Today in Tedium: The Magnavox Odyssey is one of the most important video game consoles ever made, mainly because it was a real commercial home video game console. It proved the market—and allowed other companies to jump into the video game market—and Ralph Baer became an icon of the gaming industry as a result. But while it had a significant successor in the form of the Magnavox Odyssey², a successful device that was nonetheless completely overshadowed in the market by Atari, less discussed is the fact that a third Odyssey console was in the works around the time of the video game crash—and actually came out in Europe, where the Odyssey² found an audience under a different name. Today’s Tedium talks about the legacy of the Odyssey², and the sequel that was meant to be, but that few of us actually got to see. — Ernie @ Tedium
Today’s GIF comes from a promotional video of the never-released Odyssey³.
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The speed of the Intel 8048, the processor the Odyssey² used, in PAL-based regions in Europe. (In NTSC-based countries, the speed is closer to 5.37 MHz, a 10 percent difference which likely helps a little with the fact that PAL displays have a lower refresh rate than NTSC displays do.) It is the first video game console to ship with an Intel chip, something that has been historically very rare, and happened in part because Intel supplied many other chips to Philips at the time. To give you an idea of how rare it is—the next non-Odyssey console to ship with an Intel chip was the 286-based Tandy VIS in 1992. The next successful one was the original Xbox, more than 20 years after the release of the Odyssey².
The fateful meeting that saved the Odyssey², and the conglomerate that gave it a global presence
In many ways, the Odyssey², despite representing the continuation of the first home video game console, was something of an also-ran to the market, emerging nearly two years after the Atari VCS helped grow out the market and quickly being overshadowed by both Atari and its eventual competitor, the Mattel Intellivision.
And while Magnavox may have been the name behind the original Odyssey’s reign, it was the firm’s parent company that may have had deeper influence on what consumers ended up seeing.
Koninklijke Philips N.V., the Dutch conglomerate commonly shortened to Philips, had gained a long reputation in consumer electronics even before it had purchased Magnavox in 1974, just two years after the Odyssey’s release, having developed, for example, the technology behind the compact cassette—itself a key part of computing.
Despite this growing reputation as an electronics firm on the rise, Philips was relatively unknown in the U.S. market before the 1980s or so, utilizing a house brand, Norelco (North American Philips electrical Company) to sell to the masses instead.
Why was this? Simply put, another manufacturer with a similar name forced obfuscation. Philco (Philadelphia Battery Company), a company that was formed just a year after Philips was but didn’t gain its best-known name until 1919. Philco had a record of innovation of its own, inventing the rectifier tube, which allowed radios to be charged using electrical outlets, and was essentially in the same market as Magnavox by the 1960s—that is, televisions.
So essentially, Philips, despite being a technical powerhouse that had developed both the compact cassette and the laserdisc, was unable to properly brand its products in the U.S. This eventually forced two solutions to this problem, both corporate in nature—first, they bought Magnavox, a manufacturer that had an existing reputation in electronics, and later, they bought out Philco proper, acquiring it from GTE in the early 1980s. Yes, that’s right, they bought a large competitor partly for the name.
The Odyssey² was just one product Magnavox sold during its post-acquisition period, but it had a problematic and troubled history, despite the influence of Ralph Baer, who worked on the original Odyssey system through his employer Sanders Associates.
The device was first announced in 1977, but Baer noted that in the summer of 1977, Magnavox was almost ready to shut down the project—until he stepped in and presented the case that the company was making a big mistake in cutting off the Odyssey². According to his memoir Videogames: In the Beginning, he could point to Sanders’ success in working on home video game projects with Coleco as a reason why the system had potential.
“Using the details of this account to establish my credentials,” Baer wrote, “I argued that the Odyssey² had a good shot at becoming a successful product and urged John Fauth, a senior VP at Magnavox, to turn the Odyssey² development program back on immediately.”
The case proved successful despite cautious optimism on Magnavox’s end, but after Baer was given a chance to look at the hardware in action, he found the final result deeply impressive.
While Baer is the first to admit the Odyssey² didn’t quite live up to the expectations in the U.S., he did note that it was still successful, particularly thanks to the European market. The Odyssey², in rebranded form as the Philips Videopac G7000 in Europe, got to leverage the strength of the Philips name outside of the United States. (It was also a big hit in Brazil, a market which I’ve noted in the past didn’t always follow the same beats as the American and Japanese markets.)
