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Table Tennis (Odyssey) artwork

Table Tennis (Odyssey) review

"For anyone who doesn't know about the "Pong" craze from the '70s, it was literally a zeitgeist that sweeped the nation. The Christmas of 1975 made "Pong" a household name with the sale of the Sears/Atari home "Pong" consoles. These hooked into the television inputs, and play was done directly from the console itself by two or more players. Numerous versions of "Pong" were released from multiple distributors after that initial success. It was a true phenomenon that led Atari to develop what we no..."

For anyone who doesn't know about the "Pong" craze from the '70s, it was literally a zeitgeist that sweeped the nation. The Christmas of 1975 made "Pong" a household name with the sale of the Sears/Atari home "Pong" consoles. These hooked into the television inputs, and play was done directly from the console itself by two or more players. Numerous versions of "Pong" were released from multiple distributors after that initial success. It was a true phenomenon that led Atari to develop what we now remember as the "Atari 2600 Home Videogame System".

Many old school gamers from the late '70s and early '80s believe with some sense of certainty that the first "Pong" was produced by Atari in 1975. Though the view is a popular one, those gamers are mistaken. The first ever home game version of "Pong" was demonstrated in 1972 by Magnavox at an expedition. Initially called "Ping-Pong", it was later called "Table Tennis" in the system Magnavox released as "Odyssey". The developer of what would be known as Atari's "Pong" attended that very expedition, and designed his game from that experience.

While this review is for that particular Odyssey game, you can't really review this game individually apart from a generic review of the console on which it ran, namely the original Magnavox Odyssey. The games for that system, the first EVER videogame console, are so tied to the system itself that it requires a review of the Odyssey system itself.

The idea that eventually turned into the Odyssey started in the mind of a German immigrant named Ralph Baer in 1951 while working for a Television manufacturing company called "Loral". He posited the idea that the television had the potential not just for viewing entertainment programs, but also playing visual games. The executives quickly trashed the idea, but Baer never forgot it. In 1966, while working for Magnavox, he pitched the idea again and came up with a prototype that would be external from the television instead of built-in. Six years, and a lot of investment capital later, and Magnavox released the first ever videogame console -- the "Odyssey". This achievement established Ralph Baer as the father of the home videogame console.

The Odyssey system was pretty simple from a technical perspective. There was no CPU, so the system worked with only a number of transistors and diodes, whose switch settings would manipulate the behavior of dots on the TV screen. Games were not held on cartridges, but on cards which contained electrical circuits. These acted as toggles on the internal switch system. Inserting these cards (and thus their circuits) reconfigured the system's discreet internal logic. As you can imagine, this incredible limitation of functionality was used to make equally limited games.

For instance, the Odyssey's graphics were EXTREMELY simple. The system was capable of drawing two large blocks, a small block, and a larger vertical line. These could be "programmed" by the game cards to act in a variety of ways, allowing more than one actual game. This game, "Table Tennis", would use the two larger blocks as "paddles", the small block as a ball, and the vertical line as the center net. Other games might only use one or both of the large blocks as lighting points for the screens, or even a character. The backgrounds were available, but as semi-transparent TV-screen overlays in two sizes for two different sizes of television screens popular at the time of its creation. These would be used with the matching game to create that game's intended background. Sound effects are noticeably absent.

The system had no concept of score keeping in the console itself. Instead, accessories came with the system's in-box games, and with those games which were sold separately. Accessories would include score cards with stick on numbers, red, white, and black chips, play money, etc. Some games even came with gameboards. It was up to the gamers to keep their own score using these accessories. This gave some (though not all) of the games the distinct feeling of being little more than board games with a televised component.

The handheld controller consisted of two turning dials on each edge, one moving vertical and one horizontal. The horizontal control also contained an extra dial, called the "English" control, which was used to control the direction of the ball on games which used one. For those of us who remember the Etch-A-Sketch, imagine if you could use an Etch-A-Sketch as a game controller. It was virtually impossible to make straight diagonal lines. Controlling the shooting-type games was not as difficult as the regular controlled games. The shooting controller consisted of a light sensing rifle which could detect the difference between the black television screen and the lighted dots. Unfortunately, this light sensing rifle was not very distinquishing. Shooting at a light bulb would register success as easily as a lighted screen dot. Though this might seem to be an easy way to cheat for scores, again, the scores were manually calculated by the very gamer who was playing the game, so such cheating had no visual effect.

It's hard to judge a system like this. I mean, it was truly revolutionary, and is responsible for starting the domino effect of improvements that the gaming industry has made. Yes much much better games are made on much much better consoles today, but those who are making such games today are relying on the history of knowledge and technology that systems like the Odyssey, Atari, and all game systems since then have laid. Odyssey isn't just an important step in the evolution of home video games, it's the genesis of the entire industry.

I judged the system with that history in mind, and took into account that my own tilt in favor of the system is very large. My grandparents bought me an Odyssey for my birthday in 1974, when I had just turned three years old, and though I didn't start playing it until I was age five, and even then only at their home, I played it whenever I could find a willing participant all the way up until the early '80s, when I received an Atari 2600 as a replacement. Hence, for me personally, it was a system that had great lasting value, and I am definitely biased from being able to say that I was one one of the few people on earth to own and play the very first videogame console. However, I have to be honest about things like gameplay, graphics, etc. They were absolutely revolutionary for their time, but they are what they are, and I can't rate them as anything but the most basic. If they were any more basic, they would be "imagination".

The Odyssey system was virtually made for this "Table Tennis" game, and on most fronts it makes the grade. All other games available on this system are more or less simply laid on top of this game's graphics and functionality. The simple graphics are more than acceptible for a game as simple as this one and were in fact made primarily for this game. It was literally the only game on the console that did not require a screen overlay. Controls, while clunky for most games, fit this one perfectly. There is, again, a noticeable lack of sound effects and score keeping, but these absences don't hurt the experience too dramatically, as keeping manual score for a game like this was not burdensome, and sound effects were unnecessary to determine when hits or misses were made.

Despite the more advanced Atari clones which came later, this was most assuredly the game that began the home gaming frenzy. In fact, this is in some ways the most challenging of the ping-pong games of the '70s. Unlike other versions of "Pong", you could move the "paddles" left or right as well as up or down, presenting a more realistic "Table Tennis" experience. Another difference from other "Pong" implementations is the use of the "English" control to drive the direction of the ball. These added a certain skill requirement to the game that wasn't present in the later clones, and I have to admit that they were sorely missed.

For those who require complete modernized gameplay and professional environments to really enjoy a game or gaming system, the Odyssey will not impress you. This experience isn't as much for the old schoolers as it is for the ancient schoolers. For those of us who like to live in the past every now and then and remember what was, this system is perfect, acting both as a nostalgic reminder of our past, and a concrete icon of how this industry and hobby we all now know and love got its start. Once you get past the perks we all benefit from in modern gameplay, it can also be quite fun.

m0zart's avatar
Community review by m0zart (April 02, 2006)

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