It’s no secret that there’s a special place in my heart for things that are, well, kinda crappy. I’m a Yugo owner, after all. And one of these kinda crappy things is the third-most popular home video game console of the (early) 1980s, the Magnavox Odyssey2. It’s a fascinating machine, so let’s dig into it a bit and see what the state of racing and driving games was on it. Spoiler alert: It’s kinda crappy.
I actually decided to do this particular episode when I saw one of the rare commenters on YouTube who wasn’t talking about how horrific my hair was, but instead was interested in the strange silver machine with the flat keyboard.
I realized that there’s likely many people too young or who have lives too full to have known about the Odyssey2, so let’s solve that problem right now.
The Odyssey2 actually has a very storied lineage, as the original Odyssey was the very first home game console, developed by the father of pretty much the whole concept of video games, Ralph Baer.
The Odyssey2 started life as a sort of in-house project at Intel, of all places, who, as a maker of computer chips, wanted to find a way to, you know, sell lots of computer chips. Seeing the potential of early cartridge-based consoles like the Fairchild Channel F and the Atari VCS (later called the 2600), Intel put together a set of chips that could be used to make a similar system.
They used an 8048 microcontroller as the main brain—this chip is best known for handling just the keyboard in an early IBM PC—and a graphics chip called the 8244, which could handle four 8x8 pixel moving objects, a simple background “grid,” and up to 12 other characters on the screen.
These basic specs defined the Odyssey2 design, which did have some novel ideas, not the least of which was a full keyboard. The keyboard was great at convincing buyers they were getting more of a “real computer” than the Atari or Intellivision or other home consoles, but the reality is that it was mostly just used for typing your name into game score areas, or more likely, “ASS” or “SHITHEAD.”
The Odyssey2 was really a pretty rigid and limited design. Where the Atari 2600 was also very limited, the nature of its design was inherently quite flexible, allowing clever programmers to really push the limits of what the system could do. The Odyssey2 was much less suited to this.
One very apparent limitation was the Odyssey’s reliance on its built-in set of alphanumeric and graphical characters, which you can see here:
These blocky little humans, arrows, circles, planes, and other shapes ended up getting re-used over and over in games, to save the very limited memory, and, as a result, many Odyssey2 games looked very similar:
This also meant that arcade conversions that were difficult to pull off on the limited Atari 2600 were damn near impossible on the Odyssey2, though there were valiant tries. Consider Parker Brother’s adaptation of Nintendo’s arcade classic based on a 1930s comic strip, Popeye:
Yeah, that’s not great.
Still, it was a fascinating console in many ways. The Voice was a popular voice-synthesis module that helped compensate for the system’s pretty terrible audio capabilities (you can hear it talk in the video) and it’s responsible for the first real “look-and-feel” lawsuit, which is also addressed in the video, along with the fact that most of the Odyssey2's games were made by one very prolific dude, Ed Averett.
Anyway, some rando asked for a deep dive into the Odyssey, so there you go, dear, sweet rando. I focus on the driving games available for it, since, again, we’re all about the cars here, but there really aren’t many, and what does exist is, yeah, terrible.
Still, I’m fond of terrible, sometimes. Hopefully, you are too, just a little bit.