In the last years we attended to the war between Sony and Microsoft with their main products, PlayStation and Xbox. In the previous decade the war raged between Nintendo and Sega, when NES and MegaDrive tried to overwhelm each other. But even before, when the console market was still small and the battle between the console producers were, more than a war, a small dispute, there were two producers that tried to gain popularity over the small slice of market of the console owners: Magnavox and Coleco.
The story in a nutshell
Magnavox brand is a milestone since their first product, the Odyssey, was the first console in history, so we can easily tell that the american firm was a pioneer in the video games field. After a few years in which the console sold the respectable number of 330000 pieces (not bad for an item from the 70s) and after other companies foresaw that the brand new video gaming world could have been profitable, Magnavox decided to improve its product so in a short time, between 1975 and 1978 they put on sale 8 different consoles plus one never released and stuck in the stage of prototype. This happened not becuase Magnavox had tons of dollars to spend, but because at that time was quite common for a company to release different versions of the same console with limited costs. For example the rival Coleco put on the market 14 different Telstar models between 1976 and 1978.
Exactly 40 years ago, in the October of 1976, Magnavox released at the launch price of 69$ the Odyssey 300, the console that in the intentions of the developers should have been the contender of Coleco Telstar. For this reason the 300 has some improvement in comparison to Odyssey 100 and Odyssey 200 but in the end the similarities are more than the differences.
The model for the Odyssey 300 was the Odyssey 100, released in 1975, which was in the end, the model for all of the consoles released after. The console was available on retail for a couple of years until the production was discontinued in 1978 to give room to the bransd new Odyssey².
The improvements were in the number of games, now three instead of the two already featured in Odyssey 100 and 200, in the possibility to chose the difficulty level (Novice, Intermediate and Expert) and in the introduction of the on-sceen scoring. And then, most important, everything was implemented in a single chip, making the Odyssey 300 one of the very fisrt consoles to do so.
The core of Odyssey 300 was a single chip processor, namely the AY-3-8500 made by General Instruments, a chip capable of playing 7 Pong variants. It was a monochrome chip but the coulor could be added using a second chip, the AY-3-8515. For a bitter twist of fate, the two rivals Odyssey 300 and Coleco Telstar (at lerast the first vesions), shared the same heart.
The AY-3-8500 was the first and most famous chip of the series and it was installed on many machines at the time, like 8 Coleco Telstar versions, the Odyssey 2000 and 3000, Radio Shack TV ScoreBoard, Unisonic Sportsman/Tournament, Philips Tele-Spiel ES2203 and ES2204, Zanussi/Seleco Play-O-Tronic, 4 versions of Videomaster, APF TV Fun and Sportron.
Odyssey 300 featured two built-in knobs for the two players. It also had other two switches for the game selection and for the skill level and obviously the power/reset button. the two joystick-like knobs replaced the 6 levers (3 each side) to control the horizontal and vertical scroll and the ball trajectory adjustment (the “English“). The mini-revolution made by Faichild with the Channel F was still to come.
We told that the chip installed on Odyssey 300 could run only monochrome games, but this wasn’t a great issue. I mean, if you have to play pong you won’t need colors. I even have to say that not all the countries in the wordl had the color TV at the time. For example here in Italy the colors came a few years after (even if I don’t this Magnavox or the related companies sold a lot of copies of Odyssey 300 in my country)
Odyssey 300 had the possibility to chose betwen three games which actually were three different variants of the Pong game; they were Tennis, Hockey and Smash.
The objective of Tennis is for each contestant to skillfully defend his court and drive the ball past the opponent to score a point. The first contestant to reach 15 points is the winner.
(source: Odyssey 300 handbook!).
This is actually Pong with a slight restyle and bold score numbers. Quite fun though. Always fun.
The objective of Hockey is for each contestant to skillfully defend his goal while trying to maneuver the puck into his opponent net. The first contestant to score 15 points wins the period. You must win two out of three periods to win the game.
(source: Odyssey 300 handbook!)
Here’s the first variation of Tennis. While the Pong-like game has no barriers on the left and right, so everytime the ball pass over the small bar a point in scored, in Hockey you score a point once a goal is scored. Each “team” has two players, we can call them a goalkeeper and a forward so this game is a bit harder that Tennis.
The objective of Smash is for each contestant to control his player so he is the last to touch the ball before it leaves the playing area. The first contestant to score 15 points is the winner.
(source: Odyssey 300 handbook!)
Smash instead is Squash. I don’t know why they called it Smash. Anyway this time you score a point if you throw the ball agains the wall and the opponent don’t hit it. Simple.
Odyssey 300 was one of the steps that led Magnavox to their Odyssey², their masterpiece and their swansong, named 21st amoong the best consoles of all time in 2009 by ING.
The company then fled the console market in the beginning of the Eighties, just when the crisis hit the video games market.
After Odyssey 300, Magnavox released other consoles, sometimes with some improvement:
- Odyssey 400, very similar to the 200. The main difference was, actually, the color, or better the blue stripe in the middle of the console. With this colors it looks like the official Martini Williams F1 Racing console.
- Odyssey 500, built on the base of 300 which was a great improvement, since for the first time the Tennis game displayed not by two moving bars but two simplified versions of human players. Was implemented another game, Soccer, which was like Squash (formerly Smash) played on Hockey field.
- Odyssey 2000, was the last of the “classic” Odysseys. It was an updated version with Odyssey 300 with different controllers, singe the knob was replaced by a rotating paddle. It also featured 1P version of Squash for the training (Practice).
- Odyssey 3000, was the first big cosmetic refresh for the family. It had a different shape, more geometric, an atari-like black color and two removable paddles with circular flat knob to select the games (very similar to the ones of the Intellivision). The games were doubled since were included also Basketball, Soccer and Gridball.
- Odyssey 4000, was the most advanced among the Odysseys ever released. Sold in a white color, it featured two removable joysticks, 8 games (Tennis, Hockey, Smash, Practive and their variations) and an extra chip that made possible to run games with colors.
Magnavox tried also the way of the built-in TV game when released in 1976 the 4305 TV with a polished Pong game, with even better graphics than the console one.
In Europe Magnavox products were sold by Philips which purchased Magnavox in 1974. They released Philips Odyssey 200, 2001 (a variation of Odyssey 4000) and 2100 released in 1978 with 6 games, each one with different variation.
After Philips take over the story of Magnavox came to the end, but the american brand is still one of the biggest names in history of video games consoles.