Debuting roughly one thousand years ago in 1978, the Magnavox Odyssey 2 (also known as the Philips Videopac) is a console that I know very little about. I've never played one, and I've only ever seen one behind glass in a museum, so don't come to me for all your hot Odyssey 2 news and facts. However, I was looking through some game covers the other day and one Odyssey 2 title in particular leapt out at me and latched on to my brain. I was smitten, and I thought to myself "I wonder if there are any other good examples of Odyssey 2 box art?" It turns out that yes, yes there are, and in this article I will be sharing a few of them with you. I hope you like neon colours and strange pliable men.
(images from mobygames, gamefaqs and videopac.org)
This masterpiece is the cover that served as the catalyst for this article. How could anyone fail to be entranced by the image of a blue gorilla with soulful eyes who's imagining the final moments of the ape revolution, when the brightly coloured and highly evolved simians chase the last human into the CyberGrids and reduce him to atomic dust?
It's almost always the case that the addition of an exclamation mark to a title is a pointless piece of frippery designed to feign excitement, but in the case of Monkeyshines! the exclamation mark is a vital and well-earned component of the name. I'd be excited too, if I'd nailed the creation of computerized monkeys! Sure, the increasing number of exclamation marks after each bit of blurb does suggest that the developer has cracked under the strain of implementing the computerized monkeys, but the title itself definitely deserves an exclamation mark. My only disappointment with this cover is that there was no banner falling falling behind me or confetti cannons going off to celebrate the fact that this is the one millionth time I've seen the "go ape!" pun in monkey-related media.
War of Nerves
You might think that a gorilla with other, smaller, computerized gorillas living in his brain would be the pinnacle of how weird these covers can get, and you might be right... but there's no drop-off in madness, either. Take War of Nerves, for example, where a spaceman is turned to stone by the tentacles of a killer robot that looks like it was built only to kill and scream, and scream, and scream. The box claims the robots are armed with stun-guns, and while you'd certainly be stunned to come under this kind of assault, there's no way this isn't fatal. That is not a robot designed with even one line of mercy in its coding. The big egg that makes up the rear of its body is a receptacle for your crushed hopes and also your crushed bones, but at least when you're being shoved into the robots mouth you get a merciful respite from the screaming as your body temporarily blocks its airway.
The high-tech theme continues with UFO!, and the designers of that UFO were so excited about how cool it would be to build a space station shaped like an atom that they didn't give any thought as to how ship are going to dock with it without smashing into an errant electron. I like that the ship's main computer is apparently only marginally more powerful than an Odyssey 2 itself, but the very best thing about this cover is that there's a die hanging above the windscreen - but because this is the future, it's a futuristic polyhedral die. I bet this guy has a bumper sticker that says "My Other Starship's an X-Wing," too.
Alien Invaders - Plus!
A lot of retro game cover art is an attempt by an artist to capture what's going on in the game in a way that looks appealing and not like a bunch of blocky shapes moving around, and this cover is no different, but I can't help but appreciate the amount of effort that went into transforming this basic Space Invaders clone into an interstellar conflict of breathtaking magnitude. What's great about it is that all the recognisable elements of Space Invaders are there - the player's tank, the defensive blocks, the waves of regimented enemies - but everything's taking place beneath the baleful gaze of a monster made of snakes with a giant mouth at its core. The monster appears to be carrying the Emerald City of Oz on its back. I don't think I've ever wanted to play a clone of Space Invaders more in my life.
The madness continues with the cover of Power Lords, a joyous riot of colour where each new look reveals a previously unseen nugget of wonder, like the circuit board pattern on the volcano or the tiny crab-robot that appears to be hanging from the main character's gun. Speaking of the main character, whose name is Lord Adam Power, he is wearing one of the most distressingly ugly superhero costumes I think I have ever seen. I say I think, because superhero costume design is only rivalled by public transport seat upholstery in terms of ugliness, so I might have seen a worse outfit and promptly shut it out of my mind. I think part of the problem is that it's orange, and orange is not a very heroic colour. I can't think of many heroes who wear orange. Oh, there's Aquaman, I suppose. Yeah, everybody's favourite, Aquaman.
