The first generation of video game consoles lasted from 1972, with the release of the Magnavox Odyssey, until 1977, when "pong"-style console manufacturers left the market en masse due to the introduction and success of microprocessor-based consoles.
The Brown Box and the Odyssey
The first video game console that worked on a standard television was invented by german-born television engineer Ralph Baer. Affectionately called the Brown Box, it was a vacum-tube circiuit powered by D-cells and wired to a black-and-white TV. It allowed players to control two squares chasing each other on the screen. The prototype was completed in 1968 and it began production on 1972 under the name Odyssey.
The Odyssey was analog rather than digital and, like its prototype, was powered by batteries. The Odyssey had simple technology, no processors but hardwired circuits. The game cartridges only contained some wires that activated the necessary components. Game boards and transparencies were included in the range of delivery to upgrade the primitive games of the console, which had to be attached to the TV. All titles are intended for multiplayer usage because A.I. was not available back then and gamers had to record the results themselves since the console was too weak to manage and display scores.
The novelty was part of its downfall: there was a rumor that the system only worked on Magnavox televisions. With all this, the Odyssey's success was far beyond the expectations but somehow it is never mentioned. This invention sparked a revolution that has changed the way humans play, and even how they interact with each other and is the reason be have videogames today.
Derived from the successful arcade game from Atari, an engineer by the name of Harold Lee came up with the idea of a home PONG unit in 1973. The home console featured a single chip that produced both an on screen score and the sound the game made when the paddle met the ball. It was on sale in Sears stores under the Sears Tele-Games label with 150,000 units on the 1975 Christmas season.
PONG was followed by Super PONG in 1976. In Super PONG, platers could select for 4 different variations of PONG games to delight and entertain them for countless hours. Atari's recognition in arcade games helped the home console's sales, along with its unusual pedestal design, which helped Atari stand out in the retail stores. When compared to the competition at the time, Atari PONG line of consoles simply stood out. Eye catching rainbow colors and a deep and ear catching PONG sound from their built in speaker while most other consoles were still far behind playing catch up with black and white displays, flimsy controllers, and some without sound.
Wonder Wizard & Telstar
Released in 1976, the Wonder Wizard 7702 is a PONG system which was sold by General Home Products. The console was essentiallly a Magnavox Odyssey 300 in a different casing (woodgrain instead of plastic). The paddle controllers attached to the system are a little bit bigger and better than the ones in the Odyssey 300. However, apart from that, it's the exact same system. It was manufactured by the same company that manufactured the Odyssey, Magnavox. It may seem strange that a gaming company would release an identical system through a different name, but around this time the marked was flodded with dozens of PONG systems. Coleco and Magnavox started releasing several different systems with only tiny differences between them.
Telstar, was released also in 1976 and played only three games with three difficulty levels. The first of a series of video game consoles by Coleco was the first system to use GI's AY-3-8500 chip and was a real success: over a million units were sold. There were several variations of the device released into 1978. There were even two variants: one sold by Coleco in Canada as "Telstar Deluxe", and another (same) sold by Montgomery-Ward under the name of "Telstar Video World of Sports". All were similar and based on the same GI chip except a few models like Telstar Galaxy, Telstar Combat, Telstar Gemini (which used a MOSTEK chip).
Color TV Game
Color TV Game was a series of home dedicated consoles created by Nintendo. There were five different consoles in the series developed and released only in Japan. The first one debuted in 1977 with the Color TV Game 6 （コラーテレビゲーム６）. It contained six variations of "Light Tennis" (or PONG). Additionally, a white-colored C-battery powered model of the Color TV Game 6 was introduced with a limited run of only a few hundred units, most prized by serious collectors.
In 1978, Nintendo released the Color TV Game 15 （カラーテレビゲーム１５）. With the two controllers now on cable and 15 slightly different versions of Light Tennis, the Color TV Game 15 sold over a million units. The Color TV Game Block Breaker (カラーテレビゲームブロック崩し) was released in 1979; the 1-player console ran a ported version of "Block Breaker" (ブロック崩し), one of Nintendo's arcade games. Like the Color TV Game 6, the in-game paddle was controlled by a dial attached to the system. The system's external design was one of Shigeru Miyamoto's first video-game projects after joining Nintendo in 1977.
