States (Magnavox Odyssey, 1972)

The States Overlay: Alternative solution to the immigration issue; move Alaska and Hawaii into Mexico!The States Overlay: Alternative solution to the immigration issue; move Alaska and Hawaii into Mexico!This title is purely and quite overtly an edutainment title making its debut long before the term was ever coined. Analogic may have concealed its arithmetic stylings in a sci-fi envelope, but nobody would mistake States as being anything but an enthusiastic attempt to capture the hearts and wallets of America's education-minded parents.

The overlay is a map of the good 'ol United States of America, which wouldn't be complete if they didn't have the Alaska/Hawaii combo scaled-to-fit and hovering over a vanished Mexico. The off-screen props consist of 50 cards, an answer brochure entitled “Affairs of States” and a “study map”. The 50 cards each highlight a specific state with three questions about the state. The answer brochure is exactly what it sounds like, and is handier than dragging out an encyclopedia. The "study map" is a paper version of the overlay, and reminds me of the type of placemat they give kids to color while waiting for their order at a Denny's(tm) or an IHoP(tm).

The questions on the back of the States cards are cute and range from memory-helping rhymes to cleverly worded riddles about official state items.

For instance, on the Kansas card:

1. Arm in arm, cheek to cheeka - Kansas' capital is _______?

Or for Alaska:

2. Why is Alaska's state flower easy to remember?

(answers given at the bottom)

To set up for play, the States card deck is separated into geographical region stacks which are conveniently color-coded on the back of each card. The design of the game calls for each player, on his or her turn, to select a state on the screen by closing their eyes and rotating the horizontal and vertical knobs on the controller – just like Roulette. Upon pressing “reset”, the PlayerSpot floats out to a random position and the selected state (if any) is used for the card collecting/questions-asking portion of the game. 80% of the time, however, this results in a non-selection because most players turn one or both of the knobs too far in either direction. If this process does work, the gameplay is good enough -- the player selects the appropriate state card from a regional stack and says what state it is. If they get it right then they "win" that state's card. If that state card has already been won, they may challenge for it by answering a trivia question about the state and capture it from their opponent. At the end of the game, the person who has the most cards wins.

Pro: Cute, simple design aimed at teaching the identification of state by its shape and geographical location while allowing for fact-learning when the player is ready to “take it to the next level”.

Con: The randomization system is sadly reminiscent of Roulette and that isn’t a Good Thing.

What we find to be more effective and entertaining is shuffling the cards, drawing a card and telling the player what state to put the PlayerSpot on (with the PlayerSpot visible, of course). If they get it right, they win the card. If they answer a question on the card, they get to go again. We don't use any "challenges" to capture already won cards, but we can always add that mechanic at another time if we want to make it more competitive.

Because this game uses the "Odyssey Roulette Randomization Technique(tm)", I’d almost dismissed it out of hand, not wishing to re-experience the frustration. However, a compulsion is compulsive and, after trying to play it their way, revising the rules and playing it my way, we found that, indeed, we could have a tolerable time playing States. I don't think that's a Bad Thing.

Now, if I were 7 years old and had to choose between this or watching Ultraman, I'm certain I would have chosen Ultraman. HOWEVER, I'm also pretty sure that my parents would've chosen differently and would probably have offered to play States with me. SO, I'll give this game a point for its early encouraging of parents to play videogames with their children.

The Score: Ultraman 4, Odyssey 4

Now, go play a videogame with a child you love. (or with a parent, if you're still a child yourself.)

Next Entry is the last of the included Odyssey games, Simon Says.

Addendum: Something I forgot to mention, but I thought it was interesting. The deck of 50 States cards, in all four of the Odysseys I've acquired, has been in alphabetical order. Since the game setup requires the division of the deck into regional stacks, one might assume that if you get a deck and it is in alphabetical order, it was very likely never played. This phenomenon, combined with all the unopened Roulette chips I’ve seen on eBay, makes me wonder if the only complete Odysseys are the ones that were barely played. If a family ever actually used it, all the myriad pieces eventually became scattered and lost.

Another interesting thing about the "alphabetical" order: each of the four decks were in alphabetical order from Alabama to Wyoming, with the exception of Hawaii, which was always stacked after Wyoming, as if they'd forgotten to include it until the last minute and just stuck it on the bottom. There's probably a production deadline story behind that and we'll probably never hear it.

(1. Topeka 2. Because they are Forget-me-nots)