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Retro Gaming Hacks by Chris Kohler

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Collect Original “Pong” Systems

Play with two paddles and a block for maximum value.

In an early episode of “That 70’s Show,” the teenaged characters sit around a thirteen-inch television screen playing a game of Pong, marveling, mouths agape at the advance of high technology. Most of the modern-day audience laughed along at the concept of two lines and a dot on a TV screen being the pinnacle of scientific advance. But if you found yourself not laughing but seriously contemplating playing a game of Pong, this hack is for you. There’s something appealing about breaking out the most retro of retro games, and you can still do it on the (relatively) cheap.

Odyssey

Actually, let’s put “cheap” on hold for a bit to talk about the very first video game system. Invented by a brilliant engineer named Ralph Baer who had spent the last 15 years working on military projects, the Odyssey was released by Magnavox in 1972 (though Baer had completed the prototype in 1966). It played not only line-and-dot video tennis but also many other games that required only a line and dot. Magnavox failed to sell many of the systems, so the Odyssey is now a high-priced collector’s item.

And it gets worse. Because Magnavox didn’t think ball-and-dot gameplay on its own was enough to satisfy consumers in the age of color TV, a whole mess of accessories was included with the original Odyssey package—about three hundred pieces in all! Color overlays were included that stuck onto television sets to produce translucent “backgrounds”; some games were board games that used the television display for crude accompaniment but required stacks of Monopoly-style money; some games required sets of cards and dice. All this was included in the box with an Odyssey system, so if you do find one for sale, be sure that the asking price is commensurate with its completeness! An exhaustive list of accessories can be found at http://fusionanomaly.net/odyssey.html.

There were “game cartridges” released for the Odyssey, but it is not considered to be a programmable system. The cartridges were simply circuit boards with no ROM chips that made the machine’s dot-and-line setup respond differently to player controls. A light rifle, called Shooting Gallery, was available; it can fetch nearly the price of the system itself (each should go for about $100-150 in incomplete, used condition).

Will the Real Pong Please Stand Up?

If you search on eBay for pong system you’ll get lots of auctions for ancient game hardware that is not, technically, Pong. The name is a trademark of Atari, who partnered with Sears to release the original home Pong system in 1975, after the success of the arcade game. That system (called Tele-Games Pong) is difficult to find, but many of the official successors to the machine (which featured more variations on the game, color graphics, and other upgrades) are a little easier to hunt down for between $20 and $40 each. Some examples of these are Super Pong, Tele-Games Pong Sports IV, Hockey-Pong, Ultra Pong, etc.

Although the original Odyssey bombed, Magnavox caught on to the Pong craze and began to release a line of scaled-down systems using the Odyssey name. The Odyssey 100, 200, 300, and 400 were released between 1975 and 1976; the 2000, 3000, and 4000 followed later. Some display in black-and-white while some display in color, and the outer shells of the system and the games they play also differ, but all play variations on TV table tennis.

But many other companies released their own Pong-inspired hardware in the years following the successful Christmas 1975 introduction of home Pong. And if you don’t mind that your game of line-and-dot doesn’t have the Atari name on it, you can pick one up quite cheaply. One historically significant yet not heavily sought-after line of systems is Coleco’s Telstar series. Search for coleco telstar on eBay and you’ll pull up all sorts of auctions that can be won for ten dollars or less. Other companies that produced their own generic Pong knockoffs include Zenith, Sharp, RadioShack, and K-Mart (!).

Being an Informed Consumer of Pong Stuff

While many “Pong” systems support AC adapters, these were usually sold as optional accessories. You may have to power them up with a bunch of C or D batteries, so be aware of this as you browse for a system to buy. Also, find out how the system hooks up to a television. Some may use standard RF connectors [Hack #3] but some (like the Odyssey systems) use proprietary hardware, so make sure a switch is included with the system when you buy it.

Also be aware of the system’s controllers. The higher-priced systems back in the day didn’t necessarily feature more games in the hardware, but they did have more comfortable, removable control dials. The cheaper ones had both dials attached to the body of the machine, which means that you and your sparring partner might have to get a little closer than you’d like. The prices of these cheaper systems might have originally been separated from the more expensive products by a hundred dollars or more. But today the difference is only two or three bucks, if that.

And that brings up the final point: many of these systems are for two players only! That means that you won’t be able to play them alone. Some later models like the Odyssey 2000 do feature single-player modes, so be sure you’re getting one that does if you plan on solitary play. If there are pictures in the auction or you are examining a unit up close in real life, look for a “Players” switch to see if it will allow you to compete against a computer controlled paddle. Honestly, the things you kids take for granted these days…

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