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What was the world’s first game console?

Most video game fans should be aware that “Pong” is generally considered to be the first successful video game. The world’s first commercial game console, on the other hand, is surely only a few people know about it. If you want to find out which device this is, this article will take you on an exciting journey through time.

In times of 4k-capable consoles, such as the PlayStation5 or the Xbox Series X, which are equipped with super-fast SSDs and enormously powerful processors, it is hard to imagine how incredibly modest the beginnings of game consoles actually were.

For those who, from today’s perspective, already see the Atari 2600 as a crude piece of hardware and a relic from a distant past, will be shocked at how unbelievably minimalist the world’s first game console, the Odyssey, was intended for home use.

This was developed under the direction of Ralph Baer and then produced in a slightly modified form by the electronics manufacturer Magnavox.

The first gaming console ever: the Odyssey by Magnavox

How was the Magnavox Odyssey created? Maybe the name Ralph Baer even means something to some of you; After all, this is considered the “father of video games”. As early as 1966, the TV technician, who emigrated to the USA and studied, developed the prototype of what later became the first console, the so-called “Brown Box”. With this additional device for televisions, he aimed to make interactive TV games accessible to every household.

The prototype of the Odyssey, the so-called “Brown Box”

In January 1971, the brown box was licensed to Magnavox, one of the largest manufacturers of televisions at the time. The engineers there modified the prototype a bit, mainly to reduce manufacturing costs, while the game ideas were largely adopted by Baer and his team. These included, for example, a chase and a ping-pong game.

As early as spring 1972, the modified Brown Box was presented to the public under the name Odyssey as the first commercial games console in the USA.

Among other things, the later founder of Atari, Nolan Bushnell, was present at this presentation, who was “inspired” by just that ping-pong game. He later released his own variant, which went down in history as “Pong” and led to a juicy legal battle with Magnavox.

As early as September of the same year, the console was initially only available from Magnavox dealers and at a price of $99.95 at the time – that would correspond to just over €600 today. The launch of the new console was accompanied by a large-scale national advertising campaign. This apparently did not fail to have an effect, as the Odyssey quickly became a real blockbuster and was launched in Europe as early as 1973. For example, the console renamed “Odyssey” could also be bought in the Federal Republic of Germany from October of this year.

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1972 US commercial for the Magnavox Odyssey

In May 1975, Magnavox stopped production after an estimated 350,000 units had been sold, since production of the successor models had just begun.

What could the Odyssey do?

How was the Odyssey technically structured? Compared to the consoles that appeared shortly thereafter, no integrated circuits such as microprocessors or memory chips were installed on the Odyssey’s circuit boards. Only standard electronic components were used, which did not make the Odyssey particularly efficient. For example, there was no sound and the display on the TV was very rough.

In addition, the Odyssey was operated exclusively with batteries, with which an operating time of around 100 hours could be realized due to the low power consumption.

If you take a closer look at the console, you will quickly realize that there is no power switch on the Odyssey. This is because the console switches on automatically when you insert one of the game cards (“plug-in boards”) into the slot provided (“game program slot”) and the desired game starts. Consequently, the console was also switched off again by removing the card.

The Magnavox Odyssey console – without any buttons or other controls

The connections for the two supplied controllers (“game consoles”) were on the back of the Odyssey, as were the sockets for connecting the optional power supply, the connection unit for the television and the connection for the “light gun”.

What is the light gun? The light gun was an additional controller that could be optionally purchased with specially developed games.

Instead of the title, only the number of the game was noted on the cartridges. That meant you had to memorize that number. With a total of 28 games that have been released for the console, that was certainly not easy.

A Magnavox Odyssey cartridge.

From today’s perspective, the controllers of the Odyssey seem particularly absurd. As a big fan of innovative gamepads, just looking at these blocks makes my hair stand up.

On the two so-called controllers there were only two knobs (“adjusters”) for the horizontal and vertical movement of the “screen character”, as well as another controller for influencing the ball trajectory in some games. Apart from a centrally placed “reset button” for restarting a game, there was no sEsports Extrasof any other button.

A Magnavox Odyssey controller (“game console”).

From today’s perspective, such a minimalist desEsports Extrasfor a controller is hard to imagine. For example, if we take a look at the new PS5 pro controller, which will be released soon, it is characterized, among other things, by additional buttons that the standard controller lacks.

Here we embed the trailer of the new PS5 pro controller as a direct comparison:

PS5 introduces its own pro controller in the trailer

The games of the first console in the world

What games were there on the humble hardware? Basically, the 28 games developed for the Odyssey differed only marginally. In each game, the two players only controlled one point of light anyway, which was programmed a little differently depending on the game. Since there were only multiplayer games for the console, a second player was always needed.

From today’s perspective, the most astonishing thing may be the fact that the Odyssey – apart from the controllable light points – could not display any graphics.

For this reason, the scope of delivery included overlays for the individual games, which had to be attached to the television screen before playing. It was essential here that the combination of the right overlay and the right playing card was always used.

A selection of the Magnavox Odyssey games.

For example, if you wanted to play the Cat and Mouse chase game, you first had to attach the overlay to the TV screen and insert the correct card. The point of this game was obviously that the cat’s point of light should catch that of the mouse without moving through the dark squares.

Another game was probably the first “horror game” in history – “Haunted House”. In this game, one player had to act as a detective and collect evidence, which the second player read out to him using the cards provided. On top of that, this hides as a “ghost” with its point of light under the overlay in any object of the house, while the other player had to avoid this hiding place.

From today’s point of view, immersive gaming fun is certainly different.

In this video, you can see the incredibly gripping gameplay for yourself. But warning: not for the faint of heart!

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With “Haunted House” the scary factor was guaranteed.

In addition to a number of supposed sports games, there were also various educational games for younger gamers. Among them is a guessing game with the 50 US states or the well-known “Simon Says”, where one player told the other which body parts they should light up on the game’s overlay.

For the older players, however, there was also a game of chance with roulette, in which a player with closed eyes determined with his point of light on which field the ball landed, which often failed or led to ambiguous results. Pure thrill! Similar to “Haunted House”, additional materials such as the obligatory casino chips and play money were also included for this game.

5 consoles that flopped so hard you probably don’t know them all

The optionally purchasable controller: the light gun

What extra accessories did the Odyssey come with? In times when manufacturers are becoming more and more sensitive when it comes to the desEsports Extrasof gun controllers, it may seem particularly bizarre how frighteningly authentic the optionally available light gun looked at first glance, if you disregard the cable. Such a controller would certainly be unimaginable today.

The Magnavox Odyssey’s light gun

Of course there were also games specially adapted to the light gun, such as “Shootout”. In this early spiritual prequel to Red Dead Redemption, the player embodied a bandit. You had to move a point of light under the Wild West overlay and only stop at one of several saloon windows. The other player – obviously the sheriff – should shoot his opponent with the light gun. A gripping and of course completely harmless fun for the whole family!

The Legacy of the Odyssey

Was the Odyssey important for later consoles? As absurd and sometimes ridiculous as all of this may seem from today’s perspective, it is of course important to emphasize that the Odyssey paved the way for all later consoles. From an Atari 2600 to a Nintendo 64 and the PlayStation5, all of these beloved consoles would not have been possible without the Magnavox Odyssey.

And so the Odyssey actually lived up to its name in retrospect:

After all, an odyssey is a long journey, full of obstacles and adventurous. And for those who are looking forward to God of War: Ragnarok or the new Pokemon games today, it began in 1972.

If you’re interested in more articles on the history of hardware, check out this article that explains why the PC mouse is actually called a mouse.

Why is the mouse for the PC actually called a mouse?

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