THE NINTENDO ODYSSEY

From Old School Gamer Magazine – January 2018

A question had arisen regarding whether a statement in my book, Phoenix IV: The History of the Videogame Industry, was correct or not. The book stated that Nintendo had imported the first videogame console, the Magnavox Odyssey, into Japan. Shortly after the book’s publication, this was disputed by noted videogame historian, Alexander Smith,[1] who said that although this information had been briefly mentioned in David Sheff’s 1993 history of Nintendo, Game Over, it simply wasn’t true. Smith’s contention was that no Odysseys have ever been found in Japanese boxes or with Japanese instructions. I countered that I believed that Nintendo imported an American (domestic) version of the console, so there was no way to tell them apart from those consoles that were sold in the United States. To his credit Smith did not stand behind his initial beliefs and did some additional research. He came across an obscure Japanese Odyssey fan site that featured a spreadsheet, which listed the release dates of early Japanese consoles. At the top of the list was the Odyssey, which according to the spreadsheet, had been released by April 17, 1975. Other pertinent information included a distributor’s name, Jolieb Co., Ltd, and a price, ¥58,000 ($200). Finally, there was a note that said that the source to this information was from the Japanese newspaper, Nihon Keizai Shimbun, dated April, 17, 1975. Regrettably, a copy of this paper has not yet come to light, at least not in the West.

Unfortunately, the information in this spreadsheet is not consistent. It is not clear if the data in the distributor column is actually a distributor or a retailer or even a manufacturer. In the case of the Odyssey, little is known about this mysterious Jolieb, aside from that it was located in Tokyo’s Minato Ward, which leads me to believe that it was a retailer. But then how did Jolieb obtain its Odysseys to sell? Were they imported directly from Magnavox, or did Nintendo actually import them and then sell them to Jolieb? And how did Nintendo, a manufacturer of toys, get to partner with Magnavox in the first place in order to get these distribution rights?

In Game Over, all David Sheff wrote was that “Magnavox, for one, sold the rights to its Odyssey system to Nintendo.” However, Sheff didn’t offer any explanation to the hows and whys that this came to be, which made it very easy to see why Smith had his skepticism about the statement.

Actually, Nintendo did have a major part in the Odyssey story.

While Ralph Baer was building videogame console prototypes, he also built a prototype for a light-rifle that could be used to shoot at on-screen targets. This prototype was actually built from a toy rifle that had been sold by the American toy company, Marx, which a member of Baer’s team had purchased at a nearby toy store. The team quickly stripped the toy rifle and added circuitry to it that would let it recognize objects on a TV screen and a cord to attach it to the console prototype.

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The actual prototype lightgun – Courtesy: The Smithsonian

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Closeup of the rifle prototype shows the Marx name

After Magnavox licensed the rights to what would become the Odyssey, they searched for a company that could manufacture the light guns for them. They could have contracted Marx, but Marx would only have been able to provide toy rifles without any internal circuitry. Fortunately, Magnavox found a Japanese toy company that was already manufacturing and selling light rifles.

In 1970, Nintendo began selling 光線銃 SP (Kôsenjû SP), a pair of toy guns, a pistol and a rifle, that used a light-dependent resistor that was manufactured by Sharp. Nintendo also sold targets separately that worked in conjunction with the guns. When the gun’s trigger was pressed, it instantly flashed a beam of light (光線銃 roughly means “ray gun”, but the toy guns were commonly referred to as Nintendo beam guns). The target had a sensor that could recognize the light. There were several targets available such as a roulette wheel that spun and a can that came apart when they were “hit”.

These toy guns operated much differently than the light gun that Ralph Baer had invented. The Kôsenjû SP guns emitted light that the targets sensed. On the other hand, when the trigger on Baer’s light gun was pressed, it “read” the TV screen looking for a white object. Although these technologies were different, Magnavox felt that they were similar enough that it awarded Nintendo the job to manufacturer the world’s first videogame light guns.

On the exterior, the light gun that Nintendo produced was basically the same exact gun that it built for itself. The only difference was that the Magnavox gun had a honeycomb pattern embedded into the side of its barrel while the Nintendo rifle was smooth. The Nintendo rifle also included a telescope unit that could be inserted into the top of the unit. The Magnavox unit did not have this feature and there was no place on its top where the device could be inserted.

Besides that, the only other physical exterior difference between the two rifles was that the Magnavox model had a cord sticking out from its underside to connect it to the console.

Nintendo Kôsenjû SP Rifle (top) & Magnavox Odyssey Light Rifle (bottom)

Although the Nintendo name does not appear on the Odyssey light gun, the underside, where the cord to the console attaches to the rifle, clearly displays the word: JAPAN.

The word Japan on the underside of the Odyssey light gun.

As it was with the rest of the world, the Odyssey was Nintendo’s introduction to home videogames. However, because of its involvement, it learned about the new form of home entertainment very early and probably before anyone else in Japan. Nintendo’s president, Hiroshi Yamauchi, was interested in what it saw. Although the Japanese company had no plans to dive head first into the new, uncharted industry, it wanted to be a part of it. And so Nintendo signed an agreement with Magnavox, which gave it the exclusive right to distribute the Odyssey in Japan.

Although Magnavox did produce an export version of the Odyssey, this version was only released in Europe. The export model differed from the domestic model in several ways. First of all, it was only playable on PAL television sets, instead of the domestic NTSC. And while the game cards that accompanied the domestic unit were only printed with English text, the cards that accompanied the export model were printed in English, German and Spanish. Even the games were different. Cat and Mouse, Haunted House and Roulette, which all were included with the domestic console, were only available individually for the export model. Another game, States, was not available at all for the export version. Football was replaced by Soccer, which included a soccer overlay that was not available domestically. And finally, Wipeout and Volleyball, two games that were only available individually domestically, were included with the export model.

Like the United States, Japan used the NTSC standard of TV broadcasting, so this special export version of the Odyssey could not be sold in Japan. The fact that Magnavox would not have to create a special version of the console for sale in Japan makes it more conceivable that Nintendo merely imported the domestic model.

The Japanese console spreadsheet mentioned earlier also brings up another puzzle. It states that the Odyssey became available in April, 1975, more than 2½ years after it was introduced. So this brings up the question if Nintendo offered it immediately or near the end of the console’s lifespan. What is clear is if the Japanese release is indeed in April, 1975, then it didn’t have the Japanese market to itself for long. On September 12, 1975, another Japanese toy company, Epoch, released the Electrotennis, the first videogame system that was designed and assembled in Japan, under license from Magnavox.

Nintendo acquired its own license from Magnavox in 1977 and released its first console, the Color TV 6, in June of that year, thus beginning Japan’s official odyssey into the new and exciting industry.


[1] Smith maintains an interesting and informative blog and a twice-monthly podcast that I encourage all fans of videogame history to check out. It can be found at theycreateworlds.com.

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