Sunday, August 7, 2022

Sears (Atari) Tele-games Pong vs Magavox Odyssey 100 - Battle of the First Pong Consoles

Debuting in the fall of 1975, the Sears release of Atari's home version of Pong was a big success for that holiday season.  Owning a first-generation video game console like Atari Pong had been something of a dream of mine for quite a while.  The importance of Atari's first Home Pong console cannot be understated and much has been written about it.  I recently acquired a Sears Telegames Pong and wanted to talk about the machine and its significance in this blog article.  I also obtained a competitor to Sears/Atari's Pong, the Magnavox Odyssey 100, and wish to compare the two here.  

The home video game market prior to Atari's Home Pong and its competitors did not really exist except for the Magnavox Odyssey, so brief overview of the the first home console is necessary to begin our examination of Atari's answer to it as well as Magnavox's follow-up.

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Magnavox's Odyssey

In the early 1970s, if you wanted to play a video game, you had to go to an amusement park, a bar, a pizza parlor or some similar place where such amusements could be found and enjoyed.  September of 1972 saw the release of the Magnavox Odyssey.  Invented by Ralph Baer, the Odyssey was first attempt to bring a video game console to the home.   When Atari brought its competing console to market three years later, little of substance or innovation had occurred since the Odyssey for home video games.  The Odyssey had not been a huge success and had not inspired much competition in the home market during the first years of its life.  It did, through a pre-release demonstration, inspire Atari to design an arcade version of the Odyssey's table top tennis game, which Atari released as Pong.  Pong was far more successful in the arcades than the Odyssey was in the home and led to the creation of many sequels and clones.  

Nolan Bushnell, the head of Atari and its observer at the Magnavox demonstration, was not particularly impressed by the capabilities of the Odyssey and from a modern perspective, who could blame him?  The Odyssey could only display three square dots and a vertical line down the middle of the screen.  The system was manufactured entirely from discrete components: resistors, capacitors, diodes and transistors.  The board only has about transistors on it.  

While the Odyssey had several game variants beyond Pong, selectable via numbered cards, they all used these same basic graphic elements.  The Odyssey was extremely dependent on board game equipment like dice, boards, chips and cards, essentially outside of table tennis the Odyssey was more of a TV-assisted board game playing system.  The Odyssey was very primitive, it could not display color (except via overlays), it did not produce sound and players had to keep track of their own scores and rules.  The controllers had three knobs on them, making games more cumbersome than might be expected.  

Atari's Home Pong

Atari worked hard to bring its successful arcade game to the home market.  To reduce costs it reduced the Pong circuit board, which contained dozens of TTL logic chips, into a single large scale integrated circuit which could contain the whole game.  Atari's Home Pong would improve on its arcade cousins by introducing color graphics.  Arcade games were mainly black and white with color added by crude methods like color cellophane strips and projection onto colored backgrounds until Namco's Galaxian was released in September, 1979.

Atari's Home Pong and its successors began a long and mutually beneficial relationship with Sears, Roebuck and Co.  The success of the console also showed Atari that it could compete successfully to bring products into the home as well as to the arcades.  It also inspired competitors to make more sophisticated Pong consoles that could play more games.  The strong sales of Pong consoles helped Atari finance its development of the Atari 2600  and settle the lawsuits brought by Magnavox over Baer's patents until it could find a buyer (Warner Communications) which had the resources to complete development of and release the Atari 2600 to market.

Over the Odyssey, Atari's Home Pong would improve over it in many ways.  First, Atari's Pong had a speaker built-in, allowing for sound effects.  Second, Atari's Pong kept score and displayed the score on screen every time one player won a point.  Third, the controls were reduced to a knob for each player, a start/reset game button and a power switch.  The single knob meant that each player could only move their paddle in the vertical direction while the Odyssey had separate knobs for horizontal and vertical paddle movement. With the Odyssey, the player who last struck the ball with his paddle could control the trajectory of the ball with an "English" dial, but with Atari's Pong, the circuitry selected the angle and velocity of the ball after impact from one of twelve choices.  

The Odyssey was sold at Magnavox dealerships and Magnavox representatives did not generally do a good job at selling the console to owners of non-Magnavox TVs.  There was an implication that the Odyssey only worked on Magnavox sets, although nothing could be further from the truth and the idea was ridiculous to anyone who had more than a basic understanding of how the TV signal worked.  Atari and Sears sold their systems to everyone, and after the Christmas season Atari sold consoles through outlets other than Sears, allowing its console to reach as wide an audience as possible.  

