Before there was Atari, before there was even Pong, there was the Odyssey. We take it for granted now, of course, but try to remember there was once a time when nobody even thought about playing games on a home television screen.
Computer labs had been buzzing with prototype video games since the 1960s, but the greater public hadn’t even heard the term ‘video game’. With a system called Odyssey, engineer Ralph Baer (later the creator of Milton Bradley’s memory game Simon) set in motion the ideas that would lead to Atari, Nintendo, Sega, PlayStation and beyond.
Baer and his fellow engineers had been working on his home video game idea since 1966, but it wasn’t until 1971 that Magnavox decided to fund and release his creation. The original Odyssey system (aka the Odyssey 100) hit the market the following year.
Baer’s prototype system had included everything from colour graphics to a light gun, but the cost of the game’s electronics forced a few sacrifices. The black and white game system had limited memory (not even enough to keep score) and each game came accompanied by a mylar overlay for the TV screen, showing the graphics that the Odyssey wasn’t able to create.
Games were played with a box-like controller, with separate knobs for vertical movement, horizontal movement, and a spin control on top (useful for diverting the ball in a close game of Tennis). Most games focused on established sports – Tennis, Hockey, Table Tennis, Football, Skiing – but the Odyssey also branched out into other genres with games like Submarine, Roulette and Cat and Mouse.
Baer’s light gun even re-emerged as an add-on: the Shooting Gallery Electronic Rifle.
Initial sales were brisk, but the outbreak of Pong and its many clones sent Odyssey off the market before its time. Thanks to the Odyssey’s string of patents, the machine kept the dollars rolling in through license fees and lawsuits (among other things, over Pong’s similarity to one of Baer’s original games), but that wasn’t helping the kids get their game fix.
In 1978, hot on the heels of the Atari VCS (later dubbed the 2600), Magnavox unveiled the Odyssey².
The graphics may not have been as impressive as the Atari’s, but the Odyssey² added an alpha-numeric keyboard on the console for expanded control options.
The games ranged from sports (Computer Golf, Hockey/Soccer, Baseball) to arcade action (a Space Invaders clone called Alien Invaders Plus, the shootout game Showdown in 2100 A.D.) to educational (Math-a-Magic/Echo, Matchmaker/Buzzword/Logix) to the three-game pack-in cartridge, Speedway/Spinout/Cryptologic.
The Odyssey² did fairly well, but it was no Atari. Things started to change with the 1981 release of K.C. Munchkin, a Pac-Man-style game with a few twists: namely, the edible dots actually moved. The changes weren’t enough to soothe Atari, who had the home system license to the real deal, so the company sued. Atari won on appeal, forcing K.C. Munchkin’s removal from store shelves, but it had already become the most popular title on the upstart system.
More innovations came around the same time, most notably the optional speech synthesizer, The Voice.
Plugged into the cartridge slot, The Voice not only added speech and new sound effects to Odyssey² games (Attack of the Timelord now taunted you, for example), it could speak any word you typed onto the keyboard (not always accurately, but it tried really hard).
Magnavox also tried to boost sales with its Master Strategy Series – elaborate games with expanded memory and all the trimmings, and the new series produced a new favourite in Quest for the Rings – a sprawling Dungeons & Dragons-style quest with selectable player types, hordes of monsters, and even a separate gameboard and game pieces- but it wasn’t enough to compensate for coming events.
The market turned sour for all video games around 1983, and despite the promise of a new Odyssey³, Magnavox gave up its video game arm.
The Odyssey³ found a very limited distribution in Europe, but the entire Odyssey series quickly fell into obscurity.