The First Ever Home Video Game Console, Magnavox Odyssey, Is Now 50 Years Old

The original home video game console just turned fifty!

SUMMARY

  • Magnavox Odyssey was the first ever commercially available video game console.
  • Ralph Baer designed the hardware, the individual widely regarded as the "Father of Video Games" and a team led by him.
  • The console introduced a form of actively consumable media that one could take home, an activity that was only restricted to arcades at the time.
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Magnavox Odyssey may not sound familiar to the current generation. But a specific generation of gamers experienced the console in its full glory. The video game console was also featured in BBC’s Tomorrow’s World episode fifty years ago on December 18, 2023. Ralph Baer designed the hardware, the individual widely regarded as the “Father of Video Games” and a team led by him.

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It is no small feat to lay down the foundation of an industry valued at approximately 220 billion US dollars as of 2022. Yet, the console managed to do it. The console looks beyond its prime, and the controllers look nothing similar to the current controller standard. Regardless, the console introduced a form of actively consumable media that one could take home, a one-time investment that revolutionized gaming, an activity that was only restricted to arcades at the time.

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Magnavox Odyssey: What the Veteran Video Game Console Offered

The Magnavox Odyssey along with one of its controllers.
The Magnavox Odyssey along with one of its controllers.

As shown above, the video game console doesn’t have a shape that reminds one of the conventional shapes in three-dimensional geometry. The complex polyhedron is connected to one’s Cathode Ray Tube television using a proprietary switch box.

The controllers look incredibly uncomfortable, but some iconic games like Tennis and Pong were still playable. A light gun attachment was sold separately for the console, allowing users to channel their inner gunslinger. A few shooting titles and the light gun attachment were also sold.

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This was an addition that genuinely stood at the time of its release. Like many other consoles after it, the console also relied on game cartridges, which were only titled with a decimal number system.

However, there was one key difference. If one has had the chance to witness vintage 8-bit gaming systems like the Nintendo Entertainment System, one will remember game cartridges having cover art, a catchy title, etc.

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For the Odyssey, the official terminology for the gaming titles would be Game #1 or Game #2 instead of using titles that even the current era of gaming utilizes for description and iconography purposes. The cartridges for games titled numerically offered the same glowing paddle and dotted visual on the screen. Still, the programming for various caused them to act upon and respond differently to inputs.

Ralph Bear was the leader of the team that designed the Magnavox Odyssey.
Ralph Bear was the leader of the team that designed the Magnavox Odyssey.

However, for a more immersive experience, a film-like sheet was provided along with the console, available in different sizes as per the conventional television sizes in the 1970s. These films helped with immersion for various gaming titles.

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There was also an entire user manual that listed the aids required for a specific title, including the cartridge number, the film, and other elements like dice, chips, a tiny physical scoreboard, etc., reminiscent of board games at the time.

Since the console was released when home entertainment options were more or less absent and the technology wasn’t as advanced as now, it only provided a picture showing a glowing dot and a paddle. There was no user interface or no conventional graphical additions.

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Unsurprisingly, there were no sound effects, let alone any dialogue, which we are used to witnessing in modern games. There wasn’t even a counter which would aid players in deciding the win. While all of this may sound like the video game console didn’t offer much, at the time, it was nothing short of revolutionary when it came to its offering.

Not to mention, it included a plethora of games, which, at the time, were the only option if someone wanted to play video games with another player at their house without heading to the nearest arcade.

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There stands no doubt that the machine propelled the gaming industry despite its offering seeming limited or anachronistic in the present. It is fascinating to imagine that the industry either wouldn’t exist or be decades behind had it not been for Ralph Baer and Team.

As the console turns 50, it makes sense to look back with fondness and give it credit, which is due. While modern console fans might not recognize the name or the console by its appearance, it has obtained legendary status. And for an excellent reason: being the trailblazer in the first gen of gaming.

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Written by Sparsh Jaimini

Sparsh Jaimini Sharma is a video games enthusiast and a Games Writer. A true white-blooded Madridsta. He is often seen grinding away at EAFC 24's Ultimate team and learning to code when he is not writing. A Batman fan and Arkham Games connoisseur. He is the quintessential DC aficionado.