Random Access Memories: Magnavox Odyssey (1972) – the first home game console
Magnavox is a US tech company most famous for tellies that was swallowed up by Phillips in 1974. But before that it made the first home console for your telly
Ah, the 1970s. A decade of terrifying wallpaper and even more terrifying trousers. But it wasn’t all bad: after all, there was Ziggy Stardust – and, for some, the even greater majesty of Magnavox!
Magnavox? Pfft! They were never the same when John Foxx left and Midge Ure took over.
That’s Ultravox. Magnavox is a US tech company most famous for tellies that was swallowed up by Phillips in 1974. It also created Odyssey, the first home video game console – so pioneering that the words we’d now use to describe it didn’t exist at the time. So it became the “electronic game of the future”. That future now looks primitive: it wasn’t so much ‘plug and play’ as ‘screw connecting wires into your telly, add plastic overlays, and play games based around a couple of rectangles and a square bouncing off each other’.
That doesn’t sound so bad. I’ve played Pong and that didn’t make me recoil in terror.
No – think way more basic. The Odyssey was monochrome – colour sets were rare back then – and lacked audio and on-screen scores. Most games were barely more advanced than you and a chum waving light pens at a wall. In Table Tennis, bats could move anywhere and players could unsportingly steer the ball. Cat and Mouse had ‘furniture’ to avoid, shown as blue squares on an overlay – which cheats could blaze right through. More advanced titles would drown you in complex mechanics that lived in a manual rather than on the screen.
OK, that actually sounds awful. People must have been terribly bored back in 1972.
In defence of the Odyssey, it gave people a new experience: interacting with their telly – beyond yelling at it during sports or whacking it when the picture went funny. Enforced two-player made for a fun communal activity. And the game cards (printed circuit boards that modified the console’s circuitry) established not needing dedicated hardware for each new game you wanted to play. So Magnavox Odyssey laid the groundwork for everything that followed and deserves our respect – even if you wouldn’t want to try one today.