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The Birth of The Home Video Game Console

As companies were striving to become a major player in the video arcade market another battle was going on to lead the way in the home video game market. In 1971 Magnavox revisited the idea of television gaming and finally took a license of Ralph Baer’s “Brown Box” from Sander Associates. Their 1972 Odyssey home video game system, a production engineered version of the “Brown Box” was the result. This was the first home video game console and started the home game console market which is now a multibillion dollar industry.

The first generation of home consoles were made between 1972 and 1978 with three major companies competing to become the leader in the home video game market. The first to be release was Magnavox Odyssey followed by Atari’s Pong home console and then the Coleco Telstar systems.

The Magnavox Odyssey was first demonstrated on May 24, 1972 and released in September 1972 with a price tag of $100. The system was a redesign of Ralph Baer’s “Brown Box” prototype which was completed in 1968. By the time the system was released to the general public it was 4 year old technology and the video arcade market was just gaining ground and had more advance technology.

Magnavox Odyssey
Magnavox Odyssey first home video game console released in 1972

The Odyssey system was powered by batteries, lacked any sound capability and was bundled with 2 controllers, 6 C batteries, 6 game cards which were capable of playing 11 games and 22 screen overlays (2 per game to support 2 different size television screens). The 11 games that were bundled with the system were Analogic, Cat & Mouse, Football, Haunted House, Hockey, Roulette, Simon Says, Ski, States, Submarine and Tennis. In addition to the game cards and screen overlays the system came bundled with game accessories such as dice, scorecards, play money, casino chips and playing cards for each game.

The Odyssey used a type of removable printed circuit board card that inserts into a slot on the front of the system. There was no power switch for the console as the system would turn on once a game was inserted into the system and turn off once the game was removed. The printed circuit board cards did not contain any components but had a series of jumpers between pins of the card connector. These jumpers merely unlocked onboard programming to play certain games and the cards themselves did not contain game data. Add-on games were sold individually for $5.49 or in a pack of 6 for $24.99. Some of the add-on games did not include a game card but just new overlays and instructions that could be used with one of the game cards that came bundled with the system to give it a new functionality.

The system was sold with plastic overlays that were placed over the television screen to simulate graphics that the system was not capable of producing. The overlays only supported two different television sizes and multiple overlays could be used with the same game card to allow for a different game play experience. Along with the overlays the system came with dice, casino chips, score sheets and game play cards to allow for a better variety of gameplay.

Overlays for the Magnavox Odyssey
Screen Overlays for the Magnavox Odyssey system - 1972

Magnavox also released the first commercial video game light gun called “The Shooting Gallery” for their Odyssey system. “The Shooting Gallery” was a rifle light gun that was originally designed by Ralph Baer and was part of his “Brown Box” prototype. The light gun was sold separately and the Odyssey system had a special port built into it for this peripheral. With the purchase of the light gun peripheral it allowed players the ability to play four additional games. The light gun came with 2 game cards which gave the ability to play 4 games which were Shootout, Dogfight, Prehistoric Safari and Shooting Gallery.

Shooting Gallery for the Magnavox Odyssey
Magnavox Odyssey’s “Shooting Gallery”, first home video game light gun

The Odyssey was not a huge success as it only sold around 330,000 units worldwide during its four year production. Sales for the console were hurt by poor marketing and misinformation as many consumers believed that the Odyssey would only work on a Magnavox brand television. This led to other consoles in the future writing an explanation on their box saying “Works on any television set, black and white or color” to avoid any confusion. Magnavox restricted the sales of the Odyssey to Magnavox franchised dealer stores only which narrowed the potential sales base considerably as the system was not widely available in many areas. Magnavox also mismanaged the sale of the additional game packs and system add-ons as sales personnel were not educated on the Odyssey. Magnavox discontinued the Odyssey in 1975 after releasing 12 game cards with the ability to play 28 games in total during the system’s lifespan.

Atari was extremely successful in the video arcade market so they decided the next logical step was to expand into the home video game market. It was 1974 when Atari started to design a home version of “Pong” an idea that was proposed by engineer Harold Lee. At the time there was only one company in the home video game market which was Magnavox. With the Odyssey’s not being adopted by many customers mainly due to the misconception of it only being compatible with Magnavox television sets it seemed like the perfect time for Atari to take a stab at the home video game market.

Atari was able to incorporate advance features into their “Pong” home console that gave them an edge of their competitors. The system used a single chip that provided the game with digital onscreen scoring and sound.

In 1975, Atari started looking for ways to distribute their new home “Pong” system but it wasn’t easy finding a distributor due to the track record that Magnavox had with the Odyssey. Retailers felt the price of the system was too expensive to draw an interest from the general public. After being rejected by numerous toys and electronics manufacturers Atari tried contacting Sears & Roebuck to see if they would have any better luck trying to work out distribution agreement. They were directed to Tom Quinn who was the buyer for Sears’ sporting goods department and he expressed interest but wanted the system demonstrated for a few executives first. Al Alcorn travelled to Chicago to demonstrate the pong home system prototype for the Sears executives and despite some minor technical issues with the prototype was able to obtain their approval.

Now that the executives gave their blessing, Quinn started to work with Nolan Bushnell to see if they could reach an agreement. Quinn wanted exclusive rights to the system as well as 150,000 systems units before the holiday season. Bushnell agreed to the terms even though he knew that Atari would not be able to produce 150,000 units with their current facility. Atari acquired a new factory through funding by venture capitalist Don Valentine in order to produce the promised 150,000 units for Sears. In the end Atari was able to fulfill the order for Sears. All systems manufactured in 1975 were branded with Sears’ “Tele-Games” name but in 1976 Atari started releasing a version under their own brand name.

