Magnavox Odyssey 2 — an ‘also-ran’ with a devoted fan base
The overwhelming majority of us in my neighborhood had Atari 2600s, but there was one fellow who had something completely different, — the Magnavox Odyssey 2. While I can’t honestly say any of us preferred the Odyssey 2 to our Ataris, that little Magnavox system had a lot going for it and provided hours of fun.
Still, Magnavox’s foray into the U.S. gaming market wasn’t entirely successful. It’s worth mentioning that that the Odyssey 2 was sold as the Phillips Videopac in Europe and the Phillips Odyssey in Brazil and had some success in those markets. In the U.S., however, the Odyssey 2 simply didn’t gain much traction against the Atari 2600. Sure, it had its fans, but the system was just whipped at about every turn by the Atari.
Why? The primary reason, of course, had to do with third-party support. Have a look at Mattel’s Intellivision — the 2600’s major competition — and you’ll notice that system had a ton of third-party support. The Odyssey 2, however, couldn’t make that claim, resulting in the release of around 45 games during the life of the system between 1978 and 1983 (compare that to over 500 for the Atari — popularity breeds third-party support and vice versa, seemingly).
Curiously, most of those games were written by one programmer — Ed Averett. Averett put together a slew of arcade-like games influenced by the likes of Asteroids, Pac-Man (more on that later) and Space Invaders that provided by some amusement but were hampered by the fact the player typically got one life. One? Uh, the standard is three lives. That makes for some frustrating games — bop along for a few minutes, get killed, start over, repeat until you’re angry. Also, there were some sports titles that were generally bad and a set of excellent games that merged board and video games.
Those hybrid games — Quest for the Rings, Conquest of the World and the Great Wall Street Fortune Hunt — came with game boards and pieces required to play them. They were regarded well by critics but, sadly, are hard to find in complete shape and are generally expensive these days.
Oh, and the Pac-Man thing I mentioned, Magnavox got sued by Atari for developing a game similar to that one called K.C. Munchkin! That one sold exceptionally well, but got the company into trouble because Atari had the exclusive U.S. license to Pac-Man. Magnavox (or rather it’s parent company, Phillips North America) had to cough up some damages and pull K.C. Munchkin! from the shelves (it was replaced by a sequel, K.C.’s Krazy Chase, which I believe is actually more fun than Munchkin).
By the way, notice all those exclamation points? Odyssey 2 games always, always, always had exclamation points in the titles. Magnavox wasn’t shy about hype, for sure.
In terms of hardware, the Odyssey was limited compared to the Atari 2600. While the Intel CPU under the hood ran a bit faster than Atari’s scaled-down 6502 and the graphics were a bit sharper, a lot of games simply crawl by in terms of speed and there are virtually no backgrounds to them. It’s easy to tell the one programmer who developed most of the Odyssey 2’s games was under tight deadlines as a lot of graphics are recycled from one game to the next. As for sound, the Odyssey’s limited audio was actually a bit inferior to Atari’s decidedly lackluster sound, but the company tried to make up for it with a voice synthesis unit (The Voice) that is used by only a few games.
One area where the Odyssey 2 shined was in the controllers. Some were hardwired to the motherboard, whereas others were not (don’t worry — replacing the hardwired sticks isn’t terribly complicated), but they were excellent sticks that held up very well. The control the player had over games was impressive, indeed. I love the Atari 2600 joysticks, but always preferred the Odyssey 2’s controllers. I sold off my Odyssey 2 units a few years ago, but still appreciate those controllers.
Oh, and the Odyssey 2 came with a keyboard that was rarely used for anything but selecting game variations. The “keyboard is the key” ads Magnavox ran seem a bit hollow in retrospect — that feature comes across as more of a gimmick than the game changer the designers apparently wanted.
In the final analysis, the Odyssey 2 isn’t a bad little system, particularly since you can pick one up cheap on eBay and most of the games don’t cost much. Also, it’s worth mentioning that you can pick up a multicart for the system for about $40 that has virtually every game made for the system (pick that up here) and there have been some new games developed that are a lot of fun (AMOK! is a particularly good Berzerk clone, for example).
If you’re looking for support for the Odyssey 2, check out the Video Game Critic’s Odyssey 2 review section, Odyssey2.org or The Odyssey 2 Homepage. Of course, you can always find plenty of classic video game fans at the AtariAge forums. If you want to hook that Odyssey 2 up to a modern television set with ease, grab this converter.
While it’s hard to deny the Atari 2600 is a more desirable system in terms of outright fun and the variety of games one can play, the Odyssey 2 isn’t a bad system at all that does provide some amusement. Besides, that thing was built like a tank — picking up one of these in perfect working order is anything but difficult.
Benton resident. Rogue journalist. Recovering attorney. Email = Ethan@FirstArkansasNews.net.