Before Ogre Battle, there was… Battle Ping Pong? Sure, why not.

As we’ve seen, Game Boy had a certain way of inspiring unexpected greatness. Who ever would have thought that you could make an RPG-inspired side story to Ghosts ’N Goblins, let alone in black and white? And there was no reason whatsoever for Data East’s Game Boy remake of Lock ’N Chase to be anywhere near as good as it was. Yes, Game Boy could sometimes nudge great developers to transcend the limitations of the platform and produce truly memorable creations. That didn’t always happen, though. Sometimes, even the greats stumbled on Game Boy.

Such is the case with Battle Ping Pong, the Game Boy debut of one of the medium’s true legends: Quest. You may know Quest as the developer behind Ogre Battle, Tactics Ogre, and Final Fantasy Tactics — three of the all-time classics of the tactical role-playing genre. Before they locked down Yasumi Matsuno’s dense and complex turn-based strategy as their essential bread-and-butter, though, Quest went through a period of self-discovery that involved a few experimental projects well outside the role-playing realm. The best known of these are probably action platformer Conquest of the Crystal Palace for NES and the rare and quite pricey cutesy shoot-em-up Magical Chase for PC Engine. They also dabbled a bit in standard role-playing, with a Famicom Dungeon Crawler called Maharaja and a straight-up Dragon Quest clone called Musashi no Bouken.

The company was on the right track from more or less the beginning, but those early days still gave us a handful of weirdo releases that have nothing to do with the kinds of games you think of when you consider Quest’s legacy. Weirdos like Battle Ping Pong. Now, I’d like to be able to say this is secretly some prelude to the Ogre series — Ogre Battle Ping Pong — but, nah. It’s just a standard table tennis game, and a curiously limited one at that.

Battle Ping Pong appears to have been one of Quest’s very first releases. From what I understand, Quest spun out of, or was a renamed incarnation of, obscure Japanese publisher Bothtec. Bothtec didn’t make any waves outside of Japan during its existence. Its releases tended to be for Japan-only platforms like the MSX, or else were so specific to Japanese interests as to be unreleasable anywhere else. Probably the most interesting games the company had a hand in were two clunky Metroidvanias: Relics for MSX and Famicom Disk System, and The Scheme for PC88. Neither is particularly amazing, but The Scheme does demonstrate how tiny the world of video games can be. Its developer was Onion Soft, the company responsible for Hong Kong, and its music was composed by none other than chiptune god Yuzo Koshiro. So there’s that.

It appears Quest had developed the Famicom version of the first entry in the long-running Daisenryaku military strategy series in 1988, which was then published by Bothtec. At this point, Bothtec’s name largely vanishes after a lively three-year run, replaced by Quest. Quest published several games under its new name in August 1990, including Conquest of the Crystal Palace and, yes, Battle Ping Pong. These early Quest titles are a bit hit-or-miss, with Battle Ping Pong in particular falling closer to the “miss” column, but all of them demonstrate a newfound level of visual polish lacking in the Bothtec catalogue.

Even if the games themselves would take a while to become truly exceptional, Quest seemed determined to hold themselves to a higher standard. And for all Battle Ping Pong’s shortcomings as a sports game, it looks pretty incredible. There’s only so much you can do the concept of a head-to-head competitive ball game, and we’ve already seen two attempts on Game Boy so far. Besides Nintendo’s Tennis, we also had Penguin Wars. Quest’s entry turns out to be even more simplistic, mechanically speaking, than either of those other two works. But wow, does it have some excellent animation and graphics.

Battle Ping-Pong brings the action in close with a relatively low angle on the ping-pong table. This allows your opponents to look excellent — they’re rendered big, chunky, expressive sprites that encompass a wide variety of cheap ethnic stereotypes, but stylishly so. Meanwhile, the player isn’t actually represented within the game as a character. Instead, you literally control a disembodied ping-pong paddle. This seems a little weird at first, but it works to the game’s favor. With no clunky sprite to obscure the playing field, you never have to worry about the ball getting lost behind your on-screen avatar.

