Even though they pioneered home videogame consoles with the original Odyssey, Magnavox, a subsidiary of Dutch high-tech conglomerate Philips as of 1974, has to play some serious catch-up after the advent of programmable systems like the Channel F and VCS. Their answer is a redesign of a machine originally prototyped by the company in 1977, featuring 24 built-in games. Called the Odyssey² (O²), the system is re-tooled as a programmable machine and debuts for $199.95 in 1978. Inside is an Intel 4-bit 8048 CPU, running at 1.78 MHz. It is touted as The Ultimate Video Game System, mainly on the strength of its innovative, but ultimately under-utilized, 49 key alpha-numeric membrane keyboard. This selling point forces Atari to eventually release membrane keypad add-ons for their VCS. The O² falls short in other, more important categories; it has lower resolution graphics than the Atari VCS and only one audio channel, compared to its rival’s two. Another problem are the joysticks hardwired right into the machine, so that when the sticks wear out or break (which they often did), there is no choice but to take the whole contraption back to the dealer. This is later fixed in a remodelled O² with external joystick ports. The marketing strategy for the unit also leaves something to be desired. Unable or unwilling to heed lessons learned from the sales problems of their first Odyssey, distribution of the O² is again initially limited to authorized Magnavox dealers, severely limiting its sales potential. The system has fairly better luck in Europe, where Philips markets it as the Videopac G7000. In fact, two other Videopac models are produced for the European market, the G7200 featuring a built-in monitor, and the G7400 which is the equivalent of the mysterious Odyssey 3 (see below).
Magnavox hardware engineer Sam Overton creates most of the initial game titles for the O², including passes at most of the staple sports games like football, basketball and golf. However, North American Philips (NAP) decides that video games aren’t such a great way to sell television sets, and six months after the launch of the Odyssey² pulls the plug on the Game Group in an overture to pulling the machine off the market completely. Ed Averett is an electrical engineer and sales representative at Intel, supplier of chips for the Odyssey². When he hears that the system might be cancelled, he convinces his employer that keeping the O² afloat will also keep open an avenue to sell Intel chips. Thus, Averett starts making games for the console from his home in Chattanooga, Tennessee as a freelance developer, along with his wife Linda, also an electrical engineer. They create about half of the 50 games eventually produced by Magnavox, receiving a royalty for each cartridge sold in lieu of a salary. The Averetts face some extremely limiting technical confines developing for the O², such as a measly 2K of ROM available in each cartridge. The “Challenger Series” line of games bumps this up with 4K carts, but they still fill up fast. With Ed designing the games while his wife programs, they crank out each game in about three months, amounting to some of the most creative home video games of the era. One of the Averetts’ creations becomes the crux on which the O² rises, and then ultimately drops into oblivion.
Atari Is Not Amused
K.C. Munchkin! is created to capitalize on the immense success of arcade wunderkind Pac-Man, with the title of the game being a clever take on the name of NAP’s head of the Consumer Electronics Division, Kenneth Charles Meinken, Jr.. Averett releases his interpretation of the arcade hit in 1981, and it rapidly becomes the O²’s killer game, causing people to buy the system just to play it. It features such enhancements to the Pac-Man formula as moving pellets and a rotating monster cage. Atari, owning the home video game rights to Pac-Man and releasing its inferior version that same year, is not amused. They sue Magnavox over copyright infringement in federal court, which eventually rules that Munchkin! has enough creative differences that it does not infringe on the Pac-Man copyright. Confident in that strong decision, Magnavox lawyers ignore the appeals process begun by Atari, and the original ruling is overturned in 1982 in a Chicago federal appeals court which focuses on the physical resemblance between the two characters, as opposed to the overall game. Magnavox attempts to take the matter up with the U.S. Supreme Court, who refuse to hear the case. With an injunction in place, NAP. must notify dealers that no more orders can be made for their best-selling game, and the O² never really recovers from the loss. As for which version is better, it’s certainly debatable. On a basic level, for a game dedicated to eating things, Pac-Man has an entire maze full of dots to munch on, so it’s more satisfying. Then again, K.C.’s quarry personifies “fast food”.
