History of Consoles: Magnavox Odyssey (1972)

Console: Odyssey

Manufactured By: Magnavox

Year Released: 1972

Discontinued: 1975

Units Sold: 300,000

History:

When people think about the very first home video game console ever released, a lot of people may think of the Atari Pong.  It’s true that the Pong was a commercially successful home video game console, but the very first home video game console ever released was actually the Magnavox Odyssey, or what gamers now refer as the “Magnavox Odyssey 1”.

The Magnavox Odyssey was designed by Ralph Baer in the mid 1960’s, and in 1968 Ralph had finished the first prototype of the system that was simply called the “Brown Box”.  By August 1972 Magnavox released the Magnavox Odyssey in North America, and sales were slow.  Home video games back in the early 1970’s were a new concept, and Magnavox hurt themselves by having poor marketing inside retail stores.  Many consumers were under the impression that the Odyssey was only compatible with Magnavox TV brands only.

All said in done around 300,000 Odysseys were sold, and by 1975 Magnavox discontinued manufacturing the console.  Magnavox would continue manufacturing “Pong clones” (also under the Odyssey name), as well as the Odyssey 2 released in 1978.

Magnavox would go on to sue Atari, Coleco, and many other video game manufacturing companies because the Odyssey was the first to have the two paddles and ball game (more commonly known as Pong).  Magnavox over the next decade would either win or settle every suit.

System:

The Magnavox Odyssey is an oddly plastic shaped box with a dark plastic bottom, cream-white top, and a retro 1970’s wood grain trim.   On the front is a slot to plug in the cartridges (not to be confused with game cartridges), while on the back are the two controller plug-ins, a power plug-in, and two black knobs that can adjust the screen size and speed of the ball.  There is also an RF out connection that can hook up to the TV on the back of the console.  There is no power button on the Odyssey, and the Odyssey has no sound feature, though in 1973 Ralph proposed a sound extension device that was rejected by Magnavox.

 

Ralph Baer considers the Odyssey to be digital, even though most collectors would say it’s analog.  The games in today’s standards are very basic, and in most cases include only a ball and paddle(s) on screen.  There were eleven circuit board cards that were available for the console.  These circuit board cards were individually numbered, and when plugged into the front slot area would change the internal circuit board built in the console to slightly make each game different.  For example instead of two paddles on screen there may be four, or instead of one ball there may be two.  These circuit board cards are not considered game cartridges since they don’t hold any actual data information on them.

Controllers:

The Odyssey came with two very large size controllers. The controllers are also cream-white in color matching the console, and also have a wood grain finish on top.  There is a reset button on each controller to reset the game, and two circular knobs on each side to control the onscreen paddle.  The right knob is the vertical control, and controls the paddle to move up and down, while the left circular knob is the horizontal control, and controls the paddle moving left and right. There is an additional smaller circular knob on the left that adds “English” to the paddle that tilts the onscreen paddle slightly to change the angle.  (I find it very interesting that the consoles following the Odyssey for awhile would not include these extended controllers, but would rather have the controls build into the console itself.)

 

Peripherals:

The Odyssey was sold with translucent plastic overlays to add a sense of color and boarder to the game.  The problem with these plastic overlays was that they came in only two sizes, and were not compatible with different size TV’s during this time. This idea would later be used on other retro video game consoles including the GCE Vectrex released in 1982.  In addition to these plastic overlays, the console also included plastic poker chips, dice, and score card sheets. This was to make the console feel more like a traditional board game.

 

One of the coolest and rarest peripherals released for the Odyssey was the “light gun”.  This light gun looked more like a rifle and worked by detecting light from the screen.

The final peripheral that almost saw the light of day was a putting game.  This game had a golf ball fixed on top of a joystick, and the player would hit the ball using a putter which would then be detected in the game.  This idea interested Magnavox, but unfortunately  it was never was released

Personal Thoughts:

To me the Magnavox Odyssey is the “Grandfather of video game consoles”. It was the first in many things and helped inspire many other consoles that followed.  The light gun was way ahead of its time, and it’s really too bad that Magnavox didn’t market the console better, because I believe it would have sold stronger.

Top Games:

Considering there are only variations of the same game, I recommend the classic “Pong like” game.

Rarity (1-10):

On a scale of 1-10 and 10 being the rarest, I give the Magnavox Odyssey an 8 out of 10.  The Magnavox Odyssey isn’t rare by all means, and there are a lot of consoles available on sites like eBay on a regular basis.  The Odyssey is a bit harder to find in “the wild” at local retro gaming stores. Expect to pay $150 for a loose console with some accessories to $400+ for a complete in box console set.

Interesting Trivia:

  • The Brown Box prototype is now displayed Smithsonian Institution’s National History Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
  • Ralph Baer also went on to invent the famous Simon game for Mattel in 1978.
  • Ralph Baer back in the day also proposed the idea of “active cards” which would contain additional electronic components allowing more game features and even sound effects. The idea never did catch any interest from Magnavox surprisingly.
  • The Museum of the Moving Image in New York displays both some active cards and the putting game that Ralph ended up replicating.
  • The word “Magnavox” is Latin for “Great Voice”.
  • Card number “11” was never released, but was planned to be a basketball style game.
  •  Magnavox would continue the idea of accessories to make the console feel like a board game with  the Odyssey 2. Examples of games include “Conquest of the World”.
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About Gamester81

John "Gamester81" Lester started playing video games at a very young age. His first ever console that he played was a Colecovision, quickly followed by an Atari 2600, and his passion for video games hasn't stopped. In 2008 John decided to start a video game review show on YouTube called Gamester81 by reviewing rare and retro video game systems and games. His show quickly grew in popularity, and he became friends with many other gamers in the YouTube community. He is also one of the hosts of the All Gen Gamers Podcast which is a weekly podcast for for people and video games of all generations. Some of John's other hobbies includes collecting Star Wars memorabilia (YouTube channel Starwarsnut77), playing classic arcade games (YouTube channel Gamester81Arcade), watching sports, and listening to music. John is a big fan of the 80's and 90's and in 2009 started a YouTube channel called NEStalgiaholic where he talks about nostalgic items and memories from his childhood. To see some of John's video's in 3D visit his YouTube channel Gamester81in3D. Favorite Systems: Colecovision, Commodore 64, NES, & SNES. Favorite Games: Donkey Kong Arcade, Atari Star Wars Arcade, Super Mario 3, Final Fantasy II, & Goldeneye 007
  • Lmcgillpt

    I really like these reviews Gamester! Very informative and well written + the interesting trivia section. Keep it up.

  • Tom

    I had one of those Odyssey games as a kid. We taped the overlays to our B&W TV and played for hours and hours. I think it is still in my dad’s basement. I will have to swing by sometime and check it out.

    • Tom

      Oh yeah, we had the shotgun too. I used to point it at a lamp when my brother wasn’t looking. He couldn’t believe how accurate I was ;-)