Colorizing the Odyssey 300

When I turned 30, a good friend of mine provided me with an old Magnavox Odyssey 300 – one of the finest pong machines of its day. It’s one of the more thoughtful gifts I’ve ever received.

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Remarkably, despite the condition of the box, the system inside still worked perfectly.

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The stickers had bubbled up a little, and the plastic had picked up a little bit of grime over the years, but it worked like a charm. It STILL works like a charm, 40 years after its original manufacture. They REALLY don’t build them like they used to.

Like most systems of its vintage, the Odyssey 300 is designed to be hooked up to an antenna-based CRT television.  Crazy to think, but cable TV was far from commonplace at the time of the Odyssey 300’s release.

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What you see above is most commonly referred to as a “TV/game switch” –  At least that’s what we called it in my home back in the ’80s. The screws you see at the top of the picture are where you would affix the leads that come in from the antenna. You would then take the leads that come out on the right and hook them in to the back of your ol’ boob tube. When you wanted to do some gaming, you’d flip the switch to “game,” and the console would then “broadcast” over one of your TV channels (usually channel 2, 3 or 4). In the image above, you’ll note that the switch is hooked up to a simple adapter, which allows it to be plugged into the coax/CATV port on the back of a modern TV.

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Despite its age, the Odyssey 300 works just fine on a modern flat panel display – at least it worked fine on my  6-year-old 20″ Vizio LCD. Through the use of a cheap RF booster from radioshack, I was able to amplify the signal and get rid of much of the static. The result is more than playable – probably on par with what you would have experienced back in 1976.

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I was amazed that (1) they still made these, and (2) I was able to find a Radioshack in Philly that carried one.

So playing and enjoying the Odyssey 300 is fairly straightforward – much easier than I expected out of a console 6-years my senior. But, like any good retrogaming enthusiast, I was not satisfied. I had to know: could I pointlessly upscale this thing to 1080p?

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That right there is Micomsoft’s XRGB Mini – the Framemeister. It’s what I use to upscale all of the retro console footage you see on this site. Long story short, it takes video signals from  old consoles, upscales them to your desired resolution, and outputs a nice clean signal over HDMI. Basically, it makes old game systems look crisp and clear on modern televisions. The Odyssey 300 looks fine without any upscaling, but I thought it would be neat to see if I could bring Magnavox’s old dinosaur into the HD era.

One slight problem, though: the Framemeister doesn’t have an input for coaxial cable. I had to get the Odyssey’s signal to output over standard composite/RCA cables.

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Enter my parents’ old VCR. The Panasonic Omnivision. Behold its “VCR Plus” functionality. Truly a titan of its era.

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Being a high quality VCR from 1995, the Omnivision is more than equipped to take video input over a coax cable and output it over composite cables. All I had to do was just hook the TV/game switch into the VCR, run a single yellow cable to the Framemeister, set the tuner to channel 3, and I was ready to rock. There are probably more elegant ways to accomplish this, but I wasn’t about to spend any money on this experiment. Besides, getting a VCR involved in the mix only made this experiment far more ludicrous/fun.

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Boom. So there you have it. That there is the Framemeister’s menu over top of an Odyssey 300 screen, upscaled to 1080p. But I wasn’t done yet. Nope, not by a long shot.

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With recent firmware updates, the Framemeister has gained the ability to place colored overlays atop its video output. Presumptively, this is to be utilized with old arcade games, like, say, Space Invaders, which output a black and white image, but utilized colored gels to create the illusion of color.

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Image source: nowgamer.com. Click the image to read their excellent Space Invaders retrospective.

Using the Framemeister, I could replicate this effect on the Odyssey, and give it a fresh injection of all of the colors of the test pattern rainbow.

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The Framemeister allows for up to 7 “strips,” which can be oriented horizontally or vertically, and set to variable widths. Utilizing just three overlays, I was able to divide the “tennis” court into two colors, divided by a nice red center line. No longer would anybody be confused about which white paddle was theirs!

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By playing around with the zoom setting a little bit, I was able to get the image to more or less fit the 16:9 aspect ratio of my display.

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Experimenting with a few more overlays, I was able to get each paddle to appear as as a distinct color while giving the playfield a little bit more of a “tennis court” look. Unparalleled realism!

But wait, there’s more! The Odyssey 300 could do more than just pong, it also had…

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Hockey! Hockey is more or less the same as pong, but each player controls a “forward” and a “goalie.” Using the overlays, I was able to make it clear which paddle belonged to each player. But the fun doesn’t stop with hockey, oh no.

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Racquetball! Racquetball, again, is basically the same as pong, but both players occupy the same side of the court. With the aid of the overlays, it’s like you don’t even have to get up and go to the country club!

If you watched the video at the beginning of this post, you may have noted the lack of in-game audio. That’s because the Odyssey itself outputs nothing but horrid white noise. The game audio (little more than a few bleeps and bloops) emanates from a speaker in the Odyssey itself, rendering it uncapturable – at least for purposes of this exercise. The excellent music you hear in the video is the product of Rob E. Cohen, the very same friend who gave me Odyssey.

