Orphaned Computers & Game Systems

Vol. II, Issue 7    December 1998

Odyssey 2

The Machine and the Games

by Adam Trionfo

The Odyssey 2 is a large (13" deep by 13 1/2" wide), silver game console released by Magnavox in 1978. It is the only game console that has come standard with a keyboard (a membrane keyboard is actually part of the console itself). The Odyssey 2 was sold throughout the late seventies and early eighties, in competition with the VCS and Intellivision.

The joystick feels rather large. Its base measures 4 1/2" by 3 1/2" and is 1 1/2" thick. Compare that to the standard Atari 2600 joystick, on which the base is 3 1/2 " square and only a bit more than an inch thick. It might not sound like much, but it really does make a huge difference in game play and comfort.

On most Odyssey 2s, the joysticks are permanently attached. During the system's shelf life, if a joystick broke, the whole unit had to be brought to an authorized service center, or sent back to Magnavox for repair. That was worse than being inconvenient; it was inexcusable. Later releases did have joysticks that could be unplugged, though I have never seen one of these units. The controller company Wico even made an adaptor for these later releases, so that 2600-compatible joysticks could be used instead of the standard Odyssey fare.

"They're better than the 5200 or Intellivision controllers," says Chris about the standard Odyssey joysticks. Most gamers know that this isn't really much of a compliment. Basically, it means that they aren't completely unusable. Rating the Odyssey 2 controllers from one to ten, I would give them an overall rating of seven, with a two for small children (since my son is only four, I always think of how an input device can be manipulated by small hands).

Most of the Odyssey 2 games are of rather poor quality, with even the supposedly great games being mediocre when compared to those on other systems of the same era. Despite the Amazing Wizard of Odyssey commercials, most games were not "amazing" at all.

Included here are summaries of a few interesting cartridges for the Odyssey 2. Don't look at it as a list of the best games for the system. The purpose is to cover a versatile selection of games, each of which is different in some way from the standard stuff. The following are also fun to play, and after their synopses are brief summaries of a non-game and boring oddball with some neat features. These are some of the cartridges that I think every Odyssey 2 owner should at least have a look at. I have not included any of the video/board games, i.e. Quest for the Rings, because I have never had the patience to set them up and try them out. I understand that they can be quite fun with enough players. If anyone would like to review them, let us know.

Computer Intro! -- This is probably the strangest cartridge for the Odyssey 2. It is an assembler. It includes a 103-page booklet that gives a brief history of computers and the uses that they have. Then it jumps right in, and has the user entering machine-language programs and learning Assembly.

While I think the idea of this cartridge is great, it has a fatal flaw: There is no way to store anything that you program! I imagine that this cartridge was used by some people with real passion and enthusiasm. It probably even whetted the appetite of a few folks who went on to become programmers who would not have otherwise. However, I can hardly imagine myself taking an hour to enter a program only to have it disappear when the console is turned off.

This program wasn't meant to be an assembler for professional use. If it had been, then you can bet that Magnavox would have called it Assembler! and not Computer Intro!. It just seems that the Odyssey 2 could have had a radical following of hackers and programmers, had Magnavox had the insight to make a cassette jack on the cartridge for the input and output of programs. Maybe it wasn't even possible, but it's tempting to imagine an underground movement, similar to that which centered around BASIC on the Bally Astrocade, having been sparked in some way.

I recommend a glance at this cartridge, despite the fact that programs can't be saved. I have entered programs myself, and they work fine. But to have to shut the computer off and lose the work is a tragedy. If anyone is interested in actual programming on the Odyssey 2, this cartridge is a must-have, because the booklet that comes with it is an absolute gem, containing information and charts about Odyssey 2 internals that you would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. Besides, where else are you going to find an introduction to computers that presumes that the reader can learn Hex in a page or two, and be programming in Assembly a few pages later?

K.C. Munchkin! -- Atari believed that this game was so similar to Pac-Man that they sued Magnavox. Atari won the suit, and Magnavox was unable to sell the game. Why, then, is this one of the most common games available for the system? Shouldn't only a limited number of these cartridges have been released? Can anyone help shed some light on this?

Atari was partly right; this game is based on Pac-Man. But it isn't a clone. It introduces a few novel concepts not available in the more popular game, such as different mazes and moving, non-enemy objects.

K.C. is called a Munchkin, the ghosts are named Munchers, and the dots are Munchies. Unlike in Pac-Man, in which there is a maze that is completely filled with stationary dots that must be eaten, K.C.'s maze has only eight Munchies, which float around the maze. Our hero must chase after these while Munchers pursue him. Got that?