Sears Telegames Pong vs. Atari Pong

When Sears released Pong under its newly-created Telegames brand, its console had white panels underneath the paddle knobs and a "Telegames" Sticker on top of the console and the word "PONG" on a silver badge in the center of the speaker cutout.  The Sears Model number was 637.25796.  The power switch had a rectangular piece of plastic on top of it with "ATARI" stamped over it.  Atari released a cosmetically altered version with the much easier to remember model number C-100 to sell in non-Sears stores after the 1975 holiday season.  The top label of its version said "PONG", the center label said "ATARI" and the panels underneath the paddle knobs were black.  The color of the other top plastic on the Telegames version is black and the Atari version uses brown.  The plastic piece over power switch was removed from the Atari version and is frequently lost on the Telegames' version.  They are otherwise are identical in form and function,  

There is a red dot next to the Off indicator on the Telegames version, but it is not an LED, just a colored divot.  This is because the plastic piece which fit over the switch would uncover the dot when the switch was turned to the On position.  The Atari version does not color in the divot.  When you turn the game on (spray some contact cleaner into the switch if its operation is erratic) you may hear a buzzing coming from the TV.  Turn the volume on your TV all the way down, the only sound intended to be heard comes from the speaker built into the console.   

Powering, Opening and Displaying Atari Pong

Home Pong is powered by a 6-volt source.  The source can either be 4 x D-cell batteries or a special "battery eliminator" AC adapter.  The battery eliminator was sold separately.  The battery compartment must be pried open by a flat-head screwdriver.  The console came with a TV/Game switchbox and has a long RF cable out the back for supplying video output.  Fortunately the Atari systems, starting from this one, always used a standard RCA connector (the 4-switch 5200 being something of an exception).  The Magnavox used an uncommon or proprietary connector to plug into its switchbox.  The console from the factory is configured to output on channel 3, if you want to access the switch to allow you to select between channel 3 and 4, you must unscrew the battery holder.  Fortunately the battery holder is secured by Phillips screws, but the console's PCB itself is protected by special security screws.  These screws will require a special Holt tri-groove bit to remove.  You can turn these screws by using a two-pronged security bit but I would be lying if I said the experience will a fun one.

In some ways Atari was consistent.  The paddles on the Telegames and Atari Pong use 1 Mega Ohm potentiometers, and Atari used these on the Atari 2600's paddles, the Atari 8-bit paddles and in the 5200's Analog joysticks.  The chip measures the paddle's resistance, not voltage, just like other Atari systems.  If your pots inside your Atari pong console are jittery after cleaning or non-functional, at least they can be replaced.  You can pull the knobs off the paddles to clean the knobs and the surface underneath.  

Do not try to use an Atari 2600 power adapter inside the Telegames or Atari Pong consoles, however.  Even though the adapter uses the same plug (a 3.5mm tip-sleeve) and the same polarity (center positive), the 2600 adapter outputs 9v DC and the Atari Home Pong expects a 6v DC, center tip positive 3.5mm mini-jack power supply. The 9v from the adapter in an Atari 2600 goes to a 7805 regulator which knocks it down to 5v, so that is fine.  The Atari Home Pong wires the AC terminal in parallel with the battery contacts, and the only voltage conversion immediately inside the console is a diode to drop the voltage by about 1v.  The official adapter was rated for 5.5v/100mA, so there was plenty of "wiggle-room".

The switchbox has inputs for twin lead and coaxial input as well as the game input and twin lead output.  In the 1970s, televisions came with twin lead connectors and two pairs of screw terminals.  One pair of terminals would be for connecting a VHF antenna for channels 2-13 and the other would be for a UHF antenna for channels 14-83.  The TV/Game Switchbox was intended to act as an intermediary between the VHF antenna and the TV set.  Twin lead connections use 300 Ohm impedance.  The switchbox which came with Atari and Telegames' Pong also had a coaxial input, which uses 75 Ohm impedance.  Cable television was not really a thing in the mid-1970s but a direct cable connection was required for homes to receive a signal in areas where the geography did not accommodate an over-the-air broadcast signal.  Home consoles always output an RF signal at 75 Ohm impedance.  Most people these days just use an RCA to RF adapter and ditch the switchbox.

Gameplay of the First Atari Pong Console

Assuming your console is in good condition and fully functional, when you turn the console on you should see what the manuals refer to as the "Light Show" a series of colored squares and rectangles moving over the Pong graphics.  The onscreen colors move across most of the color spectrum from line to line, starting with yellow and ending with violet.  A gray border will be seen on top and bottom of the play area and the ball will bounce off it.  The Magnavox Odyssey table tennis' game will lose the ball if it strayed too far off the top or bottom of the screen, requiring a press of the reset button to get it back on the screen.  

