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Issue #1: Retrospeculating: The Magnavox Odyssey

So we begin, dear readers. We have the pleasure of introducing what will hopefully become a regular series of articles called “Retrospeculating,” where we will look at different consoles both big and small from the beginning of home video games to the present day.  We will talk about the significance of each system and speculate on what could have happened if circumstances had been different. The series will be put out twice a month and released on Sundays. Without further ado lets jump into the thick of it!

There are many debates amongst some fans of the industry about when video games started or what was the first video game. Luckily we are going to ignore that and stick to the relatively narrow fields of home console systems and later handheld systems. In that case the starting point is an undisputed one.

Almost 50 years ago Ralph Baer finally had someone help him make his idea come to life. That idea was the ability to play games on a television set. Under a company known as Sanders, he and two other engineers named Bill Harrison and Bill Rusch came up with a prototype originally called “TV Game Unit #7,” (presumably the 7th version of the prototype otherwise the illuminati is hiding something) but it became known by its nickname “The Brown Box.” It was called that due to a wood grain veneer that was put on the system to make it more attractive to potential investors.

                                                        Z0049414                                                                                           The Brown Box with instructions on its swtich positions 

The system was shown off to many different companies but was finally licensed by Sanders to Magnavox in 1971. This led directly to the creation of the Magnavox Odyssey.

Along with some help from Baer who in an interview admitted he helped against Sanders upper management’s advice (in the same interview he clarifies contrary to popular belief that the system was digital and not analog) the Odyssey was released to the public in August 1972. That was 3 years before Atari’s first systems hit the market and 5 years before the famed 2600.

The Odyssey, like its prototype and many successors, was a simple pong machine. The system did not have a CPU and was composed of 40 diodes and 40 transistors that communicated with ball, player, and sync generators. The screen was in black and white, the only moving objects were the two players and the ball, and the only other onscreen piece was the center line. In addition the system could not track the score and had no sound.

Despite these limitations Magnavox had several different cartridges for the system to play different games which were used with overlays and paper rules/scoresheets sold with the system. This meant that a lot of games were board games on a TV. These overlays and accessories are considered pretty rare and sought after by collectors.

                                                        2514581-odyssey1_boxend2                                                                                Overlays that came with the system displayed on the Odyssey’s box.

The most famous accessory was the first video game light gun that came with a group of games known as the “Odyssey Shooting Gallery.” Baer is also credited for creating light guns in video games during his work on The Brown Box. This is the second huge impact the system had as it introduced the idea of a light gun to the public that would become so popular over a decade later. It is also the most realistic looking light gun you will find that is not modded.

                                                        DSCN0805                                                                                                       Use with caution around rednecks and police!

The Magnavox Odyssey was very successful for being a unique item at the time. The original price was $99.95 but was reduced to $79 as soon as 1973.  In the first year it is estimated that out of 100,000 systems produced 80,000 were sold. Despite this it could not be considered a huge commercial success as the total number of systems sold is thought to be between 200,000 and 300,000 by the time it was discontinued in 1975.

There isn’t too much speculation in this particular article because the only other possibility of the Odyssey’s legacy besides the billion dollar industry (and the not so billion dollar industry of The Games Cabin) would be the that the video game market would not have come to be or would have been so small it would be insignificant (like Vita sales and games, right Chris?)

The Odyssey spawned the video game industry that exists today and inspired many other systems that copied its multiple controller and multiple-program design which became a staple of home consoles.  Its most famous accessory was the first of its kind and led to an entire sub-genre of light gun games that has a dedicated following to this day. This system  and its creator are the ones to thank for opening the door to all the great experiences we have been able to enjoy playing games. Ralph Baer certainly earned his title as “The Father of Video Games.”

We have to know where we have been to know where we are going! Next time we will move forward to discuss Atari and it’s own entry into gaming. Especially the famous 2600!

Got any systems you want to see come up on Retrospeculation? Any fond memories of playing a Magnavox Odyssey? Did we get something wrong in this article? Leave a comment down below!

                                                                                     rhb3a                                                                                      In memory of Ralph Baer who passed away December 6th 2014. We will                                                  carry your dream with us. Thank you.