So there you have it: with a little bit of ingenuity, a fancy-ass upscaler and an old VCR, you can turn even the oldest of consoles into a colorized, high-definition destroyer. I don’t know if I’ll ever buy another sports game again. Color your world, people.

Arcade Memories, Pt. 2: Time Killers

timekillerstitleTime Killers
Arcade, 1992
Developer: Incredible Technologies
Publisher: Strata

Time Killers made such a indelible mark on my pre-teen brain, I felt it warranted a Brief Facts as well:

Time Killers was released in late ’92, meaning I didn’t encounter it at TK’s until the summer of ’93 – a time when fighting games ruled the roost, and arcades were populated with angry, clove-smoking, Nirvana-loving teenagers. It was a wonderful place to be a chubby 11-year-old.

Co-op games like Crime Fighters hadn’t vanished, but their numbers were dwindling. If you wanted to make the most out of your time in an arcade, you HAD to learn how to play fighting games. Street Fighter II had changed arcades forever, for good or for ill.

I positively LOVED fighting games. When the home port of SFII dropped in June of 1992, I played it into the ground. Damn near mastered it. However, those skills never quite made a clean transition to the arcade. Not because I was outclassed by the competition, mind you, but because I was SCARED.

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It feels odd to have to explain this, but the arcades of the ’90s were not the family fun centers you see today. In fact, to my 11-year-old brain, they kind of resembled the future from Terminator: constant loud noises, dim lights, frowning faces leaning against every possible surface, and smoke everywhere. They were probably nowhere NEAR that bad, but damn if they didn’t FEEL just a little bit dangerous. I fully acknowledge that I was a little chickenshit, but hey, this is my story, so BACK OFF PAL.

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Anyway, rolling up to a fighting game in ’92 meant (1) you were going to pay $.50 for a credit, and (2) you were going to get challenged by an angst-ridden teenager in a matter of moments. The fear of losing my hard-earned allowance to some hormonally imbalanced high schooler in a Megadeth t-shirt caused me to fold under pressure. How could I beat a kid who was a foot taller than me at ANYTHING? Even if I could win, would it get me beat up? Intimidation was in the air.

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But Time Killers helped fix all that. No, not because its excessive gore exposed me to the horrors of the world and gave me the steely resolve of a grizzled veteran – but I’m sure that didn’t hurt. Time Killers helped me conquer my arcade fears because I just happened to be the first person at TK’s to figure out its (admittedly simple) control scheme.

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As noted in the video, killing somebody in Time Killers is INCREDIBLY easy. All you do is slam all 5 attack buttons. If your opponent isn’t blocking, their head will fly off and you’ll win the match in seconds.

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Believe it or not, most folks just just bashed on the top button (for headbutts) in an effort to pull off decapitations. Suckers. Image source: arcade-museum.com

Through dumb luck, I somehow figured this little trick out about 3 days before everyone else at TK’s did, including many angry and family members. Sorry, cousin Rob! For a few glorious days in the summer of ’93, I was the absolute KING of Time Killers. My competition jitters evaporated as I racked up the cheap wins.

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To my surprise, however, the rest of the world took this extremely well. A few folks complained, but most just calmly walked away. Some even shook my hand. Nobody threatened to beat me up (which is remarkable, because credits weren’t cheap, and any threat would have caused my pansy ass to yield control of the machine immediately). It was then I came to realize that maybe I had been taking this whole thing just a little bit too seriously. Video games were just video games, and arcade-goers were just normal people. Foul-mouthed teenage people, but people nonetheless. Some of them were actually pretty cool. As long as you didn’t run your mouth, you had just about nothing to fear.

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For that reason, I’ll always remember Time Killers as the game that got me over the hump. It’s how I learned how to perform under arcade pressure, and on a broader level, it taught me a little something about how to relax in uncomfortable social situations.

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So there you have it folks. Violent video games build character and teach life lessons. Suck it, organized athletics, and TAKE THAT JOE LIEBERMAN.

…come to think of it, though, had I been on the receiving end of those cheap decapitations, this game could have just as easily made me swear off arcade games forever. Makes ya’ think.

Also the makers of Time Killers went on to design Golden Tee Golf, which may well be the world’s most popular arcade game. Look it up.

Arcade Memories, Pt. 1: Crime Fighters

crime-fighters-screenshot-2016-09-07-20-39-46Crime Fighters
Arcade, 1989
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami

This is NHL almost-legend Tim Kerr:

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Image source: tradingcarddb.com. He was actually a right winger.

Best-known for his 11 seasons (1980-1991) with the Philadelphia Flyers, Tim Kerr was a force to be reckoned with on the power play. In fact, as of this writing, Tim Kerr still holds the single-season record for power play goals: back in the ’85-’86 season he picked up 34. The only person to come REMOTELY close in recent history is Ilya Kovalchuk, who racked up 27 goals in the ’05-’06 season. To hold ANY record that long in modern professional sports is truly a commendable feat. ALL HAIL KING KERR, LONG MAY HE REIGN!

