It wouldn't be until 1962 that the most famous early computer game, Spacewar!, blasted onto the scene. Initially designed by Steve Russell, Martin Graetz, and Wayne Wiitanen, with later contributions from Alan Kotok, Dan Edwards, and Peter Samson, the game was the result of brilliant engineering and hundreds of hours of hard work.
Developed on the DEC PDP-1 mainframe at MIT, Spacewar!'s gameplay was surprisingly sophisticated and ambitious, pitting two spaceships against each other in an armed duel around a star that exhibited gravitational effects on the two craft. Each player controlled a ship via the mainframe's front-panel test switches or optional external control boxes, adjusting each respective craft's rotation, thrust, fire, and hyperspace (a random, evasive screen jump that could cause the user's ship to explode).
Over the years, the game was improved many times and inspired many clones and spiritual successors, including the first commercially sold arcade video game in 1971, Computer Space, which was designed by Bushnell and Dabney for Nutting Associates. Unfortunately for the parties involved, Computer Space landed with a thud.
Featuring a stunning, smooth-edged fiberglass cabinet with metalflake chips embedded in the clearcoat finish that came in a range of colors, a large screen and a multibutton control panel that wouldn't look out of place in an Apollo moon mission, Computer Space was intimidating, particularly to a public that had never seen a video game.
Bushnell, who can perhaps best be described as an entrepreneur with a vision and background in engineering, was able to identify the root cause of Computer Space's failure -- it was implicitly designed for the enjoyment of his engineering friends -- and banked on the simplicity of Pong, right down to its angular wooden cabinet and controls, to drive the success of his new company, Atari.
Unfortunately for Bushnell's still undeniably impressive legacy, it has been proven that he took the idea for Pong from inventor Ralph Baer, who designed the first home video game console, the Magnavox Odyssey.
Baer conceived the basic ideas behind the Odyssey during the 1950s, but his concept for a television video game was so novel that he was unable to garner enough support to even build working prototypes until the mid 1960s. His first attempt to build a home video game console was a simple game of tag featuring two squares, which soon morphed into his "Brown Box" prototype. The prototype included several additional diversions, including target shooting and the pivotal paddle and ball games.
After being rejected by several TV manufacturers, Baer finally signed an agreement in 1971 with Magnavox, who released a refined version of the prototype the following year, renaming it the Odyssey Home Entertainment System (model 1TL200).
Although relatively limited in capabilities, requiring considerable manual intervention and imagination from its players, the Odyssey nevertheless had many basic features in its forward-thinking design that would eventually become standard. These included detachable controllers, additional controller options (a light rifle/gun), and interchangeable game cartridges. The cartridges enabled play for each of the various activities, but in reality these plug-in cards simply turned the console's built-in features on or off, like a selector switch.
Twelve games were included with the system; ten more were released separately. The Odyssey could display only white squares and lines on a black background, so two different sizes of color overlays were provided to enhance game play and accommodate different types of televisions.
In addition, many games also included external enhancements, such as playing cards, maps, dice, and game boards. Much of the system's playability came from the use of these accessories, as there was limited onscreen interaction. The system registered only object collisions, and there was no sound or score tracking.
The original Magnavox Odyssey in its organizer case. Note the rolled-up television overlays and extensive array of real-world playing pieces.
Perhaps the Odyssey's most enduring legacy, however, was inspiring Bushnell at a Magnavox product demonstration in 1972. Later that same year, Bushnell cofounded Atari, and with engineer Alcorn developed Pong, which was clearly derivative of one of the Odyssey's paddle-and-ball games.
As Baer puts it, "The fact that Nolan Bushnell developed Pong after he played a ping-pong game on an Odyssey 1TL200 at an L.A. Magnavox dealership demo in May of 1972 is also well-known." Incidentally, although Baer credits Bushnell with the title of "father of arcade video games," he proclaims himself "the father of home video games." We'll have more to say about Baer in a moment.
"Mezrabad" described the Odyssey's Table Tennis in a tongue-in-cheek review for Armchair Arcade, where he pretends he's back in 1972 playing this game with his son for the first time. The review shows the striking similarities to Pong:
Table Tennis uses both Player Spots, Ball Spot, and Line Spot. It is the only Odyssey game that uses Cart #1. It uses no overlay. Cart #1 is inserted into the Odyssey's slot which automatically turns the Odyssey "on" and it begins its "broadcast" to your TV. Remember, this is only being broadcast to your TV. Don't call your neighbors and tell them to please turn to channel 3 or 4 to watch you play Table Tennis.
Table Tennis is designed to help proud new Odyssey owners learn how to manipulate the controllers of the Odyssey. Two controllers come with the system. They are little white boxes with knobs on the right and left sides. The left knob controls horizontal movement of the Player Spot and the other knob controls the vertical movement of the Player Spot.
In the center of the left knob is yet another knob which controls the "ENGLISH" of the Ball Spot. I think "ENGLISH" refers to something in the real-world game of billiards that governs how a ball's trajectory curves due to its spin. This "ENGLISH" control allows a player to control the trajectory of the Ball Spot after deflecting it with the Player Spot. The Odyssey Manual always capitalizes the word "ENGLISH" so forgive me if you think I'm shouting.
Oh, and I guess I should make this clear. When I say a controller "controls" the movement of a Player Spot, I mean that there's a little white rectangle/square on YOUR TV SCREEN that moves depending on how you turn a knob on your controller. Really! Yes, it is astonishing at first. Not since I discovered the vertical hold dial have I had this much fun with my TV.
 Steve Russell developed the first version of the game in 1961. It wouldn't be significantly and recognizably improved in a collaborative manner until the 1962 version. See http://tinyurl.com/3xhe5j.
 See Mezrabad's complete "Chronogaming" series on the Magnavox Odyssey here: http://www.armchairarcade.com/neo/taxonomy/term/948.