Saturday, November 28, 2015

You Never Forget Your First... matter how hard you try. And my first game system was the Odyssey2, released by Magnavox in 1978. Even for the time, the Odyssey2 wasn't all that great. In fact, with its peculiar hardware and stifling limitations, it was one of the least greatest game consoles of its generation. While the industry-leading Atari 2600 had 128 bytes of RAM, the Odyssey2 had 64... not even enough memory to hold this sentence. While the Atari 2600 could be coaxed into displaying surprisingly sophisticated graphics with a rich color palette, the Odyssey2 was stuck in first gear with a pre-defined character set. Once programmers used up the system's four sprites, they were stuck with blocks, trees, and the square-headed robots that became synonymous with the Odyssey2 experience. Just try to find a game in the system's library without these blocky androids. Unless it's got "K.C." in the title, you'll be looking for a while.

K.C. Munchkin was promoted on television with
this animation, which stupid little kids (me)
mistook for the game's actual graphics.
Not even on your best day, Odyssey2.
The Odyssey2 was rightly savaged by members of the gaming press, particularly Craig Kubey, who rebranded its sad-sack golf simulation Computer Golf? and snarked that calling its Space Invaders clone Alien Invaders- Plus! made about as much sense as referring to Phyllis Diller as Catherine Deneuve- Plus! (Actually, judging from the recent picture on Wikipedia, that description might not be so far off-base...) Yet despite this, there is a certain strange charm to Odyssey2 games. Sure, they were often familiar retreads of hit arcade games, but they were changed just enough (likely due to the aforementioned hardware limitations) to make them seem refreshing in an age when knock-offs were aggravatingly common.

K.C.'s Krazy Chase, the closest thing the
Odyssey2 had to a killer app.
Take K.C. Munchkin, for instance. The game was forced off the market by Atari, which cited similarities to its console version of Pac-Man. However, K.C. is one link higher on the food chain than Pac-Man, and that makes all the difference. The dots in K.C. Munchkin don't just wait around to be eaten, roaming the maze and keeping their distance from the title character when only one or two remain. K.C.'s Krazy Chase further widened the gap between the series and its inspiration, with a serpentine "Draterpillar" whose head is instantly fatal but whose body segments can be munched for bonus points and a brief power boost. It was a more clever evolution of the Pac-Man gameplay than what some of the official sequels (cough Pac-Man Plus cough) had to offer...

Then there's Alien Invaders- Plus!. Sure, it's no Space Invaders, but that's the beauty of it. Rather than a fleet of mindlessly marching aliens, your primary opponent is the incredibly wily mothership at the top of the screen. It squeezes shots between its already well-armed troops and flies down for a face to face confrontation once all its soldiers are destroyed. If you're hit with a bullet, you'll be left defenseless, and will have to sacrifice a bunker to get your tank back. Run out of bunkers, and you're easy pickins for the Merciless Monstroth and its minions. Kubey was wrong about this one... the battle of wits against the mothership makes this as tense now as it was when I was eight.

This is Popeye. I... guess?
Not all of the twists in the Odyssey2's library of faux arcade games were successful, however. UFO was an Asteroids-alike which took out that game's thrusters, giving the player more precise control of their ship. Instead, the challenge came from aiming the laser, which spun around the craft as it puttered slowly through space. Kind of a monkey's paw trade there. Freedom Fighters tried its best to scratch that Defender itch, but without a planet to skim over and a wide variety of enemies to battle it gets tiresome (to say nothing of frustrating) in a hurry. Then you have the handful of actual arcade translations by Parker Brothers, which demonstrate just how hopelessly ill-equipped the Odyssey2 was to entertain players in the early 1980s. Watching the system try to pull off Super Cobra, Q*Bert, or Popeye is like watching your drunk uncle dance at the family Christmas party. This just isn't the time or place...

Despite its failings, the Odyssey2 still has a persistent attraction which makes me return to it every couple of years. It's what convinced me to revive the machine I had buried in my parents' old barn, and it's why I recently installed an Odyssey2 emulator on both of my PSPs. That emulator, EmuODD, is only slightly less dusty than the system I rescued in 2013... author Consolius released it a decade ago, and the program hasn't seen any updates since its debut. As a result, EmuODD is picky about which firmware you use, and looks pretty crappy on the PSP's Cross Media Bar. Hell, it's not even properly labeled!

I can't do much about the firmware issues (if it doesn't run for you, try switching to 6.60 LME), but the presentation is another matter entirely. I added a couple of images to the EBOOT file, and it makes a big difference. Now you actually know what the program is before you start it! Give it a spin and let me know what you think.

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