While Nintendo and Atari generally get the lion’s share of attention from video game historians and retro enthusiasts, the beginning of the home game console phenomenon started earlier. In 1972, Magnavox released the first home console, the Odyssey, a $99.95 system that resembled nothing so much as a home appliance and included 12 primitive games without sound or color. It was nonetheless a necessary first step in the evolution of home gaming. Check out some facts about the Odyssey’s peculiar approach to graphics, its accessories, and why it was part board game.
1. The Magnavox Odyssey pre-dated Pong.
Months before Atari released the first arcade video game, the tennis-inspired Pong, Magnavox released the Odyssey, a home console with two controllers and games programmed on cards. Magnavox licensed the Odyssey from Ralph Baer, an engineer who had spent five years designing a “game box” that he and employers Sanders Associates patented. Baer had actually been thinking of playing games on televisions as far back as 1951, though few thought the idea had any potential. Later, Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell saw an early version of an Odyssey tennis-style game, which may have inspired Pong. Sanders Associates and Magnavox successfully sued Atari, though in truth Baer and the companies saw any kind of video game an infringement on the patent and later sued manufacturers like Nintendo, often winning. Baer later invented the Simon interactive tabletop game.
2. The Magnavox Odyssey was powered by batteries.
While there was an optional AC power cord available for purchase separately, Magnavox expected that most consumers would power the Odyssey using six C batteries that were included with the system.
3. The Magnavox Odyssey used plastic overlays instead of graphics.
The Odyssey was incapable of rendering complex graphics; instead, it used two bars of light manipulated by the controllers, and backgrounds were left up to the included plastic overlays. If a player wanted to play football, for example, they would tape the appropriate plastic over their television set, which was held in place against the screen with static electricity. There were also scenes for games like Ski, Haunted House, Submarine, Simon Sez, and Baseball, among others.
4. The Magnavox Odyssey was part board game.
Possibly feeling as though consumers might want more conventional methods of play, Magnavox included a number of odd accessories with the Odyssey. The system came with dice, a card deck, play money, and poker chips that could be used with some of the games.
5. Some Magnavox Odyssey games were meant to be educational.
Possibly anticipating some parental complaints, Magnavox included at least one educational game with the Odyssey. In States, an overlay of a map of the United States was placed over the television, with states lighting up one at a time. Players were expected to guess which state was being identified. The company also claimed the games would improve motor skills.
6. The Magnavox Odyssey had a light gun.
While the Nintendo Entertainment System’s Zapper and Duck Hunt game may have been the highest-profile light gun accessory for a home system, it wasn’t the first. The Odyssey had a rifle sold under the name Shooting Gallery that allowed players to pick off targets on their televisions.
7. Consumers thought the Magnavox Odyssey might only work with Magnavox televisions.
Before the wave of consumer electronics in the late '70s and 1980s—VCRs, game systems, and more—consumers weren’t as savvy about how devices could connect to their sets. Magnavox sold just 350,000 Odyssey units, in part because some prospective buyers who owned sets from competing manufacturers assumed it would only work with Magnavox TVs. (In fact, it worked with any television via a connection with the VHF antenna terminals.) Such marketing blunders are believed to be the reason the Odyssey ultimately failed to catch on with consumers.
8. The Magnavox Odyssey was resurrected by the University of Pittsburgh.
In 2019, the Vibrant Media Lab at the University of Pittsburgh demonstrated a re-engineered version of the Odyssey that was up and running for the general public to play, both at a live event and online. This was challenging, as the Odyssey, which was built with analog circuits, can’t easily be emulated. The goal was to remind people that the Odyssey was a key step in the progression of home game systems.