Updated: Apr 5
Pong’s Left and Right paddles were the original superstars of video gaming. Exclusively Games reached out to them both and they agreed to an exclusive interview. We sent our roving Brit Iain to meet them in sunny California.
I touched down at LAX early in the morning. Feeling more than a little jet-lagged I exited the airport and promptly had a near miss with a bus when crossing the street. "Oh right", I remembered, "They drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road over here."
Several cab rides later I reach my destination.
We are sitting in a coffee and tea shop in Sunnyvale California on a clear January afternoon. Right, Left, and myself (EG – Exclusively Games) are sitting at a window side table overlooking El Camino Real. The atmosphere at the table is tense, and I notice they are sitting at opposite ends, with myself in the middle. I remind myself that this is the first time they have been in the same room for well over a decade.
I notice our little group is attracting a few confused looks from some of the younger patrons. I decided to break the ice by asking them if this bothers them.
RIGHT: It is fine. They are young. Most of them were not even born when this used to be our stamping ground…
LEFT: …Plus most of ‘em have probably never seen a sprite before, all of today's Video Game Stars are so ‘Polygonal’.
RIGHT: Of course, back in the 1970s we were noticed all the time, especially in these parts.
EG: Your first gig was around here wasn’t it?
RIGHT: Yes, right across the street in fact. See Rooster T Feathers Comedy Club over there? Back in ’72 that was Andy Capp’s Tavern…
LEFT:..The first place ever to have a video game cabinet, and we were its stars, the boys of Pong!
(I notice LEFT has a tendency to interrupt people)
EG: What was that like?
RIGHT: Good times. At the start we were popular with the locals, ‘local boys done good’ and whatnot…
LEFT…We grew up around here ya see. Atari was based down the road and our devs were regulars at Andy’s. That’s how we landed the gig.
RIGHT: Left is correct. Atari had already placed several of their pinball machines there which were popular with the locals, so Andy’s let us have a spot…
LEFT…and they paid us in beer!
RIGHT: To begin with yes. After word spread about us and people started coming in from out-of-town just to see us, I re-negotiated our arrangement. After that we were paid properly.
LEFT: The pin-dicks really didn’t like that.
RIGHT: He means the pinball machines. They became jealous of the attention we were getting. They felt we were *ahem* “Moving in on their turf and stealing their chicks”. Which to be fair to them, Left, you were.
LEFT: Hay, not my fault they have tiny pin-sized wangs!
EG: Ah, ‘Pin-Dicks’, I get it now. So how did that play out?
LEFT: They were spoiling for a fight all the time…
RIGHT: Only because you kept goading them! Seriously, calling them pin-dicks to their faces…
EG: Ok guys, let’s all take a breather…
RIGHT: Sorry, its just Left has gotten me into so many incidents over the years…Anyway, the management at Atari stepped in and ordered everyone to play nice, so things settled down…
LEFT: Didn’t stop them playing Pinball Wizzard on the jukebox on a loop all the time to piss us off though did it?
EG: Moving along…your residency at Andy Tapp’s Tavern didn’t last long after that. You were on tour, is that right?
RIGHT: That’s right. We went on tour all over the country. We were appearing in bars and pinball arcades everywhere. We even went international and did appearances in France.
EG: Which is where you both met Pixel Blanche’. (White Pixel in English)
RIGHT: That’s right. She was the third star of Pong. The game would not have worked without her bouncing around between us. Previously we had hired local models to play the role of ‘Ball’, or ran competitions where fans could be ‘Ball for a day’, but there was something about Pixel Blanche’ that made her stand out among the rest, a certain jene seis quoi’…
LEFT: …Basically she was hot and French and Right fancied her…
RIGHT…so we asked her to join us on tour and play the role of Ball full time, and she agreed.
EG: And it was this that led to Pong breaking up?
RIGHT: Eventually, yes. All was fine for a few months, traveling the world together, appearing in gigs and openings of video arcades etc. PB and I became an item after a while and things were good for a time.
EG: I’m guessing things turned sour?
RIGHT: Sadly, yes. I started to think long term – marriage, mortgage, children etc., but she didn’t want that. She said she just wanted to be ‘free’ and “live life without responsibilities or commitments”. So, we parted ways…
LEFT: And she came to me instead. She wanted fun, and he couldn’t give it to her. I could. Me and PB lived the ‘70s party lifestyle, Motown, roller discos, hanging out with Pink Floyd, Andy Worhol and Stanley Kubrick…
RIGHT…and repeatedly having your stomach pumped due to all the booze and chemicals in your system. Anyway, as I’m sure you can imagine, working together with such things happening was impossible, and so we split the group. I moved to England to study physics at Cambridge. One reasoned that becoming more knowledgeable about the physics of movement would make me a better bat n’ ball paddle. To be honest, I was glad to be out of the spotlight for a while.
LEFT: You went to Cambridge? That explains why he is talkin’ like a posh Stewie Griffin now. He didn’t used to sound like that before.
EG: Er, Left, what did you do at this time
LEFT: I did everything, I ‘did’ everyone. Me n’ PB partied like it was going out of fashion. Everyone who was anyone knew us back then. We had it all…
RIGHT: Until PB left him for one of the Rolling Stones. I can’t say which one for legal reasons.
