The Odyssey 500 is definitely an interesting one. Not only has color graphics(!), but actual graphics--tennis, hockey, and soccer/handball players are represented by graphic sprites(!!) for perhaps the first time ever. The 500 also retained that 3-dial "etch-a-sketch" Odyssey control system from the 100, 200, and 400 (and technically the Odyssey 1), which has to be played to be appreciated. It also has a stylish simulated wood stripe down the middle. At heart it's really the same machine as the Odyssey 400 but with the visual upgrades superimposed over it. It's still an analog system so you have X-Y control of your player, plus you can steer the ball after you hit it (hence the three dials per player), and the center line and ball speed must be manually set with little dials on the front. (I did a more extensive write-up on the Odyssey 500 somewhere on here some time ago; I'll have to dig that up and paste it here when I have time--lots of interesting stuff about this system!)
The Odyssey 300 is worth grabbing; it's far and away the most common Odyssey so it should be cheap, so why not? It was one of the first AY-3-8500 "pong on a chip" systems, along with the Coleco Telstar, so it plays more like a standard pong game than the 100, 200, 400, or 500, and is admittedly more approachable. Looks like those other systems but has only one dial per player and it's frickin' yellow. Yes!
The Odyssey 100 and 200 are worth looking at more for how unusual they are compared to today's systems, and even other systems of the '70s. You may notice they have these big sliding markers on the front; those are for keeping score since these systems don't even have onscreen scoring. Well, the 200 has these little block markers that move across the screen when you score, but no digits to indicate score; the 100 has nothing at all--two paddles, one ball, one center line, and that's it. The 200 also has a toggle switch for double paddles (Atari would later call this "Super Pong")--the 200 is often erroneously called a 4-Player system because of this. The 100 has only two games (still one more than Pong--take THAT, Atari!), the 200 has three. Both have the 3-dial controls like the 500. Both have also probably gotten a bit expensive in recent years, what with eBay speculators shitting on the party.
There were also other Odyssey systems beyond the 500 but I don't find them very interesting. The 2000 and 3000 were AY-3-8500 systems but with four games instead of three, so the games are exactly identical to the 300's (as well as the Telstar's, TV Fun's, TV Scoreboard's, etc); the 3000 went to a new case design with handheld controllers. Meh. The 4000 had a color display (but no graphic sprites like the 500), more than half a dozen games, and analog Odyssey 2-style joysticks--neat if you can find one for a good price, but hardly essential since by now we also have the Odyssey 2.
Moving on from Odyssey systems, you need to have at least some flavor of Atari Pong. