Gaming Memories, 1983: Playing Odyssey 2 with My Dad

I started gaming in 1983. My first console was the Odyssey 2. While all of my friends were playing River Raid, Donkey Kongand Pac-Man on their Atari 2600’s, I was improving my gaming skills in knock-offs like UFO, Pick-Axe Pete, and K.C. Munchkin.

I was convinced that my games were better than the stuff other people were playing. In retrospect, that’s a tough boast to justify. But the Odyssey 2’s control pads really did feel a lot better in your hands than an Atari 2600, Intellivision, or Colecovision controller. And it was the only machine that came with a keyboard built in. Granted, there was a never a need to use the keyboard. But the keys sure made the machine look more high tech than its peers.

I loved playing the Odyssey 2 with my father. He was the one who chose the system – presumably, he was more impressed with comfy controllers than popular arcade ports.

Me with Dad

Occasionally, we would be out running an errand, and my father would pretend like he was losing control of the car. Mysteriously, this would only happen when we were approaching the local Toys ‘R Us. He would act out a struggle with the steering wheel, claiming that the vehicle had developed a mind of its own. The car would insist on parking in the toy store’s lot…. and it wouldn’t start up again until we had secured a new Odyssey 2 video game.

I loved the glossy black boxes the games came in. I loved the cover art. When I popped in Football!, I didn’t see a bunch of chunky sprites on screen barely resembling people; I saw this:

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I was never really into sports as a kid. I wasn’t on any teams, and my father never watched professional sporting events on TV. But both of us loved the sports games on the Odyssey 2. I poured countless hours into Football!Bowling!, and Basketball!… but the best of the genre was Baseball!

The graphics in Baseball! were terrible. Even back in the day, I recognized that. I remember watching Princess Bride in theaters with my family, noting how much better Hardball! – the Atari XE game that Fred Savage is playing at the start of the movie – looked by comparison. But my Dad and I didn’t care. Odyssey 2 baseball was a pure test of skill… or so I thought.

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It took me years to realize that all of the close matches in Baseball! I had with my father had been rigged. Dad was a good actor. It seemed like we were perfectly balanced as combatants… I’d come out on top as often as he would. But as the years passed, Dad started to get sloppy with his “I can’t believe you beat me!” routine… and it started to become apparent that he was missing straight-down-the middle pitches on purpose. I called him out. He came clean. His intentions were noble. He wanted to make sure I was having fun, and being beaten every time isn’t any fun.

He promised that he would stop throwing games… but after a few weeks, he started up again. I didn’t complain, because constantly losing was really starting to suck. So I let the charade continue. But at the same time, I started practicing against the computer. A LOT. Every day after school, I’d devote a couple of hours to improving the timing of my swings. And in my practice, I learned that if you hit the ball at just the right moment… it was impossible for the outfield to catch the ball. Eventually, it became a trick that I could pull off every time I was at bat.

As it turned out, this trick was as effective against human opponents as it was against the computer AI. Overnight, I became an unstoppable force in Baseball!Dad was surprised when I beat him soundly for the first time. He was frustrated when it happened a second time. When I won for the sixth consecutive time, he politely excused himself, and headed to the basement. Everyone in the house heard a deafening “BAM” sound coming from downstairs. It shook the rafters. I hurried to the basement to make sure everything was ok.

My father had punched a big hole in the drywall. He wasn’t taking his reversal of fortune well. He smiled sheepishly, and challenged me to another game. This time, he won. I let him win. I’m pretty sure he knew it.

We didn’t play Baseball! much after that day. We moved onto other competitive games… and eventually, Dad’s attention was completely taken over by the purchase of our first family computer, the Texas Instruments TI-994A.  Time moved on, but I’ll never forget the first time I really beat my father in a video game.

And to this day, there is still a hole in the basement’s drywall.

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