The left player's paddle will likely be green and the right player's paddle magenta and the net should be cyan.  Unlike Arcade Pong, Home Pong will not constantly display the score on the screen, it will only display the score for both sides briefly when a point is earned.  Atari Pong will emit three distinct sounds, one when a new ball enters play, one for when a ball bounces off a paddle or a border and one when it goes off the screen.  The game is over when one player reaches 15 points, whereupon the Light Show will start up again.

Unlike its successors and some of its competitors, Pong only had one game.  This game was powered by a single chip, the Atari 3659, which has 24 pins.  The only other IC inside it is a 7040 hex inverter, which is used to assist with clock generation.  As computer AI required a real microprocessor, few if any Pong consoles were designed for one player to face off against a computer opponent.  So if you did not have another human being available to play against, the manual advised you to hone your skill by using the console solo or to try to lock the ball in a repeating pattern against the paddles.  

If you cannot find a Telegames or Atari Pong for a reasonable price but want that historic experience, you should look for the Atari version of Super Pong.  This version uses an identical form factor apart from the four-game selector switch.  The Pong on this console is identical to the Pong on the one-game Pong consoles.  The Sears version of Super Pong uses detachable (hard-wired) controllers, so its form factor is somewhat different than the one-game Pongs.  Sears Super Pong IV should also give you an authentic early Pong game.  Ultra Pong, Ultra Pong Doubles, Pong Sports II or Pong Sports IV will have significant differences in color, sounds and the "Light Show" compared to the earlier models.  Avoid any Sears product with the word "Hockey" in it because those products do not use Atari hardware, they use the AY-3-8500 Pong in a Chip.

The Magnavox Odyssey's First Successors, the 100 and 200

Now just because Atari had a hit did not mean that other companies were just waiting for the trade press to report on Christmas 1975.  Magnavox had figured out that people did not want to play TV-assisted board games and pretty much cut out that fluff and concentrated on the essentials in its Odyssey 100 and 200, also released in 1975.  

Like the Magnavox Odyssey, the Odyssey 100 had three knobs per player, no color and manual scoring.  A pair of indicators could be moved from 0-15 to keep score.  You had a knob to position the center line and another knob to determine how fast the ball moved.   All these knobs and indicators were placed on the console rather than wired controllers of the original.  The paddles were more rectangular compared to the ball, but the ball was still rather large.  The console did have sound and both Tennis and Hockey, two games as opposed to one game on Atari's console.

The weird physics of the Odyssey, with needing to use "English" to manipulate the ball's trajectory, were kept.  On the plus side the ball would not go off the top and bottom of the screen but would rebound off these edges.  Hockey is just Tennis with a pair of lines with a small hole on each side of the screen, but unlike Tennis the ball will bounce off these lines.  Hockey on the original Odyssey had to use the overlay to indicate when a goal was scored.  Sound effects will usually be only a single chirp.  

The Odyssey 100 used a red-orange shell, while the Odyssey 200, released at the same time, used the same shell as the 100 but used a cream colored shell.    It offered a third game, Smash (Squash, take turns hitting a ball off one wall).  It added an extra paddle for each side in the 2/4 player switch in the 4 player position, but both paddles had to be controlled with the three knobs per side.  

The Odyssey 100 uses a 4-chip chipset from Texas Instruments and the Odyssey 200 uses the same PCB but installs different switches and two more TI chips.  Later consoles in the Odyssey series would use the AY-3-8500 chip.  The AY-3-8500 does not produce color on its own, it requires a special helper chip, the AY-3-8515, to produce color.  For this reason the Odyssey 300, 400, 2000 and 3000 are still black and white, only with the 500 and 4000 have color.  All Atari dedicated consoles have color.

Quirks of the Odyssey 100

The Odyssey 100 can accept power via an AC adapter or 6 C Cell batteries.  To get to the battery compartment, you must turn a large screw underneath (a coin will work) the console and remove the bottom half of the shell.  You can access the TV channel switch as well as a switch to turn the built-in speaker off.  The AC adapter uses a 2.5mm center-positive sub-mini jack connector and takes 9v DC input of at least 100mA.  The Atari 2600's power supply will work with a 3.5mm to 2.5mm adapter which is rather ironic because that power supply will not work with Atari Pong.  

You should ask a seller to show you the battery compartment, I did not and opened it to find a piece of plastic with one of the contacts broken off.  It can be epoxied back on but I found there was precious little surface area to give a strong bond.  The battery compartment connects to the PCB by 9-v battery terminal snaps, but these snaps are larger and spread further apart than normal 9-volt batteries.  This holder will fit and will screw in once a pair of holes are drilled into its casing, but you will need to replace the larger snaps in the Odyssey with suitable sized ones.  

