Read the manual here:
Magnavox Odyssey, the first video game console, is a strange little toy. Normally I’m not really concerned with “firsts” in video games unless it also set a direct precedent or influence. The Odyssey was a video game system that output to the TV, had controllers, used changeable cartridges of a sort, and even supported a light gun peripheral, but I would like to think that if it hadn’t existed, all of these innovations would have been self-evident to later console manufacturers, and would have become mainstream ideas in about the same time and manner as they did. There’s precedent for all of them; Computer Space already output to a TV, the Spacewar engineers built corded controllers to ease gameplay, light guns had existed in electromechanical arcade games since the 30’s, and cartridges seem like a logical extension of punch cards. If Ralph Baer hadn’t been the first to translate these ideas into a home video gaming format, I have to imagine someone else might have been the first.
I wouldn’t be discussing any of this, except for the fact that this is a clear precedent to Pong. The Odyssey can draw two paddles, one ball, and a vertical line on the screen. The game cartridges do little more than turn some of these things on and off, and don’t actually contain any data. The default game, Table Tennis, uses every part of the system, and formed the basis for the idea behind Pong.
Using OdySim, a friend and I tried out two of the games, Table Tennis and Tennis.
I once thought Pong was irreducibly primitive. Table Tennis shows that I was wrong. Two paddles hit a ball back and forth across the screen. Each controller has three dials and a reset button. Two dials control the horizontal and vertical positions of your paddle, a third dial controls “English,” and the reset button serves the ball. Hitting the ball with your paddle simply bounces it back toward your opponent in a straight line; it does not bounce back at an angle as in Pong. Instead, your English dial controls the ball’s vertical position for as long as your paddle was the last to hit it. You can make the ball sine wave its way across the screen by spinning the dial back and forth rapidly. Through no fault of the console itself, the emulator controls are very cumbersome; gamepads don’t seem to be supported, and both players have to hunch over a cramped keyboard, sharing 14 buttons (two per three dials for each player, plus two reset buttons).
Limitations that are of the console itself are that you have to keep score yourself, and for the most part enforce the rules yourself. There’s nothing stopping you from moving your paddle past the net. If the ball goes off any side of the screen, it’s gone – no ricocheting like in Pong, and you have to reset the console to serve it again. In less than ten minutes we just got bored of the game and moved on.
Tennis adds graphics in the form of a plastic overlay on the screen representing a court. Although it uses a different cartridge from Table Tennis, we couldn’t figure out anything different about it in terms of game programming. The manual states that the serve has to “land” in the service box to be any good – it’s far from clear what that actually means since the ball isn’t “landing” anywhere, but I assume it means the ball must pass through the service box or else the point is forfeit. In either game, the strategy just seems to be to use English to slip the ball past your opponent’s paddle. Scoring is supposed to be done Tennis style, 30-Love and all that, but we just didn’t see the point in playing a full match.
I briefly looked at other games descriptions in the manual, but had no desire whatsoever to play them. Among them are:
- A comically overcomplicated Football game that uses two cartridges (who knew that Ralph Baer also invented Stop & Swop?), a game board, a TV overlay, four decks of cards, several tokens, and six pages of confusing instructions that leave me unclear on how the TV and console are even involved in playing.
- Hockey, another Table Tennis-like game. It uses the same cartridge as Tennis, but the instructions and rules are baffling, and since this is the Odyssey it’s up to the players to know and enforce the rules.
- Multiple racing games where a plastic overlay shows the course you must follow, and you "race" by maneuvering the paddle across the path, and have to manually time yourself and penalize yourself for veering off track.
- Submarine, a game where one paddle represents a convoy that must follow a long and winding sea lane, and the other player serves balls which represent torpedoes, and tries to sink the convoy by steering a torpedo into it using the English dial.
- Cat and Mouse, a game with a maze overlay where the paddles represent a cat and a mouse, and one player must move the mouse paddle to an exit while the player with the cat paddle tries to catch the mouse.
- Multiple board games played with dice and tokens, the only difference that the board is a plastic overlay on your TV and the paddles represent game pieces.
- A Roulette game that involves poker chips, play money, a betting board, a wheel overlay on the TV, and a player selected to be the croupier "spins" the wheel by spinning the controller dials blindfolded to determine where on the wheel the paddle winds up.
With all due respect to Ralph Baer, this early console just doesn’t seem like more than a footnote in the history of gaming. The system doesn’t do much, what it does isn’t much fun, the majority of its games might as well have just been board games, and they don't even look like they'd have been particularly good board games for the time. Youtube reviewers almost unanimously praise it, but I haven’t found a single video that comprehensively describes gameplay, and most just seem confused about how anything works.