Sometimes it’s easy to forget how young video games as a genre really are. When Ralph Baer’s “brown box” saw commercial release as America’s first home console, the Magnavox Odyssey, The Godfather had been out in theaters a month. The Watergate break-in was in its planning stages. Agatha Christie was still writing novels.
The Odyssey had no sound and no color, just a trio of white squares that could be moved across the screen. Cellophane overlays were affixed to the television screen to create backgrounds. Sadly, no footage seems to currently exist of Baseball in its full glory. Still, while words are meager, we can hope to replicate the experience as best we can.
The Odyssey’s baseball game was not a launch release, but one of a small number of supplementary games that were sold later that year by Magnavox retailers. Many retailers weren’t trained to sell or advertise the add-on games, and they’re consequently rather rare; copies on eBay generally sell in the $100 range, equal to what the system cost in 1972. (That price seems reasonable, and technically is. In 2014 dollars, it comes to $566.35, the going rate for cutting-edge entertainment.)
Baer’s Baseball wasn’t technically the first electronic version: John Burgeson and Don Daglow had previously created games on mainframes at their local universities. These games were more akin to OOTP than to The Show, printing out simulated box scores based on managerial decisions. The Odyssey was the first to reach the American home, and the first to employ actual video. But one of the most striking things about it is how much of a board game it is.
Along with the mylar overlay, which interestingly and necessarily orients home plate on the right side of the screen to work with the Pong-based physics, Baseball came with playing cards, dice, tokens, and cutouts to help track all the information that three white squares couldn’t convey.
Before explaining the game itself, the controllers also require some explanation. Almost every modern gamepad fulfills the same set of functions, but before Nintendo gave us the D-pad, controllers were a mess. Every one handled inputs differently, and all of them did it badly. The Odyssey’s controllers were plastic cubes with knobs on each end, and the inputs were performed the way one would maneuver an Etch-A-Sketch: the left knob moves your square horizontally, and the right knob vertically. A smaller knob could impart “English” on the square acting as the ball, allowing it to wobble. Developing skill at the Magnavox Odyssey appears to have been as difficult as it was temporary.
Given the limits of what the Odyssey could do, in terms of square-projection, it’s a little surprising how intricate, or how needlessly complicated, Baseball turned out to be. Before play each team generated their lineup by rolling dice to determine each batter’s handedness and batting average, and recorded them on their lineup cards. These statistics altered the difficulty of each pitcher-batter matchup: the strike zone expanded or shrank depending on the skill of the hitter, and the handedness of the batter and pitcher determined the starting count. Hitters on the wrong side of the platoon started the at bat on a 2-2 count, while an opposite hand would only need a single ball to draw a walk. Perhaps ambitiously, the players were expected to update the batting averages of every batter after each plate appearance, depending on their success.
Runners were tracked on a cardboard field set on a floor or table, using tokens of various colors depending on the predetermined speed of the runner. These determined the outcomes of balls in play. A deck of cards randomized certain special events.
The mechanics of the actual gameplay, in contrast, are straightforward and even evoke the possibility of fun. The ball is flung from the left side of the screen, crosses over the pitcher’s mound, and hurtles toward the plate. There the batter’s square waits. The pitcher can twist the ball in the final 60.5 feet to sneak it past the batter, and if he does so in the correct range, the batter is out. If the batter’s square collides with the ball, it rockets back the other direction, where he tries to reach the left side of the screen, twisting it unrealistically to evade the fielder’s grasp. Depending on where along the overlay it left the screen, the hit is either a foul, a single, a double, or (depending on the luck of a card draw) just about anything.
The rules also allow for sacrifices flies and bunts, pickoff attempts and steals, and even balks. Play continues until nine innings are complete or, more likely, one’s patience is depleted.
It’s difficult to assess Odyssey Baseball. As the original home console, there’s absolutely nothing to compare it to: imagine the excitement and novelty of the Wii remote, and extend that to the entire concept of controlling the display of your home television.
Needless to say, it’s not something worth hunting down on eBay. The graphical limitations and the cumbersome controls would make it useful for no longer than a single experimental play-through (though you can try it here if you’d like). And its four pages of rules feel two pages too long, in what was to be the first instance of a recurring theme: the eternal conflict between realistic simulation and fun arcade experience. But there is actual fun to be had. It’s the same core concept that made Pong a smash hit two years later. It’s the reflex-based timing and tension of the pitcher-hitter matchup, distilled down to a useless white powder. It’s a good start.
It would be a long time, in fact, before video game baseball got this fun again.
Patrick Dubuque is a wastrel and a general layabout. Many of the sites he has written for are now dead. Follow him on Twitter @euqubud.