If you do not have the special RF switchbox, you will need to find a way to output video.  There is a trick to use a pair of paperclips to connect to the 75ohm screw terminal on the back of a TV, but that is an unreliable solution.  If you do not want to cut off the proprietary connector and solder in an RCA connector, then you should desolder the wires inside the system and attach a suitable cable or adapter.  I soldered in an RCA female connector and used the cardboard shield and the cable clip to keep things from flopping around or shorting out component legs.

When you open up the bottom shell, you will see quite a few adjustments.   They are Horizontal Frequency Control, Vertical Frequency Control, Blanking Width, Blanking Centering, Right Wall Horizontal Control, Goal Opening Control, Upper Rebound Control, Lower Rebound Control.  The Odyssey 100's video signal is not the greatest and lines can get a bit bendy or shaky at times.  The service manual describes what these controls do and you will want to adjust the controls to best suit your screen.  The Left Wall Control is at the top of the unit because it is a change that must be made when changing game modes to reposition the line to the center or left side of the screen.  

The most unique thing about the Odyssey 100 is how the ball is served.  With an Atari, the ball is served by pressing reset game and then automatically served after a point is scored.  With the Odyssey, the first player had to hit reset to serve the ball again.  With the Odyssey 100, if the ball goes off the screen, the player who against whom a point has been scored must touch the center line or one of the side walls to get the ball to serve again.  

If your paddles appear to be hitting the ball toward your side of the screen and passing through when coming from the other side, you're using the wrong set of paddle controls.  Each paddle can move completely across the screen, so you may have moved the horizontal controls too far.  It must be noted that while the horizontal control is in the middle for both players the dials that control vertical control and English for Player 1 are flipped for Player 2.

Issues Encountered with the Odyssey 100

I found a couple of issues with my unit when I bought it, fortunately I was able to fix them all without replacing electronic components.  The first issue I found was that the left wall and player were not fully filled in when near the left side of the screen.  Adjusting Blanking Width and Blanking Centering got both paddles and both walls completely solid.  Contrast was also a bit poor until I adjusted the Horizontal Frequency.

Sometimes noise would appear when switching between Channel 3 and 4.  A dirty channel selector switch on any RF console can have a serious impact on video quality.  Some contact cleaner and vigorous exercising of the switch solved the noise problem.

Finally I had an issue where I could get the left player to initiate a new serve but not the right player.  This happened regardless of game mode and all objects were showing on the screen.  I learned from the schematics that when the power switch is turned on, a ball reset switch is sent to the chipset.  A test with my multimeter showed that both sides of the switch were making contact with the center pin, so contact cleaner and more vigorous action was required.  The contact cleaner worked for a while but I eventually had to open up the switch and scrub the contact points to a mirror shine with 99% IPA.

Atari Pong vs. Odyssey 100

The original Maganvox Odyssey is a challenging system to obtain and use. The console uses proprietary connectors for the RF output cable, making the original switchbox important if you don't want to replace the cable.  The controllers are unique and obtaining a complete console is difficult due to all the game pieces.  The console is not the most reliable and its TV signal is fairly marginal.  The Odyssey 100 is a more reliable machine with better access to the video controls and cuts out all the board game nonsense but you still have to deal with that connector.  Sears Telegames/Atari's Home Pong has a friendlier video signal despite adding color, more sound effects and is pick up and play.  

If you are looking into one of these systems, most sellers will be selling them "untested" or in an unknown working state.  Obviously as these devices have had to survive for 40 years, you may be justified in asking questions such as is the seller the original owner, was it passed down through the family and where was it stored.  One thing you should ask is for the seller to pop open the battery compartment with a flat head screwdriver or even a coin and take a picture of the internals.  If there is corrosion on the contacts, or worse ancient-looking batteries inside, I would suggest looking elsewhere.  Even if they cannot output the display, they could turn the system on, hit the reset switch and listen for some tones from the speaker.  I bought my Telegames unit for $30 and the price was so cheap I did not even ask the seller (a vintage gaming store) whether it worked or not.  I was pleased to discover that it did and only needed a little elbow grease to get it to shine again.  I bought my Odyssey 100 for about $40 and forgot to ask the seller to open the underneath to get to the battery compartment, oh well!

I have taken video and audio captures of both Atari/Sears Pong and the Magnavox Odyssey 100 so you can judge them yourself.  If you look at which company's take on the ball and paddle game has had more influence in the years following 1975, it should be pretty obvious that Atari's approach won out while Magnavox's early iterations did not.

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