Updated: 10 hours ago
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).
Then in 1986 my agent calls me and asks if I have ever considered working in Japan? My response was, “I do not believe I have ever considered the notion. Why do you ask?” He then informs me that a Japanese game company called Taito are creating a game similar to Breakout and they are in need of someone to play the lead role of the bumper.
I considered the proposal for a moment and then replied, yes, I am interested in the opportunity, and I am not currently otherwise engaged. What’s more, at this time the Japanese video game industry was really trying to ‘break’ America, and were thus willing to pay top dollar (or Yen) to hire western game characters. I hear that the portly plumber gentleman became so wealthy that he now owns half the castles in the mushroom kingdom.
Where was I... oh, yes, so I jetted off to Japan to star in Arkanoids one and two.
EG: How did you find the transition to living in Japan?
RIGHT: The diet was a bit of a shock to the system – One had never eaten raw fish before – but one got used to it. Oh, and I almost got run over leaving the airport when I first got there – I didn’t realise they drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road over there. I also had to engage again in the gain-lose-and-gain-mass-again cycle. I also had to learn how to shoot frickin’ laser beams out of my eyes! (laughs)
EG: Laser beams?
RIGHT: Not real ones, they did it in post with SFX. Japan doesn’t allow concealed carry so I doubt they would let me have real weaponised eyeballs. (Laughs). Life was good, and all those ports to home systems kept me busy and gainfully employed up to the end of the 1980s.
Right displaying his new Dumbbell-esque physique in Arkanoid
EG: Left, what were you doing around this time?
LEFT: Well after what happened at Breakout people didn’t wanna hire me. They kept saying I was ‘difficult to work with’ or ‘drunk on set’. Dicks! So what if I take my breakfast with neat JD on the rocks, it helps me focus damnit!
They said I was ‘unstable on set’ and so ‘unsuitable for moving roles’, CENSORED *ussies. So, I call my agent, but he won’t answer the phone, and his secretary keeps saying he isn’t in anytime I call. I reckoned he was avoiding me, so I catch the bus down town and march into his office. He has Mrs PacMan in there. Jackpot I thought! So, I tell him either he gets me work or I’ll tell Mr PacMan that he has been ‘servicing’ Mrs PacMan in more ways than the professional. He turns white as a ghost and says that ok, he will find something ASAP. A few hours later he calls me up and says he has found a ‘mostly non-moving role’ in an upcoming racing game called Pole Position.
(NB – EG has contacted both Mrs PacMan and REDACTED for comment. They both maintain that their relationship was strictly professional.)
EG: And what role was that?
LEFT: …I was a road marking. See this image? (he pulls out an iPad) That’s me in the middle between the car and the finish line.
EG: I see…And how did you find being in an uncredited and mostly non-moving role?
LEFT: I thought it was great at the time. Easy money. Didn’t have to do anything, didn’t have to train, barely had to move even, just bend a little every now and then on the corners. I was so pleased with it that I started taking my breakfast with double JDs on ice!
EG: You appeared in a number of similar roles throughout the eighties and early to mid 90s, is that right?
LEFT: Yesiree, if there was a racing game around then chances are I was in it somewhere. Outrun, Chase HQ, Road Rash, Lotus Turbo Challenge 2, you name it, I was in it. I even managed to save some money to invest. I put some of it into SEGA and some of it into Commodore, I figured they were doing well at the time and so were probably gonner keep doin’ well.
EG: I hear the bubble burst for you in the mid to late 1990s.
LEFT: Yeah. The racing game scene changed. It had been changing slightly since 1992 when Mario Kart came out. Personally, I thought that it was a stupid kids ‘racing’ game and ignored it. Like, that was ever gonner catch on – who is gonner wanna drive a go-kart when they could drive a Jaguar XJ220?
And what was this ‘Mode’ 7 3D CENSORED anyway? No one is ever gonner wanna be able to turn around and drive the wrong way around the track. It’s a race! It’s about always going forwards faster than everyone else. It ‘aint rocket science Nintendo, work it out. And since hardly anyone was doing anything like Mario Kart on most of the home systems, I figured it was just a blip.
(NB – Super Mario Kart does not feature traditional road markings)
I should have seen the writing on the wall when I appeared in Carmageddon, which had road markings in some places and was in 3D. But since Carmageddon got banned in so many places I figured that open-world 3D racing games were also gonner be a blip and I shouldn’t worry about it. But what really did me in was the off-road racing games on the PS1. Since they were off-road, they had no road markings, and since hardly anyone was making on-road racing games back then there was hardly any work.