The final console in the series was the Computer TV Game (コンピューターテレビゲーム), and it was released in 1980. Like other consoles in the Color TV Game series, it was distributed only in Japan. One of the games in this console was a port of Nintendo's first video arcade game, Computer Othello.
The second generation (sometimes referred as the early 8 bit era) began in 1976 with the release of Fairchild Channel F. THe early portion of this generation saw the release of several consoles as various companies decided to enter the market. The Atari 2600 was the dominant console for much of the second generation, with other consoles such as the Intellivision, Odyssey2, and Coleco Vision.
Fairchild Channel F
The Fairchild Channel F was a game console released by Fairchild Semiconductor in August 1976. It was the first programmable video game system, having plug-in cardridges containing ROM and microprocessor code rather than dedicated circuits. It was launched as the Video Entertainment System, or VES, but when Atari released their VCS (Video Computer System) the next year, Fairchild renamed its machine. It was important at the time for having a number of original features which were copied by later, more successful systems.
There where twenty six different cartridges for the system, with up to four games on each cartridge. They had labels that contained the game instructions on them and eacj were given a sequential number. Fairchild started a trend in trying to boost game sales by numbering them and so appealing to consumers who wanted to complete their collection.
The biggest effect of the Channel F in the market was to spur Atari into releasing and improving their next-generation console which was then in development. Then codenamed "Stella," the machine was also going to use cartriges, and after seeing the Channel F they realized they needed to release it before the market was flooded with cartridge-based machines.
The Atari 2600, released in 1977, was the fist successful video game console to use plug-in cartridges insead of having built-in games. It was originally known as the Atari VCS, for Video Computer System, and the name "Atari 2600" (taken from the unit's Atari part number, CX2600) was first used in 1982, after the release of the more advanced Atari 5200.
The Atari 2600 used different color palettes depending on the television format used, from 128 to 104. The video hardware gave the 2600 a reputation as one of the most complex machines in the world to program, but those programmers who understood it realized that such direct control over the video picture was also a source of flexibility. Additionally, the 2600 supported several types of input devices and third-party peripherals, and many of these peripherals were interchangeable with the MSX and several other Japanese systems.
The Atari 2600 was wildly successful, it was an enormous hit with games like Space Invaders, Breakout, Missile Command and Combats. During much of the 1980s, "Atari" was a synonym for this model in mainstream media and, by extension, for video games in general.
In 1978 Magnavox came out with their second major system, the Odyssey², which was totally different than the various Odyssey PONG systems. It was a computer with BASIC programming, but many people regarded it as a home video game console. It came with two controllers, RF switch with TV box, power supply, and the Speedway, Spinout and Cryptologic game cartridge.
The Odyssey² was the first home video game console to introduce what was to become the standard joystick design of the 1970s and 80s: a moderately sized black joystick unit, held in the left hand, with an eight-direction stick that was manipulated with the right hand. In the upper corner of the joystick was a single 'Action' button.
The area that the Odyssey² may well be best remembered for was its pioneering fusion of board and video games: The Master Strategy Series. The first game released was the instant classic Quest for the Rings!, with game play somewhat similar to Dungeons & Dragons, and a story line reminiscent of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.
After successful test marketing in 1979, Mattel Electronics released its Intellivision system nationwide in late 1980. Armed with twelve games, better graphics and sound than its competitors, and the promise to release a compatible keyboard that would turn the system into a home computer ("Play games and balance your checkbook!"), Mattel set its sights on taking down the "invincible" Atari 2600. They got off to a good start, selling out the first production run of 200,000 Intellivision units quickly.
Many people bought an Intellivision with plans to turn it into a home computer when the keyboard was released. There was a huge marketing campaign behind this (one-third of the back of the Intellivision box was dedicated to the "Under Development" keyboard), but months and then years passed without the keyboard being released. actually, it was released in a few test markets in late '81, but the price was too high and the initial reaction poor. So in 1982, Mattel scrapped plans for the infamous keyboard, but later (due to government pressure), they had to make a computer add-on anyway.