LEFT: Yeah…until that happened.
RIGHT: I can look back on it now and see the irony, how life imitated art. She bounced between the two of us, both on screen and off, and then went sailing past Left and out of ‘Pong’ entirely.
Left, Right and Pixel Blanche’ on screen together in 1974
EG: So, what happened after that?
LEFT: I checked myself into rehab for a while, got myself cleaned up, and reached out to Right.
RIGHT: This is true. I had recently graduated from Cambridge and I felt ready to get back into games. About the same time Atari contacted me and offered me the lead role in Breakout, a bat, ball n’ wall game for their new 2600 console. I readily accepted. Then Left called me out of the blue and apologised for everything that had happened in the past. He was just out of rehab and was looking for work. I was wary of giving him a second chance, but forgiveness is a virtue so I said I would put in a good word for him. Because of this, Left landed the role of 2nd bumper.
EG: How did you both find the switch in genre?
RIGHT: It was a little strange not having an opponent…
LEFT…And we spent the whole time laying on our backs looking up.
RIGHT…that too. I got aches in places I never knew I had. I found it a refreshing challenge however. Each level was different, so there was far more variety in the role, which helped me to grow as a character.
EG: Speaking of growing, rumour has it you both had to undergo some serious yo-yo dieting and training due to the changes in lengths of the paddles in Breakout.
RIGHT: Never a truer word spoken. Have you ever tried to lose half your mass in the middle of a round, and then having to put it all back on again for the start of the next round, only to lose it all again halfway through? Rinse and repeat ad nauseam. It wasn’t easy, and I very much doubt it was good for our long-term health either…
LEFT: Yeah, Christian Bale aint’ got CENSORED on us when it comes to gaining and losing weight for a role. We did that CENSORED in real-time!
You can see the shocking weight gains and losses in this video. Also notice the top paddle (portrayed by Left) is only present for some of the game.
EG: How did you cope with that?
LEFT: Ex-Lax and creatine, in that order.
RIGHT: Healthy diet and plenty of hydration. That way most of the mass you lose is water. Still not good for you though. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise that the gig didn’t last that long.
EG: What happened?
LEFT: ‘They’ were shafting me! That’s what happened! I had to do just as much training as Right, but I only got half the screen time, and so got only half the money!
RIGHT: And there were ‘the incidents’…
RIGHT: One of the robots from Bezerk wandered onto the wrong set – I think it got confused due to its eye going around and around its head all the time – anyway, it wanders onto the set and gets into the game so we have to stop…
LEFT: He ruined my shot! I would have had that last brick if it weren’t for him!
RIGHT…and so Left went on a ten-minute tirade of abuse, screaming and shouting at the poor robot and calling it every name under the sun.
LEFT: He deserved it!
RIGHT: ‘It’ didn’t deserve it – ‘It’ was not a ‘he’ remember? Lucky for you ‘It’ has no feelings so it didn’t sue you.
LEFT: I guess I did go a little ‘bezerk’ on him, er, It.
RIGHT: Not funny…
EG: You said incidents, plural. I’m guessing there was another one?
RIGHT: Yes, the other incident was even worse. We had an intern, he was a Brit like you. Left wanted a bag of chips. The intern went off but came back with a bag of French fries instead. Left got so irate that he hit him.
LEFT: I was hangry!
RIGHT: You were a CENSORED CENSORED CENSORED is what you were! It was a simple misunderstanding!
(I can see this escalating – I hear Right never uses foul language. I try to diffuse the situation.)
EG: Ah, I see what happened here. The old ‘Two nations separated by the same language’ thing. In the UK ‘chips’ are called ‘crisps’, and fries are called ‘chips’, as in ‘fish n’ chips’. We also call Jello ‘jelly’ and we call jelly ‘Jam’, as in a Peanut butter and Jam sandwich. Just don’t ask what our slang term for cigarettes is…
RIGHT: Thank you for that. Regardless of the reason, it was out of order, and so Atari had to fire him.
LEFT: I was sick of it there anyway. I was gonner quit, but they beat me to it.
Right: Of course you were…
EG: Er, so what happened after that?
RIGHT: In the immediate term Atari used a body double sprite spliced with previously created footage of Left to finish the game. Thankfully no-one noticed – thank the Lord for the low definition TVs we all had back then. (Laughs)
Not long after that the ‘Great Video Game Crash of ’83’ happened so the work dried up for a while. I wasn’t worried, I had saved most of the money I made from Pong and Breakout. I also invested in a few companies. I visited the UK for a holiday and noticed that the home computer market was growing, what with their Sinclair ZX Spectrums and Amstrad CPCs. When I returned to America, I decided to invest in a few computer companies, predicting they would do well in the near future. Apple was one, Microsoft was another.
Anyway, I had caught ‘the gym bug’ due to the vigorous training I had to undertake for Breakout, so I was training like an Olympian. Of course, I didn’t have to keep shedding mass so quickly now, therefore I became quite well built. One even trained with Schwarzenegger a few times. I ended up ‘pumping the iron’ so hard that I started to look like a dumbbell myself (laughs).