EG: What about your investments?
LEFT: Ah, well, you see, the Commodore Amiga sorta died a death by the late ‘90s, ‘cos of all the PCs, so I lost my money on that one. And the SEGA Dreamcast tanked as well, so I lost everything there too. Thankfully I was able to get another job, so at least I didn’t end up like Sonic, wasting away on that sofa watching that damn poster…
EG: Er, ok. We will come back to that in a bit. So, Right, what were you up to during the ‘90s?
RIGHT: Well, what I was doing in the ‘90s actually started in the late ‘80s, 1989 to be precise. I was enjoying living in Japan and working on Arkanoid and its ports, but I was concerned about becoming typecast as a ‘bat n’ ball character’.
I spoke to my agent again and he notified me that Nintendo were bringing out a new device called the ‘GameBoy’, which was intended to be the world’s first portable video game device. He proceeded to inform me that they (Nintendo) are launching it with a version of Tetris and are looking for someone to play the role of the ‘Hero’ block.
He pointed out that ‘Hero’ would get equal billing with six other characters, namely Orange Ricky, Blue Ricky, Cleveland Z, Rhode Island Z, Teewee and Smashboy. He enquired if I would be amiable to sharing the limelight? I replied that I was. Indeed, this was my preference, as being the centre of attention as a solo act was trying, thus being part of a group would be a refreshing change.
He also enquired if I had a head for heights and whether I could perform somersaults and backflips in the air, as these were crucial for the role. I replied that since I was still in perfect shape back then I could foresee no problems with these. And thus within a few days I was part of ‘Tetris 7’.
EG: This would be the third change in genre for you, how did you find it?
RIGHT: I relished the change actually, what I wasn’t prepared for was how much of an overnight success we all became. GameBoys were selling like hot cakes all over the world, and Tetris came bundled with them. I thought the ‘fame train’ had been a rocky ride in the Pong era, but it was but trivial compared to this. The tour schedule was brutal, practice sessions had to be choreographed all day long, and every press event carefully staged managed to preserve the ‘brand image’.
I was acquainted with a number of people who were in the manufactured ‘boy bands’ and ‘girl groups’ of the ‘90s. They all confirm that it was much the same for them. We also shared another problem with the manufactured bands of the era – the stand out performers who become more popular than the other members.
Unfortunately for me, I ended up being the standout performer of Tetris 7. Everyone wanted to see the ‘Hero’ block, the four squares in a row that could save the game by clearing four rows in one go. No one cared a great deal about the other members, except perhaps Smashboy, his boxy frame could fit in almost anywhere.
I was getting all the attention but I didn’t want it. I had joined a group to avoid being the only one in the spotlight. I tried my best to ensure the other members received as much publicity as myself, however the public were having none of it – it was ‘Hero’ or nothing. The other members started to resent me, and even accused me of ‘false modesty’. Apparently, they found my trying to appear no more important than the rest of the group insulting, likening it to my throwing them a bone. One was mortified. My constitution was incapable of managing the stress of fame, or the toxic atmosphere of the group, and thus I resolved to leave, which I did soon after.
EG: What happened to the rest of Tetris 7?
RIGHT: They hired someone else to play the Hero block and no one noticed, which is rather ironic if you think about it. The public loved Hero block - and only Hero block - but the public either didn’t notice or didn’t care when the character portraying Hero block was changed. The public can be a fickle thing at times.
After that I lost my way, both figuratively and literally. I spent about five years traveling the world incognito. I saw all the great sites of course, but I tried to avoid the ‘touristy’ places as there was a greater chance of being recognised.
EG: Did that work?
RIGHT: Not really, especially in Asia since I was a clear block taller than everyone else, so I stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb. In the end I came back to America, purchased a house and some land in the middle of nowhere and lived as a recluse. I could afford to as I still had some money left over from my Arkanoid days, and those investments in that little Microsoft company were really paying off. Everybody soon forgot about me which was a blessing.
EG: Did you ever get bored of being so isolated?
RIGHT: A bit, but then I discovered Xbox live - which came as quite a shock. I never knew so many twelve-year olds knew my mother so intimately, she had never told me about this.
