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Video games in Europe - the early years

by David Winter


Born in the USA…
If 1972 marked the beginning of the video game industry in the USA, a couple years would pass until video games reached homes in Europe. In 1972, Magnavox released the first home video game: Odyssey. It was first demonstrated in May 1972, and sales began during Christmas - which explains why so few Odysseys can be found with a 1972 sales receipt. If the Odyssey was a big success in the USA, Europe was not yet ready for disputing tennis matches on TV, but at least video games reached the arcades earlier than in homes (Atari exported Pong Doubles around 1973 or 1974, Computer Space machines were also put in a few bars and many Pong clones appeared at around the same time). In 1975, arcade machines were popular and some people still remember them 30 years after.

However, home video games were not introduced that fast. First, because the video game was a very new concept that people were not used to playing with on their TV sets. Second, because the video game market was neither dominated by large manufacturers (like Magnavox, Coleco and Atari in the USA), nor governed by money as it is nowadays. Back in 1974, European home video games were expensive, and produced in limited quantities by small manufacturers, making their promotion difficult. And they were just games, which not everybody wanted at home.

1973-1974: In the USA. Why not in Europe?
The first attempts were obvious: importing the Magnavox Odyssey or creating clones. Thus, the Odyssey was imported in the UK in 1973 and 12 European countries in 1974. The same year, ITT Schaub-Lorentz released the Odyssee in Germany (and supposedly France). In 1975, a "Kanal 34" clone appeared in Sweden.

[Image: Video Master advert]Back in 1974, two manufacturers were distributing video games in Europe. Magnavox exported the Odyssey in a slightly modified version that played 10 games (instead of 12 like the US release), while Videomaster released its Home TV Game, a £20 system available as a kit or ready-made. The latter is the most interesting as it marked the beginning of "real" European video games. The Home TV Game played only three games: Tennis, Football and Squash. There were neither sound effects nor on-screen scoring. But for the technology (discrete components, of which 11 basic CMOS integrated circuits), it was quite advanced.

At the same time, hobbyist construction articles began to appear in electronics magazines. Nowadays, it would be impossible to build a modern video game system, because the technology has considerably changed. However, it was not difficult for a hobbyist to build a video game in the 1970s, since such games were mostly designed with discrete components. So far, the earliest European construction article dates July 1974. Published by Television Magazine (UK) and split over seven issues because of its length, the article proposed not only a video game project, but a color video game project that could be upgraded. Remember that color television sets were just appearing at the time. The system also used discrete components and initially played one game: Football.

Special improvements could be made to add sound effects, on-screen scoring and game variants. The last section was the most interesting: "Superman", a plug-in module that replaced one player to give the impression of playing against the machine. This was the first game to offer this feature (a few commercial systems did it in 1976). One who read the entire article could easily build one's own system with more or less players, rules, and why not, graphics!

[Image: Odyseey advert]1974 was also the year where the Magnavox Odyssey was exported to 12 countries in very limited quantities. But more interesting is the special ITT Schaub-Lorentz version, released in Germany in 1974. This one was a real German version since every word was translated. A French ITT version was also announced in French magazine "Sciences Et Vie" (January 1974) for the first semester of 1974, but so far no specimen surfaced except a Magnavox one, while a couple ITTs were found in Germany.

1975: yet early, but ruling!
Videomaster understood that there was something to do in the video game domain, so released over ten systems in the next years. Its next attempt was to improve the Home TV Game in a cheap manner, which gave birth to two systems in 1975: the Rally Home TV Game and the Olympic Home TV Game. Both used very simple electronic circuits (discrete components including a couple of CMOS integrated circuits). The former played two types of games (more by creating different game rules), while the latter played a few more and came with two metal balls to place on the system case for marking the scores. But at least, they were cheap... These three Videomaster systems marked the beginning of the video game industry in the UK.

[Image: Home made kit advert]Another obscure system appeared in the UK the same year: the VideoSport MKII. This system, supposedly released in 1974 and advertised in 1975, used a very basic design: only two small integrated circuits, the rest being transistors and other discrete components. Transistor circuits generated everything displayed on the screen. The system played three games: Tennis, Football and Hole-in-the-wall. Little information is known about this system, but at least it shows that more systems would appear in 1975.

[Screen-shot: Pong at its best]Germany was also the place where a more advanced video game system appeared: the Interton Video 2000. This system had a feature that no other Pong system had: the use of cartridges. It is believed to be the first European Pong system that used this technology. The system contained the circuits used by every game, and the cartridges contained additional components that set the players shapes, game rules, and drew the graphics. Only five cartridges were released for this system. The most successful were Tennis and Super Tennis (Super Tennis even displayed on-screen scoring using squares, which was a novel for the time since no other system did so). Another cartridge played the first two-player video game constructed by Ralph Baer in 1966: the "Chasing Game", where two spots representing the players could be moved on the screen.

[Photo: Wires and stuff]Italy also showed some interest in the video game market. Zanussi, a furniture company, released a quite strange system that played three games based on the Ball & Paddle basis, but with amazing features such as the way of setting the players size (from very small to enormous), changing the field dimensions...

1976: still analog, but not for long
[Photo: Pong on a TV]
Analog (made with discrete components) systems were still popular in 1976 and more construction articles appeared in magazines. Several systems were released and played almost the same games, and some manufacturers imagined more variants of the so popular Ball & Paddle games. Thus, Philips released the Tele-Spiel ES-2201 system in Europe; a small cartridge system that played strange games like Pigeon Shooting and Auto-Slalom. In France, Lasonic released the Lasonic 2000, playing three games. Orelec released the PP 2000 (two games) and some manufacturers sold video game kits that played advanced games such as Breakout variants and Car Race, still using discrete components. As the technology improved, a few systems started displaying on-screen scoring using squares, lines, and even digits. However, this required additional components, hence a higher cost.

But a major fact would kill this fragile gaming world made of discrete components within the next year: the birth of video game chips available to every manufacturer. Commonly called [Photo: Pong on a chip]Pong-in-a-chip, these devices contained the equivalent of the discrete components of the then systems, and had more advanced features such as digital on-screen scoring, more game variants and difficulty levels. Atari used its own Pong chips, but did not sell them to other manufacturers. Texas Instruments released several chips that could be wired together to form different types of games, but these had no big success. The main actor of the new Pong market was General Instruments. GI started the development of a revolutionary single-chip video game device in mid-1975: the AY-3-8500. A complete video game system could be built with this chip and a few external components. Since the chip was available to every manufacturer at low cost, it was no longer necessary to design a whole and expensive electronic circuit. Plus, GI provided the schematics for using the chip. This drastically changed the video game industry. Between 1976 and 1977, hundreds of manufacturers released their video game systems all over the world, and other chips appeared. Some with color graphics, some with more games...

The video game prehistory was over and the market was open to everybody. But at least, Pong stayed popular during a few years until the more advanced cartridge consoles like the Atari 2600, Odyssey^2 and Intellivision appeared in the market at affordable prices.

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MyAtari magazine - Feature #7, June 2002
Copyright 2002 MyAtari magazine