Averett strikes back the next year with the utterly amazing K.C.’s Krazy Chase!, with our intrepid K.C. rolling through a forested maze trying to eat the tail of a creature called a “Dratapillar”…a thinly disguised poke at Atari. Smaller legged creatures called “Drats” also chase the titular character around. While being a debut action game for The Voice speech attachment (see below), and easily one of the most graphically complex and enjoyable games of the pre-1980 home videogames, it comes too late to save the O².
This is The Voice
Magnavox is quick out of the gate with The Voice speech-synthesizer in 1982, a large $100 add-on that fits over the top panel and cartridge slot of the O2, with its own slot to accept game carts. Containing a General Instruments speech chip, It holds a vocabulary of over 100 word spoken with a male voice, along with various sound effects and musical cues. Audio is produced through its own speaker and volume control, so users can adjust the loudness of voices independently of the game audio emitting from the TV. Outside of the canned expressions contained in The Voice, additional words can be formed by the device through the use of vocal sounds pieced together to produce human speech, although such assembled speech sounds much more mechanical.
Reaching for the Rings
The Odyssey² is also named Official Video Game of the 1982 World’s Fair. No doubt this choice is facilitated by the fact that the 1982 World’s Fair is held in Knoxville, Tennessee… which also serves as the HQ for Magnavox. Neither this hoopla, nor The Voice, nor the Computer Intro cartridge (a program designed to teach assembler and machine language) help to jump-start the Odyssey²’s dwindling market share. The Master Strategy series of games are a grand hope of redemption for the console, produced by Stephen Lehner and Ronald Bradford of Wilmette, Illinois. Operating a design firm called Lehner Bradford and Cout, they are pretty familiar with Magnavox video game systems; they had done graphic design work for the original Odyssey, including advertising material, all of the game box art, and even the infamous mylar TV screen overlays. The firm had also designed the “vanishing point” O2 logo and did nearly all of the package graphics work for the newer system. Programming for the Master series is done by the prolific Ed and Linda Averett. It is the opinion of Lehner and Bradford that Magnavox is underutilizing the key feature of the O2 that separates it from the competition, its keyboard. Little has been done with the keyboard innovation, aside from input in some educational games and the video game console first of being able to input your name with a high score, introduced in 1981′s UFO!. The Master Strategy games aim to correct that oversight.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy Lord of the Rings books inspire the first entry, titled The Quest for the Rings. It goes on to win the Most Innovative Game of 1981 award from Electronic Games, the premiere videogame magazine of the time. The other titles available in the game series are Conquest of the World and The Great Wall Street Fortune Hunt. Appearing between 1981 and 1982, each of the three games have extended memory, complex packaging and include plastic and metal game pieces used on a highly detailed game board packed with the game which players use as a supplement to the onscreen action. A lot of interaction with the keyboard is also required. The popularity of the Master Strategy series is enough to entice Magnavox to commission a full-colour magazine dedicated to the console and its games. Odyssey Adventure is a quarterly magazine that runs from Winter 1982 to Winter 1983. Work on a fourth Master Strategy game, called Sherlock Holmes, is begun by Lehner and Bradford, but disappears with the O2′s eventual withdrawal from the video game market.
A New Path
A new Game Group is opened up in 1981, headed by original O² game programmer Sam Overton. The system also starts getting some third-party software support, with two cartridges by game maker Imagic and four arcade translations from Parker Brothers. By mid-1982 the Odyssey² no longer falls under the Magnavox brand, having been given its own division under NAP. The next generation Odyssey 3 is previewed at the 1983 January CES, with 16K of RAM, Z80B CPU, a chiclet-style keyboard, new voice-synthesizer and optional 300 baud modem, along with a later announced laserdisc module to play games such as arcade sensation Dragon’s Lair. The new system has a hefty display resolution at 320×210 pixels, even better than Mattel’s planned next-gen console powerhouse Intellivision III. The O3 is subsequently re-tooled as the Odyssey Command Centre, with an expected release in the 3rd quarter of 1983. The most far-reaching aspect of the Command Center is probably the expansion port at the back of the device, which allows for a range of plug-ins for added features, such as voice synthesis, modem and computer programming modules.