If Power Lords seems familiar to you, that might be because it was based on a toy line of the same name, which also got a short-lived comic book series courtesy of DC. I've never played the game or read the comics, and I never will. I couldn't handle the disappointment if they didn't feature a dragon with the head of a cobra flying out of a cyber-volcano.
Bacara! / Las Vegas Blackjack!
It's to be expected that the sci-fi and fantasy themed games have pretty wild covers, but even the more sedate genres are given the full psychedelic treatment. For instance, here's a card game with a cover ripped straight from an alternate version of 2001: A Space Odyssey where HAL spent less time trying to kill astronauts and more time playing FreeCell.
Hockey! / Soccer!
Even something as simple as team sports gets the Lite-Brite makeover, so kudos to Magnavox for picking a theme - that theme being "pictures you'd get as an unwanted carnival prize" - and sticking with it. As something of a connoisseur and collector of hideous football shirts, I can assure you that the soccer player's kit is in, ooh, at least the top two hundred worst ever football shirts. If you think that's too low, I'll just say there was once an American team that wore a shirt with honest-to-god leather tassels on it. Also, this footballer's shirt appears to be based on the North Korean flag, although that's probably the most normal thing about this image.
Type and Tell
"It's fun"? Are you telling me it's fun, or trying to convince me? Because I'm not convinced. Maybe if I could see this space wizard's face I could use his expression to gauge his level of enjoyment and set my expectations accordingly, but I can't. All I can see are his hands, and his rings, which tell me that as well as being a sorcerer he probably runs a dodgy used car dealership on the side.
Showdown in 2100 AD
Now this one is just cool, although it's a shame for them that they couldn't get the rights to Westworld that they so clearly wanted. Still, I personally think that a black void dotted with alien pyramids in a much more engaging arena for robotic gunfight than a recreation of the Old West. Everyone's always having gunfights in the Old West, but when was the last time you saw a duel on the Crystal Plains of J'Hax-Duraan, huh? Those J'Hax-Duraanians are always fighting with the Soulstones of Keth or the Dissociation Ray, so it's nice to see them getting back to good old shootin' irons.
In Europe, the Odyssey 2 was known as the Videopac, (and also received an upgraded version called the Videopac +,) and while the unified look of the Odyssey 2 packaging was dropped the Videopac covers still have a pleasingly amateur look to them. For instance, here is a former samurai sitting down for a game of checkers, mournfully remembering the distant days of his martial prowess, sadness etched into his face as he laments the inexorable passage of time.
The Mousing Cat
Of course, we all remember the beloved cartoon favourites Tim and Gerry, don't we? Tim the cat is always trying to catch and eat Gerry the mouse, and Gerry is such a dick to Tim that we end up rooting for the cat because after all, he's only doing what comes naturally. Well, if you were always on Tim's side then The Mousing Cat is the game for you, because you the whole point is to trap the mouse and then eat it. There's even a brief scene of the cat devouring the mouse piece-by-piece. It's pretty brutal.
I think it's fair to say that the Videopac covers are generally less, erm, visually arresting then the Odyssey 2 ones. Then again, how could you illustrate a game about sending morse code messages - yes, really - and have it look interesting? I dunno, maybe have a soldier in a trench frantically tapping out a message to HQ while shells rain down around him? Yeah, that's actually much more interesting than this guy, who appears to be some kind of Royal Navy middle-management type sending messages with all the urgency of someone checking a receipt to make sure the cashier's given them the right change. Obviously I missed my calling as an artist for videogames about archaic communication methods. If any Odyssey 2 hobbyists out there decide to create the ultimate semaphore simulator, give me a call.
Depthcharge / Marksman
"It those damn submarines' fault, I'm telling you! They come over here and steal our underwater jobs, we should send them all back where... there's a submarine behind me right now, isn't there?"
