strategic way. When the ball comes your way, you suck fluid and then blast the ball back at your opponent. Your opponent does the same. Once things get stirred up enough, the ball tumbles around crazily, and somebody finally scores. Then the process repeats.

That brings us to the question of artistic achievement. Plasma Pong scores points for dusting off a deader-than-dead classic and making it exciting again. Other than that, however, it doesn't have much to say. We can also look at the game's raw, abstract beauty: I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it visually. I'm not sure that it can transcend the "novel eye candy" label, however.

Regardless of depth, the overall experience is interesting, and it's certainly worth the download.


[Submit Comment]
by Jim WhiteheadFriday, December 15, 2006 [3:51 pm]

Thanks for reviewing this game, Jason!

This is very timely for me, since I'm planning on using Pong as an example in the first lecture in my Foundations of Interactive Game Design course this winter. Though "deader than dead," it is simple enough that it lends itself well to an overview discussion of rules, strategy, and simulation. With fluid pong, I'll have a nice recent example to show of how changing the simulation can affect gameplay.


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