• Steve Haywood

Computer Games in 1972 – Magnavox Odyssey and Pong

Computer Games 1972

Magnavox Odyssey 1972

Magnavox Odyssey – The First Home Games Console

1972 was a landmark year in the history of computer games, because it saw the launch of the first video games console, the Magnavox Odyssey. It didn’t start out as this, the idea had been kicking around for a good few years in the mind of engineer Ralph Baer. He had two problems however – he couldn’t find anyone willing to manufacture it, and he was calling his idea the Brown Box. I mean come on, it may have been descriptively accurate but how many are going to be enticed to part with their money to buy something called the Brown Box?

Magnavox Odyssey Overlays

Magnavox Odyssey Screen Overlays

Luckily, he found a company willing to manufacture it, Magnavox. They had quite a cool name, and after pairing it with Odyssey they actually had something that sounded half decent! When it was made it consisted of a white, black and yes brown box, a couple of controllers though not at all familiar looking to modern games, and dice, paper money and other board gaming bits and bobs to jazz up the games. It was after all only able to display three square dots on the screen and needed jazzing up! In fact, it came with plastic overlays to stick on the screen and actually make it look like it had some graphics!

Primitive it might have been but it was the start of video gaming in the home as we know it today. It sold up to 100,000 consoles in the first year, and 350,000 by the time it was discontinued in 1975.

What Games Were Available?

At least 10 games were sold with the console, with other games available to purchase separately. In all there were 28 games available, although many of them were virtually the same, just with different overlays and physical cards etc. Here are some examples:

Ski- A player moves a dot backwards and forwards on a mountainside to simulate ski-ing, though players had to keep their own score and time. Used a ski-slope overlay.

Table Tennis – Two players use paddles to knock a ball back and forth across the screen. This game didn’t use an overlay, but there was a ‘different’ game that was just the same, except it had a tennis court overlay to stick on the screen.

States – an educational game which used a US map overlay and a deck of fifty trivia cards with questions about each state.

Soccer – Two players use paddles to knock a ball back and forth. Players only score if they reach the opponents goal on the overlay.

We can laugh at its primitiveness, but it’s hard to appreciate now just how innovative and ground-breaking this console was at the time. I also can’t help but be impressed at how clever the guys were who developed this. They really showed imagination, finding so many things to do with just some dots on the screen, and their use of overlays and physical game components no doubt made the games look really good.

And now for a game of… Pong!

Pong Game Screenshot

Pong Screenshot

In 1971, Nolan Bushnell invented the coin operate arcade computer game Computer Space. After its success, Bushnell decides to set up a company to create more games, and forms Atari. Soon after he founded the company, he hired computer engineer Allan Alcorn. Because Alcorn hadn’t much experience with computer games, Bushnell decided to give him what was meant to be a training exercise. He asked Alcorn to design a simple tennis game, with two paddles, a ball and a score board to keep track of the score. It is thought that he came up with the idea after seeing a trial version of the Magnavox Odyssey. Bushnell and his business partner were so impressed with the game that they decided to manufacture it. It became a huge success, with many companies copying it and releasing their own Pong clones. Eventually though, Atari and these other companies began to build on the success of Pong and create new games, and the video games industry was born!

And now would you like a game of Pong? I thought you might! Well head on over here for a classic game of Pong. This is a recreation of a very early version similar to the one we’ve just describe, though there are other variants you can play on the site too. If you want a posher version of Pong, there is one on the Atari Arcade website, not quite as retro and you have to watch an advert before you can play it, but it’s worth it if you want to play. I went to a cultural museum recently and they had an old 1970s games console with a version of Pong on it. I got my 8 year old daughter playing, and she might have grown up with the Ipad and smartphone games, but she was hooked. She kept insisting on playing just one more game with me!


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