I was also confused as to why so many people were engaging in squats over my prone form after I ‘got fragged’? Was it their calisthenics leg day perchance? And one was very confused when the gamer folk criticised my camping technique. How could one be camping I asked, I am inside of my residence playing video games upon the Television. Surely If I were to be camping I would be outside?
After loosing 38 matches in a row in Halo 3 I enquired of my fellow on-line gamers how I might improve. Their response was ‘git gud’ which I still do not understand to this day.
I decided after a while that XBox live was not for me. However, I soon discovered a new pastime – freemium gaming. I had just purchased an iPad and saw an advert for Farmville. This is more my cup of tea I thought, a nice wholesome game about farming. I found it to be quite engaging. At one point I played it for 48 hours straight - that Mountain Dew beverage is marvellous for keeping one focused.
Within a few months I had the best farm in the world of Farmville. I must confess I was quite pleased with myself. I then took a look at my bank balance. It turns out I had spent $3 million on it. Those microtransactions really creep up on you.
I was not worried however. Ironically, the investments I had made in the ‘80s in a little company called Apple had paid dividends now that the iPhone and iPad were so successful. And wouldn’t you know it, the amount I spent on Farmville exactly equalled the dividend, so in some ways it was ‘free’ after all.
EG: Glad to hear it. So Left, you mentioned you had another job after the road marking gigs dried up?
LEFT: Yeah, I did. Although in a very odd way. Sometime in the early to mid ‘90s I developed BPS, ‘Blinking Pixel Syndrome’. I would basically turn invisible every half second or so, then become visible again.
EG: Did that hurt?
LEFT: Nah, just felt kinda numb when I blinked out, which was every other 0.5 seconds. I figured any chance of a career was over at that point. It wasn’t terminal. But it wasn’t curable either at the time. Weren’t no treatments neither, so I was stuck with it.
RIGHT: Ironically, it became his salvation.
LEFT: Yep. I was up in Bellevue Washington visiting some old friends and was in a coffee shop, blikin’ away but minding my own business when this dorky guy with glasses comes up to me.
Ah, crap, I thought, another autograph to sign from some fan, or someone asking “didn’t you used to be…?”
But no. He was offering me a job. He said he was in the tech industry and was creating a word publishing program. He was looking for something that would be easily noticeable on-screen but inobtrusive, and he felt that my BPS made me perfect for the role. I figured it was probably a scam, but he left me his card and asked me to call him in a few days if I wanted the job. Honestly, I wasn’t gonner bother at first. I had no idea who this ‘Bill Gates’ person was, or what the heck his company ‘Microsoft’ did, but after checking my bank balance I realised I had no choice.
EG: Hang on – Bill Gates of Microsoft offered you a job, just like that? What was the role?
LEFT: I was the writing cursor in MS word. Chances are you will be looking at my likeness when you type this up. I haven’t ever gone public with this before. How’s that for a scoop for ya?
EG: *MIND BLOWN* Erm, I notice you are not blinking now?
LEFT: No CENSORED Sherlock. I made a fortune from it. I got a new agent – a good one this time – and he negotiated a sweet royalties deal. Basically, I get paid a percentage of every sale of every MS program which used my likeness. Turns out this was pretty much all of ‘em. Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, Access, Publisher - back when that was a thing – even Internet Explorer! Before long I was rolling in so many Benjamins that I could afford the best experimental healthcare and got it cured.
EG: That’s amazing news! I’m so glad it worked out for you. You certainly look happier and healthier than you did in some of your earlier photos.
LEFT: Yeah. I’ve given up the party lifestyle. It’s all about fresh air and the great outdoors now. Of course, the 4K face lift I had done a few years back helps too. Not bad for a 66-year-old eh?
EG: Not bad at all. So, it looks like things have worked out well for you both. Any plans for the future?
RIGHT: I do actually. Retro mini-consoles appear to be selling very well at the moment. Retro nostalgia is big business. Since we started the whole video game phenomenon, who better to capitalise on it than us? So, Left, how would you like to join me in creating a retro mini-pong console?
LEFT: Great idea! We could get Soulja Boy to do our marketing…
RIGHT: I think I’m going to regret this…
I wrapped up the interview at this point and thanked them for their time and open honesty. They were still discussing business ideas when I left.
Edit: The Soulja-Pong-Boy Mini will be hitting the bargain bins of your local convenience store in December 2020.
Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to on-line multi-player. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at https://twitter.com/IainBaker17, and contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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