07 October 1997
System Spotlight: Magnavox Odyssey (originally for Suite 101)
[Suite 101 articles introduction]
This is the first in an irregular series I'll be doing. Every so often (when I can't think of anything else to write about), I'll give some history and Web sites for a specific system. For the first spotlight, I've decided to honor the one that started it all: the original Magnavox Odyssey. You might also see it referred to as the Odyssey 1 (to differentiate it from the other Odyssey systems) or, incorrectly, the Odyssey 100. The Odyssey 100 was actually one of several dedicated, pong-type systems Magnavox released in the mid-1970s.
Ralph Baer of Sanders Associates developed the system that would become the Odyssey from 1966 to 1967. Although he began trying to sell it to a larger company in 1968, it was not until 1970 that Magnavox bought the rights. In January 1972, they began production and presented the system in May of that year. Magnavox sold 100,000 units in 1972, but discontinued the system by the end of 1973.1
The Odyssey used traditional, full-sized components because Intel had just released the first microprocessor in 1971 and they were still incredibly expensive. It was not a sophisticated system, even by Atari 2600 standards. The system was programmable, but the game cards were merely jumpers that completed various connections. There were no electrical components on them and the system was packaged with six different ones.
The Odyssey was only capable of displaying a vertical line and three squares (two players and a ball) in black and white. In order to add the illusion of color, an overlay was included for each game. These translucent overlays were simply taped to the screen to provide a playfield that the screen objects shone through. For example, the tennis overlay was green with tennis court lines and two stick figures for players. Each game actually included two overlays, one small and one large, for different size TV screens.
The Odyssey came with two large controllers. Each had three knobs and a button. The button served the ball. Two of the knobs controlled horizontal and vertical movement, while the third allowed the last player that touched the ball limited control over its movement. As you can imagine, these three controls made Magnavox's tennis was a bit more challenging than what would become standard "pong." The system also came with several games, some of which relied more on board game components than video ones. These components included dice, poker chips, a United States map, a cardboard football field, and lots of cards. Magnavox also released a separate light rifle and two game cards for shooting games. Besides these, Magnavox also released some additional games. Some of these contained new game cards, but many simply used one or more of the original six game cards and added new overlays and playing pieces.
Most collectors treasure this system when they find it because it was the first. For a while, the system seemed rather rare, but in recent years it seems more and more collectors are finding them. I have found three in various states of completeness, myself. Although you won't spend a lot of time playing it, it's certainly a nice piece of history to add to your collection.
I'm afraid there is a lack of sites covering the Magnavox Odyssey in detail. The one I recommend is Inherent Mirth. Check it out!
1. This information was taken from Phoenix: The Fall and Rise of Videogames, second edition by Leonard Herman (Rolenta Press, ISBN 0-9643848-2-5). Look for a review next month!
Copyright 1997 i5ive communications inc. Used with permission.
[2013-04-29: If I had to recommend a Mangavox Odyssey site today, it would be Pong Story. That footnote was linked in the original article, but Blogger doesn't seem to provide an adequate way of doing that.]