Monday, May 13, 2013

It's an Odd, Odd, Odd, Odd Mod: Rebuilding the Magnavox Odyssey2

You already know that I'm a fan of video games. What you may not know is that the Odyssey2 was my first home game console. Back in the far-flung year of 1982, most kids were scratching their gaming itch with the Atari 2600, and a lucky few had stepped up to the big leagues of the Intellivision and Atari 5200. However, my brother and I had to get by with the hapless Odyssey2, offered by television manufacturer Magnavox. 

Oh yeah, that thing can go
right back where it came from.
With a paltry 64 bytes of RAM and a sound processor pulled straight from a Kraftwerk song, the Odyssey2 wasn't playing with power even in the tech-challenged early 1980s. Nevertheless, the machine was strangely popular in Michigan (all of my mother's friends seemed to have one), and the software library did have a knack for giving arcade favorites unexpected twists. K.C. Munchkin! changed Pac-Man's dots from stationary treats to more active prey, and Alien Invaders- Plus! turned the innocuous UFO from Space Invaders into a threatening foe bent on your destruction. It wasn't all bad growing up with an Odyssey2... but all the same, I was relieved when the NES arrived a few years later.

Why am I bringing this up? Well, I recently rummaged for some of the old stuff I left in my parents' abandoned barn, and an Odyssey2 turned up. Not the original one; that died in a tree fort a quarter of a century ago. My mom found this one at a garage sale in the 1990s, but it had been buried under a small mountain of clutter. After untangling it from the cords of other abandoned game systems, random gadgets, and even some Christmas lights for fun, I brought it into the house for some... elective surgery.

The first step was to get rid of the RF shielding. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, game systems had metal plating around the internal circuitry to keep their signals isolated. That way, when you're playing Pac-Man, your roommate isn't seeing the ghosts of gaming present on the television in the other room. However, TVs have gotten a lot more sophisticated in the last thirty years, and the RF shield has become little more than a nuisance, keeping prospective hackers like myself from getting at the nutmeats of the console.

We used to connect our video games to a television
with one of these things! Truly, those were dark times.
After diligent de-soldering and a little forceful bending, I was able to throw out that rusty old shell, leading me to my next task... replacing the RF modulator with something more modern. RF is a single wire that sends both audio and video signals to your television, with predictably mediocre results. Later display connections- composite, S-video, component, and the current industry darling HDMI- offer more wires for a crisper, more distinct signal. Luckily, it's not hard to add composite video to the Odyssey2. You just solder audio and video cables, like a pair you might have salvaged from a crappy TV Games unit, to points on the motherboard, stick the grounding wire on ground, and you're done!

Okay, I wasn't quite done. There was one other modification I wanted to make before I could wrap up this operation. Later models of the Odyssey2- like this one- had hardwired controllers, a design flaw in early game consoles I still have trouble wrapping my head around. Not only does this deny you the chance to switch to a controller you prefer, but it means that if one controller is destroyed, the whole console has to be sent in for repairs. Nuts to that! If I was going to play a crappy system like the Odyssey2, I was going to do it with a joystick I liked.

The twin D-shell ports, mounted on the side of the unit.
So I added two 9-pin D-shell connectors. USB they're not, but 9-pin was the most ubiquitous control port in the 1980s, for both game consoles and home computers. The Atari 2600 used it. The ColecoVision used it. Even the 16-bit Sega Genesis, for all its advances, used it. Happily, the joysticks for all these systems and more will work on this modded Odyssey2. I just needed to solder six wires from the motherboard to each of the ports, and find a place on the system's frame to mount them. I wanted to use the back, but the circuit board left no room for that, so I had to settle for carving two rectangular holes into the side of the console. It ain't pretty- I didn't have the right screws for the job and had to make do with what I had lying around- but it gets the job done.

By the end of the weekend, I had myself an Odyssey2 that was even better than the real thing... although that's probably not much of a compliment. Testing the machine with the title Quest for the Rings! (Odyssey2 games had exclamation points at the ends of their titles, in the mistaken belief that the extra enthusiasm would make up for their shortcomings) left me wishing I'd left the blasted thing buried in the barn where I found it. Quest for the Rings! is a pretty cool idea in theory, a hybrid of video games and board games with a medieval setting and some proto-RPG play mechanics. As one of four races, it's your duty to collect the magical rings scattering the countryside, while dodging eldritch creatures and a lawsuit from the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Sure, that looks more like Godzilla than a dragon,
 but it's still a step up from a duck.
How could you go wrong with a concept like that? Oh, the Odyssey2 found a way. The graphics are simplistic, littered with the system's trademark square-headed robots, and the gameplay is infuriatingly cheap. If you're in a stage with a dragon, death is nearly guaranteed. If you're in a stage with a giant spider or Cthulu-ish monster, you're more likely to survive, but not much more. You only have one ability depending on the class you've selected, and only one can attack and kill enemies (but only the wimpy ones). The odds are so overwhelmingly stacked against you that you'll only collect three rings before you run to the relative mercy of the Dark Souls series.

Still, I feel like this has been a victory for me. Not all of my game system mods have been successful, but I'm pretty happy with how this one turned out. After a weekend of tinkering, I've got an Odyssey2 that I can use with a modern television set, and with my favorite controllers. Now I just need a reason to actually play the thing.

(Alien Invaders- Plus! image nicked from
(RF Modulator image taken from

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