In Summer 2013, I taught the inaugural session of The Cultural Impact of Video Games, a class I developed at the University of Florida. In this class, we examined how video games have developed over the last 50 years, as well as all the controversies about video games.
We began the class by talking about the origins of video games, spending ample time studying the earliest consoles. I posted something about the class on Facebook, and my friend’s dad sent me a message:
Would you like an original in the box Magnavox Oddessy II with a bunch of games?
Would I! Born in 1985, I missed the Odyssey² completely as it was discontinued in 1984. The Odyssey² competed against the better-known Atari 2600, which sold 30+ million units compared to the Odyssey²’s measly 2 million.
By the way, they pronounced it Odyssey “Two,” even though it’s written Odyssey “Squared.”
I tried to impress upon my students how revolutionary these earlier games were, even if they haven’t aged well. I thought the Odyssey² would be the perfect teaching tool, so I went about setting it up in my office.
Modern video game systems are plugged into TVs using a variety of cables, such as Component HD AV cables or standard AV cables (the three-pronged Red, Yellow, White one). I opened up the Odyssey² box and was surprised to find this:
This switch is supposed to attach to an analog TV antenna, something my current digital television is not outfitted with. The audio/video was connected through an RCA cable, yet even that was outdated:
Notice that little notch at the end of the cable? Yeah, that makes it incompatible with modern hookups. I showed the guy at Radio Shack the cable and he says he’s never seen such a thing before. Such is 1982 technology!
Hacking the system
Luckily, I found this tutorial on how to hack/modernize the Odyssey²’s hookups. I’ve never hacked a gaming console before, so I was a little nervous but confident I could do it (even though the instructions look like they were created back in 1997).
The procedure was actually pretty simple.
First, I removed the back cover. Notice all the empty space inside.
Next, I unplugged the old RCA cord. Unlike modern consoles, the a/v cord could not be removed from outside the console: it was attached internally.
Unfortunately, the modern RCA cord’s end was too fat to fit in the little space. So instead of having the cord come out the back of the console, I drilled a hole for it to exit the side.
Finally, to connect the Odyssey to my television, as all of the other video inputs were in use, I used the coaxial cable. Connecting the RCA to the coaxial cable was simply a matter of using an RCA female to F female adaptor, purchased from Monoprice.com.
Testing the Odyssey²
Next came the big moment: firing it up! I remember fondly the days of playing with a half-broken NES. My brother and I often began our play sessions with a half-hour trial in getting the thing to work (procedure: blow on the cartridge, turn on machine, turn it off, remove cartridge, blow on it again, insert, turn on machine, hit reset, hit reset, try hitting reset a third time, turn off machine, repeat). I envisioned a similar thing happening with the Odyssey². Fortunately, about 75% of the games worked on the first try, and the others just took a little fiddling to get them to work. Success!
This game, Blockout, is similar to (a rip-off of) the arcade classic Breakout. The difference? Those little men walking around inside the rows will slowly rebuild the blocks if you aren’t fast enough in destroying them.
I spent the next 2 hours playing through my pile of games with my roommates. As these kids were all born in the 1990s, about 6-8 years after me, this technology is even farther removed for them than it is for me. I at least remember playing a 2600 a few times as a kid, so I knew what to expect. One of my roommates, an avid gamer himself, had a hard time imagining how anybody could’ve enjoyed these games. He remarked, “If I had been born back then, I don’t think I ever would’ve become a gamer.”
Even though my friend’s dad gave me tons of games, only about half of them were playable. Why is that? Well, my Odyssey² is one of the original models, which did not have detachable controllers. Yep, the controllers are hardwired into the system. Weird, huh? And unfortunately, the right controller doesn’t work.
And why is that unfortunate? Two reasons:
- Some games are only playable with two players, like racing games and sports games. They don’t have single player modes. I can still turn them on and start them up, but Player 2 sits there helplessly while Player 1 has all the fun.
- Some single player games require the right joystick, not the left, to play! This just blows my mind, but I guess it makes sense when you think about it. In the early days of video games, everything was being created for the first time: industry standards were a few years away. The Odyssey² was released at a time when Player 1 wasn’t standardized as the left controller. My theory is, the designers thought that most people are right-handed, so it only makes sense to use the right joystick for single player games.
Despite the unplayability of many of my games, I still had a blast with the system. It’s a great reminder how far video games have come in such a short period of time.
Now the real test: Students
After getting my fill of the Odyssey² at home, I brought it to school and set it up in my office.
Yes, everything’s connected to a cute little 13″ CRT television, right next to my Super NES and Atari Flashback 3. I’ve already showed it off to some students and colleagues. Even though the games suck by today’s standards (let’s be honest, they haven’t aged well at all), everybody’s had a lot of fun so far.
If anybody has any memories of the Odyssey², share them below!