[RetroConsole] 40 years of Magnavox Odyssey² a.k.a. Philips Videopac

Hello guys,

Today we talk about another little pice of history, widely forgotten and stuck in the middle of the fight between Atari 2600 and the other competitors (mainly Mattel IntelliVision and later ColecoVision) and killed by 1983 crash. It’s the Magnavox Odyssey², also known in its european iteration as Philips Videopac, a curious attempt made my Philips/Magnavox to merge a computer and a console with potentially good results but that eventually failed to achieve the glory it (probably) deserved. Released in December, 1978 this piece of technology is turning 40 in these days.

The story in a nutshell

Magnavox is better known for being the company which released the first console ever, the Odyssey, in 1972 and for a moltitude of other consoles inbetween that fall into the category of PONG clones (I’ve briefly discussed about them in my post about the Odyssey 300). Since videogames started to be fashionable, Magnavox (from 1974 a subsidiary of Philips NA), decided to join the fray. Actually the competition wasn’t still so fierce: the (then) Atari VCS was released in 1977, one year earlier and the first ever cartridge-based console (the original Odyssey can’t be really classified as “cartridge-based”), the Fairchild Channel F, in 1976 and was far from being the ground breaking success they expected it to be.

Curiously enough, but not that much, since Magnavox was part of the dutch-based empire of Philips, the console was first released in Europe under the name Videopac G7000, and then the year after, in 1979, in the US with the Magnavox brand (still a good name in America). We can consider it the first “big” console in Europe, which broke the dominance of PONG clones that found in the old continent a fertile ground to prosper.

At the time the home consoles were the most popular entertainment media among the “new technologies” and the computers were still far from being personal: in 1977 the famous trio (Apple II, TRS-80 and Commodore PET) rose to popularity even to non-hobbyists but the computers were still rather expensive and Magnavox tried tomarket a product dedicated also to the niche of computers enthusiasts.

In 1978 the Odyssey² was put on shelves at the retail price of 179$ (more than 600$ in 2018) and in its 6-years lifespan, before the discontinuation at the end of March, 1984, went to sell roughly 2 millions of units, becoming the third best selling second generation console behind the IntelliVision and, of course, Atari 2600.

The heart

Inside the Odyssey² there’s an 8-bit Intel 8048 microprocessor clocked @1,79 MHz with 64 bytes of RAM and 1K of ROM. These parameters look quite poor but in the latter models, like the G7400+, the Intel chip is clocked @5,91 MHz and the RAM is expanded to 6K, with an additional 16K provided by te optional G7420.

The hands

The Odyssey² was rather innovative because it featured two different control peripherals. On one side we have a regular 8-directions joystick housed in a poorly attractive black plastic box with a single “action” button; both of the controllers were detachable from the console. On the other side there’s a fully functional membrane keyboard used mainly for educational purpose and to create simple programs. This mix of entertainment and educational purposes made the Odyssey² the first “edutainment” piece of hardware, and could have put a serious threat to the entertaiment-only systems.

Not properly “hands” but the console had some interesting peripherals available. One, called The Voice (available only for the Odyssey² and for the Siera G7000) was a voice synthetizer similar to the Intellivoice, then there was the Chess Module (G7010) that implemented some extra hardware to simulate a human opponent in a chess match.

The eyes

The Videopac was capable of displaying 8 colors at a time from a palette of 16, had 4 different sprites selectable, each one 8×8 pixels and other 12 predefined objects 8×8 from a library of 64 stored in the ROM.

The games

The console had different destiny if we compare its “history” in Europe and in the US. In the american market initially there was no third-party support and all of the games were developed within Magnavox. The first game developed outside the parent company was one of the most converted game of the time, Demon Attack, released by Imagic in 1983. Although the Odyssey² didn’t have that huge fortunes, its success in Europe led Parker Brothers to release games for it (Popeye, Frogger, Q*bert and Super Cobra) and Imagic to convert its game Atlantis.

In Europe the Videopac was one of the most popular consoles between the late 70s and early 80s: roughly half of the two millions of units sold worldwide were sold in Europe. The european success is clear even comparing the number of games released: 60 versus the american 46.

In the early days a big slice of the titles released were sports games with rudimental graphics, far from being the ground-breaking games that could have impressed the competitors. Some clones of more famous games were distributed for the console, like Alien Invaders! in 1980.

