A closer look at: UFO!

Title: UFO!
Platform: Odyssey²
Publisher: Magnavox
Year: 1981

Odyssey²: home of the best box art of all time. The distinctive vintage sci-fi look adorns virtually every Odyssey game cover.

If you had an Odyssey² system in 1981, people who owned Ataris and Intellivisions wondered what was wrong with you. They maybe even pitied you a little, smug with the satisfaction that their systems were better than yours; the Odyssey didn’t have any of the “name brand” arcade games the Atari Video Computer System had, or advanced graphics like the Intellivision had. They would gloat that all you had was an admittedly cool-looking membrane keyboard that was as useful as a screen door on a submarine while they had the latest and greatest games and features.

That would all end when you showed them a game like UFO! Suddenly, Asteroids on their Ataris was seen for the chunky, flickery mess it was. Intellivision fans were forced to admit that the only game they had that could keep up was Astrosmash. Of course they would feign disinterest before sulking back to their superior hardware, as fanboys are wont to do, but it made them privately wonder if the Odyssey² wasn’t such a bad little system after all. After two or three years of mediocre, generic software, the underdog had bitten back.

UFO! cartridge (Odyssey²)

UFO! is one of the “Challenger Series” games for the Odyssey². These titles were the Odyssey’s answers to popular arcade games of the day -none of which could be licensed by Magnavox- and are generally considered the best games released for the system. UFO! is the Odyssey’s take on Asteroids, with sort of a Robotron twist. The game puts you in control of a flying saucer-shaped “Earth Federation robot-controlled battle cruiser” (according to the instruction manual), the mission of which is to defend Earth against various types of marauding UFOs. It’s not exactly the most original premise, but UFO! does quite a bit to distinguish itself.

The Odyssey²’s “boot screen.” Classic.

Your ship is surrounded by a force field, a somewhat novel feature. It can be used to ram an enemy, or to provide the energy for your laser missiles. After firing or ramming an enemy, the force field will need to recharge; while it recharges, you are vulnerable. The speed of your ship decreases by 50% while your shield is down, as well.

Starting the day with a bowl of Lucky Charms…er…a game of UFO!

The aiming system is unlike any other I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen quite a few!) and is rather innovative. The aforementioned force field actually serves as an aiming device as well. The brighter, larger dot in the field indicates which direction your shots will travel. Moving the ship in any direction will cause the aiming reticule to rotate clockwise. This will probably seem strange to the uninitiated, but it quickly becomes very intuitive. It’s a very clever way of approximating a “two-joystick” arcade control system, a la Robotron 2084 or Space Dungeon, with a single joystick controller.

You encounter three types of UFOs in the game: the Random Drifter, the Hunter-Killer, and the dreaded Lightspeed Starship. The “Random Drifter” drifts randomly (no way!), and is represented by a tumbling “X” (if you look carefully you’ll notice its animation actually cycles between the “X” and “+” characters). They’re worth one point each. Hunter-Killers are formed when two Drifters collide. They look like blobs combined with the tumbling Drifters. They follow you around the screen and are worth three points each. The deadly Lightspeed Starship is a bad mamma jamma. This mean motor scooter looks like a saucer, appears without warning, and fires lethally accurate laser missiles at you. It’s good for 10 points.

UFO!’s menagerie of enemies.

A very cool thing that happens when you destroy any of these things is that “shrapnel” flies off in three different directions and can destroy other enemies in turn, creating a chain reaction (be careful, though; your shield is down the whole time this is happening). Although I would have liked to see a point multiplier system for this domino effect, it is nevertheless perhaps the most satisfying gameplay aspect of UFO!

Shrapnel: these three dots left over from a destroyed UFO can also destroy other UFOs, which will give off three dots of their own, and so forth.

You only get one “life” in UFO!, as in most Odyssey games. And when it ends you are treated to a colorful display in which your ship sparks and goes critical before exploding. It’s one of the nicer “the quarterback is toast!” sequences that comes to mind, and it takes a little bit of the edge off a hard-fought 700-point game coming to an abrupt end. And as with the other Challenger Series titles, you can enter a 6-character name when you post a high score. Although UFO! is essentially a one-player game, any number of players can compete for the right to put a goofy abbreviation of their name (or, more often, some form of obscenity) on the screen.

Like most (okay, all) Odyssey² games, UFO!’s graphics and sounds are fairly austere, being culled partially from the system’s in-built character and sound effects sets. That is no detriment in the case of UFO!, however, as the game is colorful, clean-looking, and absolutely flicker-free. (Suck on that, Atari fanboys!) The sound effects are gloriously retro and distinctly “Odyssey²,” and very appropriate for the game.