“Then again, the number of Odyssey² game systems that reached the public might have been a big fat zero if I hadn’t stuck my finger in the dyke in 1977,” he wrote, a seeming reference to Philips’ Dutch home base. “And for all those Odyssey² enthusiasts worldwide, life would never have been the same.”
It was life-changing, but not life-changing enough for an Odyssey³ to see release.
A commercial for Quest for the Rings, perhaps the most inventive use of the Odyssey² hardware.
Five things you didn’t know about the Odyssey² because it was before your time
- It was technically a computer! The device came with a built-in keyboard, allowing it to be used for computer-like tasks. (It was a membrane keyboard, unfortunately, so you probably would not want to write a novel on it.) No keyboard component needed for this device, and in the European market, there was even a version of the device sold with a built-in monitor.
- Most of its game titles had exclamation points! Of the 47 titles Magnavox released in the U.S., 44 of them had exclamation points in the title, which sounds like a copy-editor’s nightmare. Unlike the competing Atari VCS/2600, only a few titles for the console were released by third parties, with most of them being Parker Bros.-produced ports of arcade games like Frogger and Popeye. But because of this lack of licensing, nearly all of its games are basically forgotten today. (Which is a bit sad, given the fact that the games were primarily developed by one guy, Ed Averett, a former Intel employee and huge supporter of the console who bet his career on getting Magnavox and Philips to sell it.)
- It leaned heavily on games with a board-game element! The console, underpowered even compared to the Atari VCS, needed a little In an effort get some mojo in the home video game market, Magnavox decided to create a series of titles with a physical board game element. The best-known of these is Quest for the Rings, a game that borrowed more than a little from trending fantasy culture of the era such as Dungeons & Dragons and Lord of the Rings.
- It needed an external processor to be capable of playing chess! In the chess-crazy European market, Philips actually released a device called the Videopac C7010 that did nothing, essentially, besides add an extra processor so the computer was capable of playing chess. Think of it as 1982’s version of an eGPU.
- It could synthesize speech! One of the best add-ons for the Odyssey² was a device called The Voice, which added Speak & Spell-style speech synthesis to the machine at a time when it was one of the hottest technologies around. Wanna see it in action? Check out this video of the owner of a video game shop amusing himself by having the text-to-speech device say random things. The joy is palpable.
The number of Odyssey² games available on a single multicart, the Odyssey² / Videopac Multicart, first created in 2014 by John Dondzila and sold by Packrat Games. In many ways, the multicart highlights the fact that storage technology had improved so significantly in the 40-plus years that the machine had been on the market that you can now put basically every game on a single cart, no problem.
A CES promo video for the Odyssey³, which never saw release in the American market.
Americans never saw the Odyssey³, but Europeans sure did
As anyone who has been online in retro gaming spaces for more than five minutes can tell you, one of the worst things to be is a maker of a game console in 1983. When the bottom fell out of the home video game industry it left little to recover. It was as if the industry was required to rebuild from scratch after the big wave hit.
This, ironically, affected the Odyssey despite Philips and Magnavox generally avoiding what are seen as the worst habits that led the industry astray in the early 1980s. The games on the Odyssey² were essentially all originals, and the system had barely any third-party ports to speak of, meaning that the system, while maybe not as exciting as the Atari 2600 or ColecoVision, was not a console full of shovelware and driven by aggressive brand licensing deals. The Odyssey² wasn’t those things, and while that meant it wasn’t as exciting a competitor in the gaming space, it also ensured you more or less got a quality experience from an Odyssey².
One could argue that Magnavox was punished in the market for the sloppy mistakes their competitors made and allowed in their own ecosystems. And the biggest victim of that state of affairs might have been Philips’ console aspirations in the form of the Odyssey³.
The system did see release, but not in the United States, and not under its best-known name in North America. The system only came out in Europe as the Philips Videopac+ G7400.
The proposed Odyssey³ Command Center used essentially the same CPU as the original Odyssey², giving the machine full backward compatibility at a time when that was an important selling point for consumers, but there was still plenty of room for the device to innovate nonetheless. It upgraded the system RAM from a pitiful 64 bytes to a comparatively massive 6 kilobytes, a 96-times increase in one generation (though still far less than the unsuccessful Atari 5200, released in 1982 and the console the Odyssey³ most resembled, thanks to a decision to include storage slots for the game controllers on the back). While maintaining backward compatibility, resolution had increased from 128x64 to 320x238, and improved sprite and background capabilities had the potential to destroy the Achilles’ Heel of the Odyssey², the mediocre graphics.
