Monday, July 16, 2018

Game 3: Magnavox Odyssey

Play Odyssey games with OdySim, games downloadable here:

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.


  1. The Odyssey is fairly neat, but it's very hard to get a good impression of it via OdySim, which doesn't really work right for any of the games. Most of the games suffer terribly from having their dial controllers translated into simple buttons, particularly the games that require you to follow wavering on-screen paths. Others suffer from plain broken mechanics (like Roulette, which requires moving an on-screen "spawn point", and Brain Wave, which requires aiming the English prior to making a "shot", both functions that don't work at all), overlays that lack the required transparent areas the gameplay requires (Haunted House), games that require cards and other external material that's "supported" through some randomizer that will diplay a random card no matter what the rules intended for you to do with the cards (Percepts). It's an interesting effort, but it's really not a way to get the feel for how these games actually play on a real system. Even the simplistic Table Tennis game works so much better when played with actual 360 degree movement and controllable speed.

    1. Here's a quick rundown of the various games you missed ut on, though:
      Table Tennis: As you said, it's essentially Pong's more primitive ancestor. Plays fine with proper controls, but is a good demonstration of why Pong and most of its ripoffs had the more simplified control scheme it did.
      Tennis: It's Table Tennis with a few extra rules that end up mattering extremely little. Practically the same game.
      Ice Hockey: The instructions are poorly written and very confusing, but after we worked them out, we found this to be one of the better games. It's essentially Table Tennis/Tennis without the net, and with a few extra rules regarding how you're allowed to shoot, but it plays well and actually feels more like a next generation Pong than a primitive ancestor.
      Cat and Mouse: Fairly standard chase game. Since the blocks you're not supposed to touch only exist on the overlay, the small space between them feels like pretty poor design, and the only remotely interesting thing the game does is score the "mouse" based on exactly which square he died in. It works, but isn't too interesting.
      Football: Basically a Football board/card game, except it uses the Odyssey to let you perform plays instead of just determining them with dice. Actually very fun if you like this type of game, the Odyssey adds an element of skill to the mix.
      Ski: Basically a test to see how good your control of the player square is by seeing how fast you can navigate a course. Surprisingly fun.
      States: Quiz game that uses the Odyssey as a semi-randomizer. Made interesting from how the player has some rough control over which state will be landed on. Not being American, the subject matter wasn't really our thing, but that's not the game's fault. The lack of questions means you probably won't play it more than once, though.
      Roulette: Basically States except you bet on where the "ball" will land. Again, made interesting due how you have some rough control over the "ball". We had more fun with this than with States.
      Haunted House: Essentially Ski without the time limit, but with a largely invisible course. Has some unnecessary gimmicks and is mostly determined by which card you randomly draw at the end. Ski is the better variant.
      Analogic: Claims to be a math game, but the only math involved is knowing that two odd or two even numbers add up to an even number, while one of each add up to an odd number, so it's really about plotting a route in advance. Requires some vague ball control that gives your opponent an advantage if you mess up, but feels kinda pointless otherwise and could just as well be played on a piece of paper.
      Submarine: It's Ski with a better understanding of your location, but with the other player shotting at you. We found it completely impossible to avoid torpedos and mines regularly enough to score a single point. Feels poorly thought out.
      Simon Says: A third person draws a card and the other two players race their dots to the location he read up, unless he didn't say Simon Says first. Clearly not meant to be entertaining for adults, and wasn't either.

      Ice Hockey, Ski and Roulette are all genuinely pretty entertaining, and worth giving a try if you
      get the chance to use a real Odyssey some day. Neither game work in OdySim at all, though.

    2. Clearly you enjoyed this system a lot more than I enjoyed the simulation of it. Might I encourage you to publish a detailed write-up on it? That comment alone was by far the most informative thing I've seen concerning the experience of playing real hardware. Working units seem to be pretty rare, and Internet reviewers who even bothered to understand how the games are played or get a friend to play them with seem to be even rarer.

    3. Unfortunately I don't have my own unit, a friend had one, and the above is based on a play session we did years ago.
      I'd recommend checking out Chronogamer, though, he did detailed reviews of all the Odyssey games (plus literally every other console game released between 1972 and 1979), including the ones my friend didn't have.

      I agree it's a shame that pretty much every gameplay video and review of 1970s console games you find online, many of which are 2-player-only, are done by one guy trying to vaguely demonstrate the gameplay by controlling both players at once, though. You're doing a great service with these multiplayer 2600 videos.

    4. Speaking of which - do you have the games in the Master Strategy franchise on your master list (Quest For The Rings, Conquest of the World and The Great Wall Street Fortune Hunt)? That's a series the Internet is sorely lacking proper reviews of.

    5. My master list does not have those, or any other Odyssey 2 games. Don't expect to see many underserved or obscure titles there.

    6. Yeah, I had a feeling, just had a vague hope due to all the positive press Quest For The Rings got back in the day, hailing it as the future of video games and whatnot. They're very fascinating games.

  2. I just found your blog; I love Moby Dick and CRPG Addict so I'm looking forward to catching up.

    AVGN (Angry Video Game Nerd) did a video where he plays all the Odyssey games; it has an annoying side character with a lot of scatological jokes but it does show all the games.

    1. Welcome!

      Framerater just did a video on it, taking a look at all 28 games, and seems to be about as in-depth a look as available. Even so, I still didn't understand how most of the games work.

      Games start at 11:20.


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