By J.W. Hunter

Forget what you know. Erase your mind. Place yourself as a kid or parent in 1979, 1980, or 1981. Like most people back then, you are not technical and are not technically informed. You are not aware that the Atari 2600's graphics can contain a little more detail than that of the Odyssey². You are not aware that the Odyssey²'s graphics have better fluid animation and solidity than that of the Atari 2600. You don't know that the Atari 2600 has two sound channels and more sounds compared to the one sound channel of the Odyssey². You don't know that the Odyssey² has more expandable memory than the Atari 2600. You're just an average kid or parent wanting a home video game system.

Now let's say that Philips/Magnavox decides to be smart and exclusively license out Space Invaders for the Odyssey² and release it in 1980. (They could have produced a decent version of it and for the purposes of this story, we will say that they did.) Now, the Odyssey² is the first home video game system to have exclusive rights to a very popular arcade game and is selling like crazy.

So, in 1980, you are shopping around and are looking at the Atari 2600 and the Odyssey². You see this cool-looking silver video games system that has a keyboard and has Space Invaders available for it. You also see this black video game system with levers, but it does not have Space Invaders or any other popular arcade game that you know of. Looking at all of this you decide, like most anyone else would, that the Odyssey² is the better buy because it looks more sophisticated and has Space Invaders. However, you realize that you do not have enough money, so you will have to wait another year or so to purchase it.

It is now 1981 and you decide that no matter what, you are getting a video game system this year for Christmas. You decide to take one more look to make sure of which one you want. Now let's say in this year of 1981, Philips/Magnavox decides to go ahead and exclusively license out one more popular arcade game called Pac-Man. We all know for sure that they would have easily made a great home version of it (for that time). Now the Odyssey² has both Space Invaders and Pac-Man available for it on top of its cool silver and sophisticated look and its keyboard.

But you also realize that Atari is releasing a home version of Asteroids exclusively for the 2600. You realize that this might take a little more thinking.

Wait a second. It looks like a bunch of other companies called Third Party Developers are making cool video games for the Odyssey² as well. Hmm... the Odyssey² looks cool, has a keyboard, has Space Invaders, has Pac-Man, there are more games available for it because of these Third Party Companies, and everyone else is buying it for these reasons. The Atari 2600 is black with levers and Asteroids just came out for it. All things considered, you realize that the Odyssey² is by far the best buy and you get it like everyone else did that Christmas. Over the next couple of years you realize that the Odyssey² is the #1 selling video game system ever to date. End of story.

Do you see where I am headed here with this scenario? In reality the Odyssey² sold fairly well considering it had weak marketing and distribution support from its parent company and had no popular arcade games licenses. It was basically the 3rd place system of the early 1980s. Much of this success was simply due to its cool silver sophisticated look and keyboard. Can you imagine combining the Odyssey²'s features with only the two exclusive arcade licenses of Space Invaders and Pac-Man? Everybody would have wanted one from at least early 1980 to late 1982. Third Party Developers would have jumped on the bandwagon and would have been coming up with ways to make it do things audibly and graphically that it was not meant to do (just like they did with the Atari 2600). Can anyone reading this article in the mindset of the first paragraph honestly say that they would have preferred an Atari 2600 over the Odyssey²? I doubt it unless maybe you just loved Asteroids and hated Space Invaders and Pac-Man. Oh, how just two simple moves by Philips/Magnavox would have changed home video game history entirely. They just weren't as committed or as smart as the business and marketing people at Atari. This leads to some final questions.

What were the people over the Odyssey division at Philips/Magnavox thinking? Who was in charge? Who made the decisions? Did they even try to license out popular arcade games like Space Invaders and Pac-Man early on (Turtles in 1983 doesn't count)? Did they actually try but get outbid by Atari? These are questions I have always had since the early 1980s. I wish someone would finally tell me.

NOTE: This article is not trying to state that the Odyssey² is "better" than the Atari 2600, or that the Atari 2600 is "better" than the Odyssey², because it is really a matter of preference. This article is more of an analysis of business marketing decisions and what could have been. As we all know, back then, being able to play popular arcade games at home was a big deal and was a major selling point.