Catch the Ball / Noughts and Crosses
You can't look through any old computer's back catalogue without seeing at least a few clowns. They've mostly been eradicated from modern gaming, but in the Eighties and Nineties game developers were still labouring under the delusion that clowns were something any right-minded person would want to see. Fortunately, this clown is one of the less horrifying members of his kind. The clownification process is still in its early stages, so you can still see the human he once was even though his feet are grotesquely elongated and his head is starting to resemble a fleshy peanut with a face painted on. Oh, and he can dislocate his right wrist at will. Give it another few weeks and his skin will be bleached completely white, his gloves will have fused with his hands and inflated to three times their normal size and his every waking moment will be haunted by the gnawing need to make balloon animals out of fresh human skin. Still, it's impressive that he managed to tie a knot in a pillow so he could use it as a bow tie.
"Raaar, I'm a tiger! I'm gonna pounce on you!"
"C'mon, Steve, not this shit again. I'm trying to work."
Pick Axe Pete!
Back to the Odyssey 2 covers for Pick Axe Pete, and he's one heck of a man. A giant of a man, if that mine cart at the bottom of the cover is any indication of scale. Pick Axe Pete roams the wild frontier, smashing through mountains with this trusty pickaxe and taking the gold he finds back to his nest. There's something a little off-putting about Pick Axe Pete, you know. I think it's because he looks like he's made entirely from marshmallows. A giant, fluffy prospector who hoards gold and says "consarnit!"in a voice that's far more high-pitched and reedy than you might expect.
P. T. Barnum's Acrobats!
More marshmallow-y men in P.T. Barnum's Acrobats, a game that is apparently an extremely convoluted way for a man to pop some balloons. The big top looks to be packed, so we can assume the audience wasn't told that they'd be seeing two men on a see-saw popping balloons before they paid to get in. Don't judge the acrobats too harshly, though. These balloons contain the unearthly spores that clowns use to propagate their foul kind, and the acrobats must eliminate as many as they can before the balloons float over a populated area. The people in the Big Top are collateral damage. Their sacrifice will not be forgotten.
I wasn't going to include this cover, because at first glance it appears to be a run-of-the-mill picture of a knight attacking a castle with siege weaponry, aside from the usual "black velvet painting" effect. Then I looked closer and realised the image was much more complex than that. For starters, the knight appears to be wearing medieval armour but carrying a Roman battle standard. Okay, fair enough, maybe historical re-enactment was invented earlier than I imagined. Then I examined the catapult itself more closely and realised it's actually a castle, with tiny people manning it. Unless they're not tiny people and the knight in charge is fifty feet tall. Yeah, I think I prefer that analysis. A gargantuan suit of armour has enslaved the people of this half Dark Ages / half Roman Empire civilization and is using them as slaves for his own crusade. Or all the people are the same size and the main knight is just standing closer to the viewer. It is hard to tell, but we can agree that this catapult is very big and will do an excellent job of demolishing Sleeping Beauty's castle over there.
Another captivating cover that draws you in but still leaves you with unanswered questions, questions like "why do these insects look nothing like bees, bee's aren't exactly hard to draw?" and "why are there so many R2-D2s wandering around?" and "what did those R2-D2s do that provoked these bees into a murderous frenzy?" The answer to that last question is probably that R2-D2 kept trying to steal their honey and whistling sassily at the bees when they complained. I love it when a videogame makes you think, you know? My favourite thing about this cover, however, is that the French title translates to "The Infernal Hive," which is just a great title and far superior to "Killer Bees." Bees that kill are just fundamentally less interesting than bees that kill but are also emissaries of Satan.
Finally for today, here's the cover for Nightmare. Isn't it precious? Let's just assume that the ghost is coming in for a hug. Sometimes ghosts need hugs too. Maybe it's the ghost that had the nightmare, huh? A harrowing dream about being chased by Eighties comic actors wielding nuclear-powered weapons, the poor thing. I hope it's some consolation to him that this is my favourite of all the Odyssey 2 and Videopac covers. It probably isn't. It's unlikely to take the sting out of being dead, anyway.