The mazes in this game are selected by pressing 0-3 for one of the four standard mazes; 4 creates a random maze, 5-8 give you invisible walls, and 9 offers a random maze with invisible walls. One of the selling points of this game was that the player could make an unlimited amount of his own mazes. This is true, but, of course, they cannot be saved. Newly designed mazes don't add much to game play anyway. As an experiment, I "designed" a maze with no walls. The Munchers and Munchies still wandered around as if they were confined by invisible walls.

This game, while similar to Pac-Man, is different enough to place Atari's lawsuit on shaky ground. I'm not sure why there are so many cartridges if Atari won the suit, but I'm glad that the game is available; unlike Pac-Man on the VCS (the dud that Atari was making while in court), K.C. Munchkin! is a fine game that is worthy of play.

K.C.'s Krazy Chase! -- This is the sequel to K.C. Munchkin. The concept of this game is very similar to that of the original, but the visuals have been changed tremendously. I guess that was done to make sure Atari didn't come and give Magnavox another happy visit.

The game still takes place in a maze, but the Munchies are now trees (?!), and the Munchers have been replaced with a caterpillar called Dratapillar and two meanies called Drats. Trees grow in random locations in the maze, and K.C. must eat them while avoiding the Drats and the head of the Dratapillar. However, the body of the Dratapillar can be eaten, giving K.C. the power to stun the Drats.

This game is also one of the few that has been enhanced for use with the Odyssey 2's voice synthesizer. When the game begins, you are prodded to start moving about the maze with "Go!". Randomly, the game shouts "Hurry!" or "Watch out!". When K.C. runs into a Drat or the Dratapillar's head, the game really lets the player know, with a sad-sounding "Ouch! Oh, no!".

K.C.'s Krazy Chase! also allows the player to create mazes, as well as using the standard mazes and random options. This game is similar to K.C. Munchkin! in much the same way that Ms. Pac-Man is similar to its own predecessor. They are basically the same game, but once you play the sequel, it becomes clear that the first was always missing a little something.

Killer Bees! -- This is an original, fast-paced game of simplicity, with graphics that are well-drawn and sound effects that are great; it is a strong highlight in the Odyssey 2 library.

You control a swarm of bees that must protect the earth from alien invaders called Beebots. The idea sounds pretty bad, but the game play is fantastic. You kill the Beebots by stinging them to death. As you pass over them, they slow down a bit; the longer the player stays over them, the slower they move. They eventually turn into tombstones. Except for moving around rather quickly, the Beebots can't protect themselves. They rely on one to three swarms of other bees to kill you off in the same manner in which you sting the Beebots to death.

This game is also voice-enhanced. The bees make a digitized buzzing noise. The player's bees say "Oh!" when they die. Not much use. It seems like the idea was added afterwards. Maybe a top exec at Magnavox saw the game and liked it, but said, "Wouldn't it be way better if the bees really buzzed?".

The same feeling of helplessness that comes over me when I'm losing my cities in a hectic game of Missile Command is what occurs in the later levels of Killer Bees!. This game has some of the Odyssey 2's best animation, as well as the only interesting title screen. It is obvious that attention to detail really went into this game; it shows through. This game is really great.

Smithereens! -- There is nothing fantastic about this game. It is included here because, if you have the voice synthesizer, this is the game to show it off with.

The game features the age-old theme of two castles catapulting boulders at each other. I like that theme, but here, it has been too simplified. No longer do you decide how much power to use, the angle of the shot or adjustment for wind, all of which are what have always made the other variations on the theme interesting. Now just hold the joystick in any direction; depending on how long it's held, that's how far the bullet/boulder goes. It seems neat -- for about two minutes.

This game makes great use of the Voice for sound effects. The bullet/boulder makes a great digitized explosion sound when it hits the castle. More speech is in this game than in any other Odyssey 2 game that I know of. The speech is all made by an antagonistic-sounding voice that says stuff like: "Come on, Turkey! Attack," "You blew it," "Mercy! Mercy," "Ouch! Help," "Hit it," "Amazing!" and "That's Easy." These aren't the limits of the in-game speech, either. You need to hear it!

It may not be fun to play, but it is fun to listen to -- once or twice, anyway. If you have small kids, they will love it. My son laughs the whole time he plays it. He thinks it is hilarious. I think that it is at least funny. If you have the Voice, get this cartridge. -- AT