“With more people aware of home video games and exposed to them—the arcade phenomenon, for example, has played a large role—we felt it was time to stress Odyssey’s more advanced capabilities,” said Jerry Michaelson, an Odyssey vice president, said in an interview with the magazine Video Games. “The marketplace is ready for it.”
And the proposed expansion options also showed a significant degree of future-mindedness. Beyond being compatible with the existing G7000’s Chess Module and an upgraded version of The Voice, the system also was to get a module to support Microsoft BASIC, with an additional Z80 CPU baked in, as well as a 300-baud modem. Heck, the system was even supposed to get access to a Laserdisc adapter, giving the system an inroad to the hottest arcade trend of 1983, the Dragon’s Lair-inspired game.
The result was a system, Philips hoped, that would be good enough that it would get the arcade ports that eluded the Odyssey².
“Now that we have the improved graphic capability of our Command Center game console, we’ll get more into arcade type games,” Michaelson told Video Games. “We’ll definitely be moving in that direction.”
But the biggest proposed change might have been a quality-of-life upgrade. In a big upgrade from the Odyssey²’s membrane keyboard, the Odyssey³ was supposed to get a mechanical keyboard with a traditional QWERTY layout that allowed for a true tactile typing experience.
It was well-positioned with a number of significant improvements to the overall experience … but, again, it tried doing it in 1983, at a time even established players in the space were in full retreat mode. Today, the Philips Videopac+ G7400 is an exceedingly rare device, with some of its add-ons selling for hundreds of dollars on eBay and elsewhere. Sure this system saw release (albeit not with the promised mechanical keyboard), but this assuredly wasn’t the aspiration that the company had for it.
Then again, this was the fate of a lot of video game consoles in the 1980s, and this particular odyssey wasn’t made to last.
“Unfortunately, if you want to play “Plus” games in the United States, it’s not a matter of simply importing a G7400 and plugging it in. You have to have an appropriate video monitor, some way to deal with the European power plug, and most importantly, you have to know the right kind of G7400 to buy. Overall, successfully importing a G7400 can be more than a little confusing.”
— A guide from The Odyssey² Homepage, discussing the complex state of affairs for those who want to bring the Philips Videopac+ G7400 to the United States. In many cases, you might have to modify the console to support composite video or RGB on your monitor—with your best bet likely being finding a version with SCART support, which can be converted to properly run in RGB mode on your desired monitor.
The Magnavox Odyssey line of machines never truly got its due from gamers despite being historically important. In part, this was because of a mixture of timing, momentum, and technical capabilities.
In some ways, the original Odyssey suffered from first-mover syndrome in that it tried to make up for its technical limitations with inferior physical alternatives, such as putting a piece of plastic on top of your TV set. (Then again, it’s not like people in 1972 knew any better.)
In the second round, Magnavox and Philips were, unfortunately, late, and were trying to succeed with technically inferior hardware in some ways—while it had things consoles like the Atari VCS/2600 and Bally Astrocade did not, such as a keyboard, it was clearly inferior from a graphical standpoint, and that limited its potential in the market.
And by the time Philips was ready to whip up the Odyssey³, with its extended capabilities and improved peripheral options, the market that it knew, at least in the United States, had effectively vanished.
This wasn’t Philips’ only foray into video games—the CD-i, while not really a success, came out a few years later and, if seen as a continuation of the linage of the Odyssey line, was a huge technical upgrade in capabilities in just a short amount of time.
I think in a lot of ways, Philips’ technical capabilities as a company never truly influenced the Odyssey, in part because the console was developed by the company’s fledgling North American arm. That said, the knowledge that a Laserdisc add-on was discussed for the Odyssey³ Command Center suggests that it was a realistic possibility. (At one point, even, Philips was rumored to be interested in buying Atari to follow through this console-plus-Laserdisc idea.)
Had a bridge between the Odyssey/Videopac and the CD-i existed, what would that have looked like? Would it have been successful? We’ll never know. But I can feel the alternate histories being written now.
As for the Odyssey, I think Ralph Baer was smart to walk into that office that day back in the late 1970s and defend the Odyssey², ensuring it saw release. Just from the perspective that it was a noble risk, Baer defending it and seeing its potential was an important step in the legacy of Philips and Magnavox. Sure, it didn’t sell quite the numbers it could have, but stepping away from innovation is a bad move for any company.
After all, what good is an odyssey if you stop halfway in?
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