Objectively, UFO! is one of the best games available for the Odyssey². It more than holds its own against the Asteroids games for both the Atari VCS and Atari 400/800 computer, and is in a completely different league than the Intellivision’s dreadful Space Hawk. Of course, comparing UFO! exclusively to its closest analog is selling it short because, although UFO! shares elements with Asteroids, it is truly a unique game. My only real critiques are that I’d have liked to see a scoring multiplier for “chain reactions,” as well as a simultaneous 2-player game, though I’m sure hardware limitations precluded either. But hindsight is 20/20, and even as is, UFO! is a bonafide underground classic that offers virtually endless replayability.

Fortunately for retro enthusiasts, UFO! is a very easy game to find. If you don’t own an Odyssey², it’s worth getting one for UFO! alone. I suspect many people did just that in the early ’80s, as virtually every Odyssey system you find for sale will probably include a copy of UFO!

UFO! was released internationally under various localized titles such as Satelliten-Angriff (Germany), Nazo no UFO (Japan), OVNI! (Brazil), and Les Satellites Attaquent (France). European editions of the game are also compatible with the Videopac G7400 (the released European version of the unreleased Odyssey³), which adds some bright background graphics to the game.

UFO! playing on a Videopac G7400.

UFO! is hands down my favorite Odyssey² game. It’s gotta be pretty high in the the running for “favorite game of all time” as well. Anecdotally, it was the first retro game I ever really played, way back in 1997 (I realize fully how silly that sounds to people of a certain age). Since then, I couldn’t even tell you how many hours of my life I’ve lost to UFO! In those many hours I’d like to think I’ve gained some tactical wisdom about the game, which I will share with you here:

Playing tip: The Lightspeed Starships have the irritating habit of instantly wasting you with their laser missiles the instant they appear on screen, sometimes even seemingly before. As a general rule, try to keep toward the center of the screen to maximize your ability to react to things that pop up at the edges of the screen. 

Playing tip: Although the Lightspeed Starships can travel at various angles, they can only fire diagonally. Stay out of its “corners;” approach from the sides or directly above/below. Use Drifters and Hunter-Killers as cover.

Playing tip: Just because a Starship is there doesn’t mean you have to attack it. If in doubt, avoid it. You’ll get more points by staying in the game than going after a Starship which you may not even be in a very good position to fight. You only get one life; think long-term.

(c) 2012 Jeffery Koss

Profiles In Gaming: The Odyssey of Ralph Baer

The father of home video games; Ralph Baer, circa 1975, demonstrating the Odyssey 200 system.

Even if you don’t know his name, you know his inventions. Simon. Computer Perfection. Maniac. Video game consoles.

But to identify Ralph Baer only with the electronic entertainment devices he created is to do a great disservice to one of the world’s most brilliant and prolific inventors. Since completing his tour of duty with the U.S. Army in 1946, Baer has accumulated over 150 U.S. and foreign patents to his name. He designed and built everything from military and espionage equipment to surgical tools. He was involved with the development of etched core memory and launch control equipment for the Saturn V rocket. In 2006 he was awarded the National Medal of Technology by President George W. Bush. In 2010, Baer was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Washington, D.C.

Video games have been a part of popular consciousness for over three decades. From relatively humble origins, the video game industry has grown into a multi billion-dollar a year behemoth. Games can now be seen in virtually every facet of modern life. It may be difficult to imagine a time when video games were not the pop culture juggernaut they are today. It may be even more difficult to imagine a time when they didn’t exist at all.

But all stories begin somewhere. And the story of video games as we known them, for all intents and purposes, begins with Ralph Baer.

Rodalben, Germany: birthplace of Ralph Baer.

The world was a troubled and very different place when Ralph Baer came into it on March 8, 1922, in a small southwestern German town called Rodalben. Europe was feeling the lingering effects of a monumentally disastrous World War, the root causes of which remained unaddressed by the vengeful peace terms that concluded it. In Baer’s native Germany, hyperinflation, economic collapse, and political extremism gave way to Adolf Hitler’s ascension to Chancellor in 1933, the same year Baer was expelled from school at age 11 for being Jewish.

Baer and his family fled Germany for the United States through the Netherlands in 1938, mere months before the events of Kristallnacht took place. Once in the U.S., he performed factory work while cultivating a love of electronics. He completed a correspondence course on the subject of radio technology before attending and graduating from the National Radio Institute in 1940.

Baer ran three New York City radio and television repair shops when he was drafted by the United States Army in 1943, during the height of the Second World War. He served one year stateside before being assigned to Military Intelligence in London, where he was attached to General Eisenhower’s headquarters. He was subsequently stationed in France. During his time in the army, Baer became an expert of some renown on military small arms; when he returned to the U.S. in 1946, he brought 18 tons of weapons with him and was instrumental in the creation and expansion of three official U.S. Army small arms exhibits.

Ralph Baer, during his service in World War II.

Once out of the Army, Baer went back to school again (let it never be said that he didn’t know the value of an education!), this time at the American Television Institute of Technology. He graduated in 1949 with a BS in Television Engineering; he was among the first people anywhere to be awarded such a degree.