Talking about clones, the first rather big success was K.C. Munchkin! (a.k.a. Munchkin in Europe, cart #38), a shameless clone of Pac-Man (although better than the flawed Atari version) for which Magnavox was sued by Atari itself, leading to the company to cease its production.

However in 1982 a sequel came out, the praised K.C.’s Krazy Chase! (a.k.a. Crazy Chase in Europe, cart #44), another maze game inspired to its predecessor that revolves around the case Atari vs. Magnavox.

Another successful game on the system was Pick Axe Pete! (a.k.a. Pickaxe Pete in Europe, cart #43), a platformer that rose to great popularity also in Brazil.

Videopac G7400 Plus version

A very interesting and uncommon game was Quest for the Rings (1981). Released in a wonderful packaging, the game was an hybrid between a video game and a board game with strong RPG and DnD elements where the task is to find 10 keys hidden by the Keymaster (the human player itself) inside a castle.

The innovation of the game lies in its board game heart, where the battles are resolved using the game console. After Quest for the Rings other two games for the Master Strategy line were released,  Conquest of the World (1981) and The Great Wall Street Fortune Hunt (1982).

The legacy

Even this time we have to divide the story in two: one for the american console and one for the european.

As far as I know the american versions of the console are way easier to track down since it appears that only one model has been released, the Odyssey². The packaging is was better (in my opinion) than the european versions and this is the only version which was almost identical in all regions, but under different names: Videopac G7000 in Europe (with other 4 different revisions of a Philips C52 console, who knows why they marketed the console with two names…), Philips Odyssey in Brazil and Siera G7000, Schneider 7000 and Radiola Jet25 as european clones.

Things get a bit more complicated when we move to Europe.

The first model released, the twin of the Odyssey², was the Videopac G7000.  Apparently for no reason, Philips put on sale a clone of the G7000 and named it C52; it came in 4 different revisions and from what I understand it’s a model that was on fashion in France (I guess it since most of the C52 have the label “Ordinateur Videopac” and probably they were adapted to use the SECAM signal they used to have in France). Several clones of the G7000 were produced by different companies, always keeping the same exact shape and only rebranding the hardware: Schneider 7000, Radiola Jet 25 (these two are french models, hence the “Ordinateur Videopac” label) and Siera G7000 (a company whose capitol “S” style is dramatically identical to that of Sierra On-Line).

In Europe (but not in the US) after a few years, Philips updated and restyled its flagship and released the Videopac G7200, of course followed by Radiola Jet 27 and Schneider 7200. This time the console featured a built-in RGB screen and it actually became a fully fledged home computer/game console that didn’t need any additional screen to work. It could have been a good idea but the model didn’t last enough and today is the rarest of the three “main”.

Philips also released another model, the N60, inspired to the G7200 but with different capabilities that can be considered a totally different system, more compact than the “regular” one.

Both Philips and Magnavox in 1983 were about to release an updated version of the console, the Odyssey³, sometimes credited as the O³. However the american market, shocked by 1983 crash, made Magnavox change its mind and the know-how behind the project was transferred in Europe where the most advanced Videopac console saw the light, the G7400+. Less aestethically pleasant and more squared, this piece of hardware that, let’s be frank, looks like a piece of solid metal shaped in a hurry, had a faster CPU and a useful coprocessor capable of displaying 16 colors with a 320×238 resolution; the console was backward compatible with all of the games already released for the G7000 and G7200 and some of them were redesigned to offer better backgrounds and updated graphics.

The console also had an expansion (today pretty rare) called G7420 that transformed the console into an home computer with an additional Zilog Z80 microprocessor, 16K of RAM, 18K of additional ROM and a BASIC interpreter and the possibility to hook up a cassette deck to load/save programs.

Another rare and forgotten version of the G7400 exists under the name JO 7400 or JOPAC. Released by Brandt, it features the same hardware as the G7400 but the case has been redesigned; even some games specifically designed for this model were designed but today they’re quite uncommon. The Jopac got another rebrand by Continental Edison which renamed it JO1450.

The system, after 2 millions of units sold was officially discontinued in 1984 (in Brazil in 1987) and even if it failed to win the war against Atari and Mattel, it ganed an honorable third place sales-wise even though today is probably less regarded that what it should.

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