By the time of the CES reveal, the Averetts have stepped off the video game merry-go-round, so a software development team for Command Center games led by Sam Overton is set up in the hills of Tennessee called The Odyssey Software Development Group, or Odyssey West. Larger games with advanced graphics are developed, such as an adaptation of Stern Electronics’ arcade game Turtles, by Jim Butler. The Command Center is fully backwards compatible with O2 games, although things get a tad complicated in this regard. Popular titles for the O2 are to be enhanced with colourful and detailed backgrounds for the newer unit, although the main forefront gameplay elements would still appear the same as the original game. These new enhanced versions can be played on the original O2 as well, although the backgrounds would revert back to as before, such as the black limbo of Pick Axe Pete. NAP announces that around twelve games will be available exclusively for the Command Center and which will take full advantage of its advanced capabilities. These include even more deluxe versions of the Master Strategy Series games. Turtles and Killer Bees, by Bob Harris, do make it to market for the O2. The Odyssey Command Center, however, is eventually canned by NAP towards the end of 1983, afraid that the console would be obsolete by the time it was released. It does see some limited release in Europe, as the Phillips G7400.
The Odyssey Ends
With about one million units sold by 1983, the Odyssey² does beat out every other fringe system like the Channel F, Vectrex and the Bally Professional Arcade, but it never comes close to powerhouse Atari. When the videogame market crashes in 1983 – 84, so does the O². The Odyssey reaches the end of the road in March of 1984 when NAP announces the dissolution of the Odyssey division.
Sources (Click to view; inert links are kept for historical purposes)
Electronic Games, “Inside Gaming”, by Bill Kunkel, pg. 8 -9, Vol. 1 Num. 2, Mar 1982
Halcyon Days – www.dadgum.com/halcyon.html
Wikipedia – Munchkin – en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Munchkin_(video_game)
Electronic Games, “Q&A”, by The Game Doctor, pg. 93, Jan 1983
The Odyssey² Homepage, archived Illinois newspaper article, “Electronic Game Wizards”, by Herbert G. McCann, Nov 26 1981
The Odyssey² Homepage, “The Odyssey² Timeline!” by William Cassidy
The Odyssey² Homepage! – Odyssey²/Videopac FAQ: The Essentials, by William Cassidy – www.the-nextlevel.com/odyssey2/faq/essentials/
Creative Computing Video & Arcade Games, “Video Games Update”, by Danny Goodman, pg. 42, Vol. 1 No. 1, Spring 1983
Video Games, “Briefs: Atari v. Coleco & Imagic; This Means War!”, by Steve Bloom, pg. 80, Vol. 1 Num. 6, Mar 1983
Images of Sam Overton, as well as Ed and Linda Averett, and other information come from Odyssey Adventure, “So You Want to Be a Video Games Inventor”, photographers Fred Leavitt and Terry Moore, pg. 8, Issue 1 Winter 1982
Images of Ron Bradford & Steve Lehner, as well as the Averetts & kids, and other information come from Odyssey Adventure, “Behind the Workings of the Mind”, photographers Fred Leavitt and Terry Moore, pgs. 4 – 5, Issue 1 Winter 1982
Images of the Sherlock Holmes game board and box art courtesy of The Odyssey² Homepage! – Ron Bradford Photo Gallery – http://www.the-nextlevel.com/odyssey2/articles/bradford/gallery.php
Odyssey Adventure, “What’s New At ‘Odyssey West’?”, pg. 6, Issue 5 Winter 1983
Kaos’ Odyssey^2 Page – www.iaw.on.ca/~kaos/systems/Odyssey2/index.html
I.C. When -1978- – www.icwhen.com/book/the70s/1978.html
Radio-Electronics, “Video Electronics – Space Wars”, by David Lachenbruch, pg. 4, June 1982Image of Odyssey Command Centre and other information from Radio-Electronics, “Videogames ’83″, by Danny Goodman, pgs. 56-58, Jun 1983
Electronic Games, “Players Guide to Programmable Videogames – Odyssey: The Flexible System”, pgs. 71 – 73, Vol. 2 Num. 9, Nov 1983
Odyssey2 Intro – Digital Press Online – www.digitpress.com/emu/o2_top.htm
Odyssey2 FAQ – http://www.austinvideogames.com/FAQs/FAQ_Odyssey2.htm
Thanks to William Cassidy at The Odyssey² Homepage!