During the ’50s, he got married and started his family, in addition to designing and building a plethora of different devices and electronic equipment, many of them under military contract. Such devices included a submarine-tracking analog computer for military aircraft radar use and a system used to monitor Soviet communications in Berlin. But even by 1951, while given the task by his employers at Loral Electronics to build the “best TV set in the world,” Baer had already conceived of games that could somehow be played on a television. His employers were not enthused with the idea.

It wasn’t until 1966, during his employment with Sanders Associates, Inc., that Baer first began conceptual work on a machine that would interface with a television set, display a set of objects on the screen, and allow the user to manipulate those objects. From this concept Baer, with assistance from fellow engineer Bob Tremblay, built his first game, which he concisely dubbed “Chase Game.” The game featured two objects on the screen (“spots,” as Baer called them). One “spot” represented a fox, the other a hound, and the game’s object, naturally, was for the hound to chase and catch the fox. “Chase Game” was certainly primitive, but the game (an unofficial project unrelated to Baer’s and Tremblay’s job duties, and for which they were not compensated) interested Baer’s employers enough to grant funding of $2000, with an additional $500 for materials.

The following year, 1967, saw the ever-innovative Baer making improvements on his game. Not the least significant of these was his development of a shooting game. Baer created and built a small photoreceptor into a toy gun while new teammate Bill Harrison designed the circuitry that allowed the gun to shoot the spots on the screen. And thus, light gun games were born.

Baer’s prototype light gun.

Later that same year, Baer worked up a concept for a ping-pong game with Harrison and Bill Rusch and demonstrated a fully-working prototype.

A little over a month later, in 1968, Baer filed his first video game-related patent application. By the end of ’68, Baer and his team had built and demonstrated a working prototype of an improvement upon the earlier game unit. Programmable by switches, the machine was now capable of playing football and volleyball games in addition to the existing ping-pong and gun games. Transparent plastic screen overlays provided color and background to the games.

A glimpse of things to come: the “Brown Box.”

Further developments and revisions culminated in “The Brown Box” in 1969, so named for the wood-patterned contact paper that covered the unit and its controllers.  Demonstrations of the Brown Box were performed for representatives of RCA, Zenith, Sylvania, General Electric, and Magnavox at Sanders Associates’ plant in Nashua, Hew Hampshire. A license agreement was drafted with RCA in 1970, but the deal fell through.

However, Bill Enders, one of the RCA men who had been impressed by the Brown Box, had left to become Vice President of Marketing at Magnavox. There, Enders championed Baer’s game machine. So, later in 1970, Baer and Sanders’ Corporate Director of Patents, Lou Etlinger, were invited to Magnavox’s plant in Ft. Wayne, Indiana to demo the Brown Box for their engineering, production, and marketing managers. It received a chilly reception from all except for the Vice President of Marketing for the TV division, Gerry Martin. And on his authority, Magnavox would pursue the TV games project, pending the approval of corporate management, which came nine months later in 1971.

Once a preliminary licensing agreement between Sanders Associates and Magnavox was signed, Baer’s Brown Box prototype and all related design documentation were turned over to the engineers at Magnavox, who quickly began development of a production version of the game unit. In 1972, Magnavox unveiled the finished product, called Odyssey, to Magnavox dealers across the U.S.; home video games had arrived.

The fruit of Ralph Baer’s labor: Odyssey, the world’s first home video game, from Magnavox.

During the development of the Brown Box/Odyssey, Baer conceived of games that could be played “online” through cable or telephone lines, decades years before online gaming as we know it came into being in the 1990s. He also designed “active cartridges” containing additional electronic components. These were to add more features to the games, such as sound effects, variable net position, and variable ball speed, but these were deemed unfeasible.

In the ensuing years, Baer assisted the development of follow-up Odyssey consoles, such as the Odyssey 100 and Odyssey 200, and Magnavox’s next-generation programmable console, Odyssey 2. He also supported Magnavox and Sanders in their patent infringement lawsuits against Atari and Nintendo, which Magnavox/Sanders won. Baer also consulted with Coleco on the development of their Telstar and Combat! game consoles, as well as their Kid Vid module for the Atari 2600 console. He also designed the classic handheld memory game Simon (inspired by Atari’s Touch Me game, in a somewhat ironic twist), as well as other early ’80s classics Maniac, Computer Perfection, and Amazatron. In addition to his games, Baer also created numerous toys and other consumer products.

Ralph Baer surrounded by his most famous inventions

Baer still continues to design, build, and tinker at the age of 90. He recently published a book in 2005 about the history of video games from his unique vantage point, titled “Videogames: In The Beginning.” From 2004 to 2006, Baer built an entire line of working recreations of his various Odyssey prototypes, which he donated to the Museum of The Moving Image in Astoria, New York. His original Brown Box now resides at the Smithsonian Institution, but he has an entire lifetime’s worth of invention and innovation under his belt, from medical instruments and military hardware to toys and talking doormats. And he shows no signs of stopping.

What will he come up with next?

Ralph Baer, age 90, in his workshop.

(c) 2012 Jeffery Koss