Despite being a lifelong Flyers fan, though, when I think of Tim Kerr, I don’t  think of hockey. I think of VIDEO GAMES.

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TK’s – Avalon Boardwalk – Doris Zogas, 1993. Click the image to see more of Ms. Zogas’ awesome watercolors.

What you are looking at there is a lovely watercolor of TK’s Seafood and Crab House in Avalon, New Jersey. I would have loved to post an actual picture, but the place is gone – has been for over a decade now (though Tim Kerr still maintains a powerful presence in the Jersey Shore area). While TK’s was an excellent place get your crab on, that’s not why I look back on it fondly.

Computer, enhance.

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That’s the good stuff right there! You see, Mr. Kerr had the good sense to shove an arcade in the basement of his restaurant. Why waste your money on sea food that your child’s unsophisticated palette won’t even come close to appreciating? Just send them to the basement for 45 minutes while you get sensibly hammered. Now that’s what I call power play parenting!

I’m not sure if that arcade actually had a name, but it might as well have been called “here’s 20 bucks, try to be home by 10.” It’s where I spent many summer vacation nights as a kid, and it’s where some of my first memories of video games were formed. So, please, indulge me a bit as I wax nostalgic. Let’s quarter up and cruise down memory lane.

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The first game I remember when I think of TK’s is Konami’s Crime Fighters.  Crime Fighters is really a game of its era – and that era is the latest of the late ’80s. The introduction really tells you everything you need to know:

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Side bar: Until I was 12, I assumed most relationships began with some kind of abduction/rescue/vigilante justice scenario. Thanks video games!

Those are some high stakes there. In most games, you just have to rescue one dude’s girlfriend. Crime Fighters isn’t messing around: its corpulent antagonist seems to have kidnapped ALL the ladies. At least 9, if we’re going by the number of Polaroids on the table. If that doesn’t get you motivated to go on a hot-blooded vigilante rampage, you or your parents probably voted for Dukakis.

Any guy crazy enough to kidnap that many ladies undoubtedly has a considerably large private army of faceless goons. But don’t worry: you’ll have backup. As you may have noticed, Crime Fighters is  a FOUR-PLAYER GAME. And the cabinet… it was just glorious:

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Image source: worthpoint.com/worthopedia/crime-fighters-4-player-arcade-cabinet-1989

Crime Fighters definitely was not the first four-player arcade game; not by a long shot. But it IS the first four-player cabinet I remember seeing out there in the wild, and damn if it didn’t blow my 7-year-old mind. Just looking it takes me back to a simpler and more honest time; a time when the word “punk” meant “violent maniac with a switchblade,” and not “hipster with a mohawk.”  It’s like the designers based their entire perception of urban crime in America off of Crocodile Dundee 2. And it’s great.

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Accurate depiction of late ’80s subways. Only half joking.

The four-player limit meant that I could team-up with my older brothers and cousins without getting in the way, and back then, that was more than enough for me. I was just happy to play with the big kids! And it’s a good thing I’ve held on to those memories… because Crime Fighters is just an absolutely terrible and brutally difficult game.

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Please leave a comment if you know what “Hanny” is and whether or not it is worth playing .

Aside from the thrill of teaming up with four buddies to clean up the streets, Crime Fighters has just about nothing else going for it. It has all the visual trappings of a great arcade beat-em up: legions of colorful enemies, a diverse arsenal of special weapons, and enough urban decay to start a Christian panic. Unfortunately, there’s not much under the hood: hit detection is terrible, the AI has no qualms about sticking you in an endless hitstun, and you’re constantly over-matched and outgunned. Playing with a full compliment of four players is, perhaps, the ONLY way to have fun with Crime Fighters.

If you watched through to the end, you may have noticed that the good folks at Konami might have watched more than Crocodile Dundee 2 before coding this bad boy. Crime Fighters is filled with all kinds of legally questionable inspiration!

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Behold! Hatless Freddy Krueger!

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Not quite Jason Vorhees!

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Blonde Schwarzenegger!

And, I would be completely remiss if I didn’t point out Crime Fighters’ most egregious sin – the way it shamelessly pits players against each other in a naked money grab! If at least two players are standing at the end of a stage, the game “rewards” you with the opportunity to beat one another up.

While this can be fun, it leads to nothing but profound sadness and lost quarters. I still remember when my brother Dave figured out the con: “DON’T! That’s what the machine WANTS us to do!”

So Crime Fighters is a terrible game. Despite its faults, though, I can’t help but look back on it with fondness. There was something magical about pulling up to that giant, colorful cabinet with your family and friends and beating up on punks until you ran out of cash. It was a spectacle, an event – it was hot trash, but even a dumpster fire can be fun to stare at with the right people by your side. Crime Fighters had one great thing going for it: it was always more fun with friends.

And also its incredibly creepy ending screen:

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