Pong Story: A comprehensive history of early video games
Ralph Baer, the inventor of the home video game, and the creator of the Magnavox Odyssey
A page detailing Atari's dedicated consoles
Welcome to my Pong page! TV Tennis, Paddle Ball, Pong - No matter how it was referred to, the vast majority of early video game systems played a TV version of table tennis, aka ping-pong. It all started with Ralph Baer and the Magnavox Odyssey, moved to the arcades with Atari Pong, and became the hottest thing to be connected to a television set since rabbit ears! Hundreds (if not thousands) of different pong systems were made, offering various permutations of the core game, until these 'dedicated consoles' gave way to cartridge-based programmable consoles like the Fairchild Channel F and the Atari 2600 which persist to this very day (albeit no longer using cartridges as media). Even so, dedicated consoles have been making a comeback of sorts in recent years in the form of "plug-and-play" retro TV games such as the Atari Flashback and the Pac-Man Connect and Play.
The very first classic video game system I acquired was an Atari Super Pong Ten. I found it in a trash pile in 1994, along with a vintage reel-to-reel tape recorder. It was complete, along with it's box, two external paddle controllers, and manual. I soon found out how much fun old video games could be. I spent many hours playing Pong and Super Pong against anyone else who was willing to play, and also played the one-player basketball/wallball game. Not too long afterwards, I acquired one of the thousands of Pong clones put out, a Bentley Compu-Vision. Made around 1983, many years after Pong's heyday, this cheapie was based on the General Instruments AY-3-8500 "Pong-in-a-chip" IC, and played some simple paddle-based games using a set of flimsy hard-wired controllers (the knob on one of which broke after a few years). Through these games, I acquired the kind of hand-eye coordination you just don't get from playing Nintendo.
Unfortunately, the Super Pong Ten began acting up around 1996, and thanks to some prodding in the channel selector switch slot (the switch is actually located two inches within the base, making the slot useless), it stopped transmitting RF correctly. Thanks to Atari using weird three-prong Phillips-like screws, I wasn't able to open it up by normal means. The Compu-Vision still worked, but it wasn't nearly as fun as the Super Pong Ten had been, so it too got put away (I eventually parted it out after acquiring a nicer example). Then, nearly eight years later, I finally decided to make a go at opening the Super Pong Ten using a Dremel moto-tool clone. I cut slots in each of the strange-head screws, then used a slotted screwdriver to extract the two incredibly long (at least four inches long!) screws. I then fiddled with the channel 3/4 switch, and voila, it finally produced a good picture! After a long hiatus, I can once again play the Pong games I once loved and lost. Since then, I have acquired another example of the Super Pong Ten which has not had to have the screws mucked with, and is generally in better shape.
Over the years, I've spotted interesting pong systems from time to time. Most of them are based around the General Instruments chip mentioned above, and are fairly boring. However, one very interesting example of the dedicated systems I've come across is also one of the last of the line, Atari's Video Pinball system. One of the few dedicated consoles to be purely intended as a one-player system, Video Pinball incorporates several variations of pinball-type games, as well as a basketball game and their famous "Breakout" game. Video Pinball was later turned into an Atari 2600 cartridge, but to me the dedicated version mops the floor with it due to the fact that the flipper buttons are located on the sides of the console, just as they are with a real pinball machine. Using a joystick controller to actuate the flippers isn't nearly as fun, IMO.
After all these years of video game collecting, I finally managed to come across an example of the system which got the ball rolling in the first place, the Magnavox Odyssey. Designed by Ralph Baer starting in the mid-late 1960s, and culminating in the "Brown Box" prototype (which, along with other prototypes and lots of documentation, now reside in the Smithsonian Institute), the Odyssey was the first home video game system (there were some computer games developed before it, but those could hardly be used in the average home, given the size of early computers!). The produced version, released in 1972, used a series of 'cartridges' which were little more than circuit cards with a series of 'card edge' contacts wired together in certain ways which configured the system's internal logic circuitry (made up of individual transistors, since integrated circuits were too expensive at the time) to allow for playing various simple games (which is why it still counts as a dedicated console). The "graphics" consisted entirely of two blocks controlled by the player, and sometimes a moving ball or a line in the center of the screen; Magnavox provided a series of plastic 'overlays' which attached to the TV screen to provide a bit of color, as well as some idea of how the particular game is to be played. Magnavox later simplified the concept, replacing the individual transistors with integrated circuits (some of these systems used the General Instruments ICs mentioned above, while others used Texas Instruments ICs), and ditching the cartridges in favor of streamlined consoles pre-configured to play several games selected via a slider switch (I have an example of one of these, the Odyssey 300 from 1976).
I acquired my example of the original Odyssey at a ham radio flea market not too long after I, along with other members of the New England Antique Radio Club, got to meet Ralph Baer himself (who is very knowledgeable about the early days of radio and TV, and is still designing toys). As found, my Odyssey system (from the first production run in 1972) came with all of the cartridges and overlays which would've come with the system originally, as well as the ones which went with the "Shooting Gallery" light gun attachment (which, sadly, I didn't get with my Odyssey; if anyone has a spare, please email me using the address below). It also came with manuals and various paper accessories, including the flash cards used with several of the games. As found, the battery contacts exhibited corrosion due to batteries having been left in the holder sometime in the past, but I managed to find a replacement. Once tested, functions were a bit erratic, but after cleaning the cartridge contacts and adjusting the internal controls, it began working much better (apart from some fuzziness in the screen image). With any luck, I'll soon be able to play video games the way it was done in the beginning. I will be adding pictures of this system soon.