Pong Home Console
Atari’s “Pong” home console released under Sears’ Tele-Games brand in 1975

The success of home pong just like the video arcade version resulted in a multitude of clone pong consoles. Unlike the Magnavox Odyssey the home pong console and the clone consoles were only able to play one game “Pong”. Even with the limited ability of playing just one game the Pong systems became extremely popular and easily outsold the Odyssey.

The success of the arcade version of “Pong” drew the attention of Ralph Baer and Sanders Associates, who were already pressing Magnavox to pursue legal action against Atari for patent infringement. The release of the home version of “Pong” made the similarities between “Pong” and Odyssey’s Table Tennis game even more in Magnavox favor as they were both playable in console form on a standard television set. Magnavox filed suit against Atari as well as other companies that were making clone “Pong” systems in 1975. Magnavox argued that Atari had infringed on Baer’s patents as well as the concept of electronic Ping-Pong based on detailed records that Sanders Associates kept on the design process of the “Brown Box” dating back to 1966. Magnavox also provided a signed guest book that was signed by Nolan Bushnell from when he attended a demonstration of the Odyssey were they had their table tennis game on display.

Bushnell estimated the legal costs in the millions and decided to settle with Magnavox out of court. Atari agreed to become a licensee for $700,000 and the companies producing “Pong” clones would have to pay royalties, in addition to the agreement Magnavox would obtain the rights to Atari products developed over the next year. Atari decided to delay the release of their products for a year to avoid Magnavox obtaining rights to their products and withheld information from Magnavox’s attorneys during visits to their facilities.

Many of the companies that produced clone “Pong” systems continued to produce new consoles and video games due to the success off of the clone systems they were producing. Magnavox ended up simplifying the Odyssey hardware and releasing several “Pong” only systems using the Odyssey name starting with the Odyssey 100. Magnavox continued adding new features to the “Pong” game and release new consoles regularly with Odyssey 100, Odyssey 200, Odyssey 300, Odyssey 400 & Odyssey 500 all releasing before the end of 1976. In 1977 Magnavox continued pumping out “Pong” systems with additional variations of gameplay and released the Odyssey 2000, Odyssey 3000 & Odyssey 4000 by the end of the year. Nintendo released the “Color TV Game 6” in 1977, which played six variations of pong style gameplay. This was Nintendo’s entry into the home video game market and the beginning of a video game dynasty. Nintendo continued the release of dedicated game consoles under the “Color TV” series until 1979 but only focused its sales within Japan.

Coleco entered the video game market with their Telstar line of consoles in 1976. Many companies were entering the game market that year with Pong clones and nearly all of these new systems were based on General Instrument’s new AY-3-8500 Pong chip. Coleco’s CEO Arnold Greenberg was first informed of this chip by Ralph Baer in the early stages of development and was able to become GI’s first customer for their new chip. General Instrument had underestimated the demand for their pong chip which resulted in a severe shortage but since Coleco had been the first to place an order it put them while ahead of the game give the Telstar line of consoles jumpstart to success.

Coleco Telstar
Coleco’s “Telstar” released 1976

Coleco released its first video game system the “Telstar” in 1976. The system was the first to use the AY-3-8500 chip and played three games with three difficulty levels. The three games that were playable were hockey, handball and tennis which were all Pong variants. The system like many of the “Pong” systems had two paddle controllers attached to the console itself. The “Telstar” became so successful that Coleco turn it into a series releasing 14 different consoles under the “Telstar” name from 1976 to 1978.

Even though Coleco released 14 different versions in the “Telstar” series only two of the systems besides the original were really successful. The first was the “Telstar Combat!”, a two player version of the game “Tank” released by Kee Games an Atari subsidiary and the second was the “Telstar Marksman” which came with a light gun, four variants of Pong and two light gun games.

The “Telstar Combat!” released in 1977 and was not a Pong variant system but is still considered a dedicated console as it only has the ability to play built in games. The system has four joysticks fixed to the console two for each player and was able to play four variant of the game “Tank”.

Coleco's Telstar Combat!
Coleco’s “Telstar Combat!” released in 1977

The “Telstar Marksman” was another dedicated console released by Coleco in 1978. The system featured a light gun in the form of a pistol with an attachable stock and barrel. The elongated barrel included a simple aiming sight for the two build in shooting games. The four build in Pong variants were Tennis, Hockey, Handball and Jai-Alai. The two shooting games were Skeet and Target.

Even though some of the other systems in the Telstar series were not as successful, some did influence the video game industry allowing it to progress forward. The most advanced system that Coleco released in the Telstar series was the “Telstar Arcade”. The system was made in a triangular case allowing the console to have three different control setups allowing the system to play three different game styles. One side of the console had the standard rotational dials for playing Pong style games, on another side was a light gun for shooting games and on the last side was a steering wheel which gave the ability to play racing games. With the steering wheel and shift stick for the racing games this brought more of the arcade experience in the living room.

Coleco's Telstar Arcade
Coleco’s “Telstar Arcade” Released in 1977

The “Telstar Arcade” used interchangeable cartridges but unlike the Magnavox Odyssey the cartridge contained a dedicated game chip. Coleco released four cartridges in total for the system, the first being bundled in with the system and the other three sold separately for $25 each.

The first generation of home video game consoles were mainly dedicated systems only allowing the games that were built into the systems to be played but this was a very important step in the success of the home video game market. These systems gave the general public the ability to play some of their favorite video arcade systems in their home and opened the door for more advance systems to be developed with the home video game market in mind.