PlayThings: Magnavox Odyssey
How the first home videogame console is still more innovative than most things on the market now.
Bringing you the latest instalment in our Playthings news series, examining the fascinating stories behind the played videogame objects from our Playthings exhibition and beyond.
This object should delight anyone with an interest in ancient history (ahem). A personal favourite in our collection, the 1972 (1973 for us in the UK) Magnavox Odyssey is the grandfather of home video game consoles. The console was created by Ralph H. Baer, who had begun the designing process in 1966!
What initially stands out of the unit, is the wood. Lots and lots of wood. This panelling made the console feel instantly at home in the grainy 1970s decor. A deliberate choice to try to push this new ‘gaming’ technology into living rooms across the world.
Let’s take a step back into 1973, when the Magnavox Odyssey was released in the UK. The hair is long, the jeans are flared and the games we played at home were mainly of the ‘analogue’ variety. When the Odyssey arrived inside homes, it was no different. Inside the mammoth box, was a colossal package of the console, the controllers, the manual, 6 different games cards (containing 10 different games), multiple screen overlays for the different games, and the instructions for each game. It’s a far cry from what’s found in our new PS5 and Xbox Series X boxes!
Wait, did we just say screen overlays? Odd thing to come with a videogame console, right?
Due to technical limitations (this was the first home videogame machine, after all) the Odyssey could only display a very limited selection of white dots and lines on our TVs. Even then, creator Ralph Baer knew that wasn’t too exciting to look at, so they developed plastic overlays that stuck to the front of your TV screen via static electricity. These then provided the backdrops (or would you say a frondrop?) for each playable game.
The included Roulette game might just be white dot circling the screen, but with the overlay it suddenly became an in-home casino (and in colour, no less).
One particular favourite for political historian, is the ‘STATES’ game. Today we learnt that Idaho is a very strange shape…
Historically, the Magnavox Odyssey’s Tennis game was infamously very significant, as the creators of a little game called PONG had used is as very direct inspiration. This even led to a 1974 suit by Magnavox against Atari, Bally Midway, and other major amusement companies over both the game design and the programming methods used to create them. It constituted the emerging Videogame industry’s first major lawsuit due to copyright infringement.
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