Demonstrated in April 1972, and released in August that year, the Magnavox Odyssey holds the distinction of being the first commercial home video game console.
The Odyssey was designed by Ralph H. Baer, assisted by engineers William Harrison and William Rusch. They began around 1966 and had a working prototype finished by 1968. This prototype, known as the Brown Box (below), is now at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
The Magnavox Odyssey was powered by six C batteries, with an optional A/C power supply sold separately. The was packaged with dice, poker chips, and score sheets to help keep score. It also came with play money, and game boards much like a traditional board game. All this led to much confusion from consumers, unsure about the capabilities of the actual console.
It worked by using a removable printed circuit board, called a game card, which would be inserted into a slot - similar to a ROM cartridge slot, like the popular gaming consoles of the mid 70s to mid 90s used. However, these game cards did not contain any components, instead they had a series of "jumpers", simple electrical connections, between pins of the card connector. These jumpers would interconnect different logic and signal generators in the Odyssey to produce the desired game logic and screen output.
When it came to the output, there was no sound, but there was selection of translucent plastic overlays that players could put on their television screen to simulate color graphics - though only two TV sizes were supported. Some of these overlays could even be used with the same cartridges, though with different rules for playing.
The Magnavox Odyssey also featured the first ever commercial available peripheral - a light gun. Called The Shooting Gallery it sold separately, and unfortunately didn’t work very well! In addition, a prototype for a golf peripheral, featuring a golf ball on a joystick that the player would hit with a golf club, was tested but never released.
A total of 27 games (distributed over 12 different game cards) were released for the Magnavox Odyssey, which achieved close to 100,000 in game sales in 1972 alone. This number seems like a pretty impressive figure for new technology like this, but the actual console itself was considered a flop. This was largely down to the poor marketing and the apparent belief that you needed a Magnavox television to play the console on! This was something Atari (then called ‘Nolan Bushnell’) capitalised on by later stating on their Pong boxes, "Works on any television set, black and white or color."
After Pong was released and experienced huge success, Magnavox sued Nolan Bushnell for ripping off the Tennis game, which had been featured on the Odyssey Game Card 3. They later also sued Coleco, Mattel, Seeburg and Activision, and either won or settled every suit. Ralph Baer then went on to invent the classic electronic game Simon for Milton Bradley in 1978.
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