Archive for May, 2012

Inside the Magnavox Odyssey (40th Anniversary)

Monday, May 28th, 2012

Inside the Magnavox Odyssey Teardown Slideshow

Believe it or not, it's been almost two years since I did my last tech teardown slideshow for PC World. After 11 visual disassemblies with my haggard workbench as a backdrop, I figured I'd give the series a rest until an interesting new venue came along.

Fast forward to April 2012 — it was a beautiful spring day outside, and I had decided to take apart a 1972 Magnavox Odyssey (the first commercial video game console) in honor of its 40th anniversary. I walked out to my back yard, sat down on the moss, and the result is now up on PCWorld.com.

I hope you enjoy it.

Here are my previous tech teardowns: Nintendo NES, Atari 1040STf, Atari 800, Commodore Amiga 1000, Commodore 64, Nintendo Game Boy, Nintendo Famicom, Apple IIc, IBM Model M Keyboard, TRS-80 Model 100, and Macintosh Portable.

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] The Odyssey Manual

Monday, May 28th, 2012

Magnavox Odyssey Manual Cover Scan - 1972"We've got a lot of space here, Fred, and I'm tired." [stamps 7 times] "Fixed."

Forty years ago, Magnavox lifted the veil on the world's first commercial video game console, the Odyssey. Designed to work with a home TV set, the Odyssey blazed a trail that every game console follows today.

While the Odyssey had first been revealed to the press in April 1972, the Odyssey reached the market at $99.99 (about $548 in today's dollars) in August of that year.

Magnavox's console relied on technology originally developed by Ralph Baer, Bill Harrison, and Bill Rusch at Sanders Associates in the mid- to late 1960s. Baer's invention, together with Atari's work during the same period, founded an industry.

Even though I've been writing about the work of Ralph Baer for over five years now, I still am amazed that the commercial video game console is now 40 years old. But 40 years is a long time in technology, and it's easy to see how we've come so far if you keep that time scale in mind.

By the way — in honor of this anniversary, I recently took apart an Odyssey console for PC World. You can read about that adventure in another post.

[ From Odyssey Installation and Game Rules, circa 1972, cover ]

Discussion Topic of the Week: Have you ever played an original Magnavox Odyssey console? Describe how you felt about the experience.

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] Apple II Mountain Music

Monday, May 21st, 2012

Mountain Computer MusicSystem Music System Apple II Ad - Mountain Music - 1982The Mountain Computer MusicSystem. Not a scene from Hee Haw.

In an age when the vast majority of commercial music is recorded or produced using computers, it's interesting to look back to a time with computer-based music tools were in their infancy. In this case we're turning back the clock 30 years to examine an ad for the Mountain Computer MusicSystem, a musical synthesizer and sequencer add-on for the Apple II (horse not included).

Admittedly, I know nothing about this system beyond what you read in the ad above (and some Googled info found here and here). But I wouldn't be surprised if the original creators of the MusicSystem are lurking somewhere out there on the Internet — just waiting for this subject to come up so they can post a comment about it on a blog like this one. If that's the case, please do!

[ From Popular Computing, January 1982, p.1 ]

Discussion Topic of the Week: When was the first time you used a computer as a tool in music production?

The Panoramic World of Ralph H. Baer

Thursday, May 17th, 2012

Ralph Baer holds a Simon toy in his basement, May 2012Two days ago, I flew up to New Hampshire to visit Ralph H. Baer, the Father of Video Games, at his home in Manchester.

During my brief stay, Baer was a gracious host and a gentleman to the highest degree. We discussed life, philosophy, WWII, video games, and more. Best of all, he showed me an archive of his inventions that he keeps in his basement.

I made the trip because Baer, along with two associates, invented home video games in 1967. That work culminated in the Magnavox Odyssey, the world's first commercial video game console, in 1972.

Baer, who turned 90 in March, has also been a freelance toy and game developer since the late 1970s. His biggest hit in that field is no doubt Simon, a toy which you might know by its iconic saucer shape and playful electronic melodies.

After examining some of his creations, I challenged him to a game of Ping Pong on a replica of the Brown Box (the 1968 video game prototype that inspired the Odyssey). We didn't keep score, but his hands are surprisingly nimble. By the way, he's a very good driver too. Even at 90, his mind seems twice as sharp as someone one third his age.

Yesterday morning, just before I left to fly home, I took the following panoramic shots around Ralph's house with my Sony camera. He gave me permission to publish these images, so I thought you might enjoy them.

The geometry in each photo is warped because the camera flattens about 180 degrees of perspective into a rectangular image. Still, I love the effect. Here they are:

Ralph Baer's OfficeRalph's office, where he writes and checks his email. He likes Macs.
Ralph Baer's Basement Electronics LabRalph's basement lab, where he has worked on his inventions for over 50 years.
Ralph Baer's Basement Toy DisplayRalph's main basement. To the right sits his shelved display of toy inventions.

Overall, it was an amazing trip. I am not the first journalist, nor will I be the last, to visit him. But I still feel lucky that I had a chance to explore the world of a renowned inventor up close.

Some time in the future, I will write about the visit in more detail. But for now, I thought you might enjoy checking out these photos.

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] The Magnavox Odyssey 2

Friday, May 11th, 2012

Magnavox Odyssey 2 Ad - 1981The Excitement of a Game. The Mind of a Computer. The Soul of an Edsel.

The Odyssey 2, released in 1978, ranks among the most misunderstood video game consoles. It boasted more CPU intelligence than the Atari 2600, but it lacked the licensed arcade titles and third-party developers to make it competitive over the long run. While its games were mostly clones of popular games on other systems, the console played host to a few interesting curiosities like The Voice, a speech synthesis module, and The Quest for the Rings, a beautiful board game that tied into the Odyssey 2 console.

The Odyssey 2 also included a built-in keyboard (a very poor membrane model), which I believe might be the only time such a thing has happened — unless you count certain home PCs as video game consoles.

[ From TIME, November 2, 1981, p.24 ]

Discussion Topic of the Week: What's your favorite Odyssey 2 game? If you have one, that is.


If you liked this, check out these related Retro Scans:

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] Game Genie Update Flyer

Monday, May 7th, 2012

Game Genie Code Update Pull-off flier flyer - circa 1993HERE THEY ARE! Your HOT Game Genie CODES for MORTAL KOMBAT!

I picked up this 5-inch by 2-inch Game Genie flyer/note at a local store (probably Toys'R'Us or K-Mart) in the early 1990s. Back then, Galoob printed up pads of these miniature flyers that would then be attached to retailer shelves near new games for sale. The pads looked much like office note blocks; a hard dry layer of glue covered the top side of the stack, allowing people to pull the flyers off one at a time.

I presume that Galoob distributed these flyers to stores as marketing tools. Since newly released games did not appear in Game Genie code books printed years before (such was the case with Mortal Kombat, seen here), these flyers provided an opportunity to both prove that the Game Genie was still relevant and to also to suggest the benefits of owning a Game Genie ("wow, infinite lives!") to people buying the game.

While I owned a Game Genie when I acquired this historical morsel, I'm pretty sure I didn't own Mortal Kombat at the time. I grabbed the flyer because I saved anything and everything video game related that I could get my hands on, which is why I still have it today.

[ Game Genie Code Update Flyer, circa 1993 ]

Discussion Topic of the Week: Do you remember seeing flyers like this in stores? Tell us about your experience.