In motion, the game looks surprisingly good. Your possessed paddle moves smoothly through several angles of motion, and opponent sprites have a few different animations, including some small tells when they’re about to do something annoying. Meanwhile, the ball itself moves gracefully, leaving an Alucard-like trail behind it. This is a trick we haven’t really seen on Game Boy before, but it’s a smart one: One the system’s slow, passive-matrix screen, it’s easy for small, fast-moving objects like balls to become lost. The glowing ball trail makes it easy to keep your eye on the ball, and it also shows off Quest’s commitment to technical excellence. The reversed-out ball trail is a nifty raster effect designed specifically as an answer to the system’s inherently flawed screen by exploiting the nature of the screen: It was slow to redraw moving objects, so Battle Ping Pong draws your eye to the moving object by leaving an “imprint” of it.

This is also the second game to use the Game Boy’s slow screen refresh rate to create the illusion of more complex graphics by flashing alternating frames. We saw this technique in Serpent, but here’s Quest uses it for something more complex than creating a fifth shade of grey. Instead, Battle Ping Pong flashes two different animated, intersecting images in its alternating frames to create an impression of transparency. It’s a cool effect on actual Game Boy screens, but on devices without LCD screen refresh lag — like, say, Super Game Boy capture footage on YouTube — it’s a visual nightmare that probably merits a seizure warning.

So that’s the good part of Battle Ping Pong. Now for the bad: Namely, it’s incredibly limited and ultimately quite tedious.

By far the strangest creative choice Quest made for Battle Ping Pong has to do with the player’s controls… namely, there’s very little actual control. Your paddle really does feel like it’s possessed by some sort of poltergeist, as it floats about the screen in response to the movement of the ball outside of your control. You can’t actually determine the movement of the paddle, which means Battle Ping Pong’s table tennis action literally boils down to hitting the ball when it comes into range. Unlike every other tennis-inspired game released since Pong nearly 20 years prior, Battle Ping Pong doesn’t require players to move laterally to defend their side of the court. 

So what does the D-pad do? Not much, really. You can alternate the hand that holds your paddle, which appears to have some minor effect on the ball’s movement… but not much. According to the internet’s lone F.A.Q. for Battle Ping Pong, pressing the D-pad as you hit the ball also affects its movement, causing it to fly high or veer to the side. In practice, I haven’t actually found this to be true. The behavior of the ball once you return it seems to be determined by when you hit the ball, not what you’re doing at the time.

The one influence I do seem to be able to exert over the ball is making it slice quickly by pressing up when I connect. Against lower-level opponents, this is a good way to respond to a high, lazy ball, as they tend to miss a strong return or else whiff it and hit the net. Mostly, though, play in Battle Ping Pong ultimately just boils down to hitting the ball back at your opponent and waiting for them to screw up, which involves seemingly endless volleys. The game isn’t hard once you learn the trick — despite the fancy glowing ball trail, it’s best to keep your eye on the ball’s shadow rather than the ball itself — but it takes quite a while for the A.I. to whiff a return.

Each game consists of best-of-three match play, and each match seems to take about 10 minutes to complete. So if you lose once and have to play a full three-set match, we’re talking half an hour per opponent.

Maybe there’s some technique I’m missing here that allows you to exert more influence over the ball, but as far as my experience with Battle Ping Pong goes, the game literally just consists of you reacting to the computer A.I. until it makes a mistake. It’s a great-looking game, but game beneath the flash doesn’t live up the graphical finesse.

Quest would make only one further Game Boy title throughout the years, not counting Micro Cabin’s Game Boy Color conversion of Magical Chase, so maybe the studio recognized that the system didn’t really suit their style. This makes Battle Ping Pong an odd little blip in video game history — an interesting footnote to the arc of a company that would create some of the greatest role-playing adventures of all time.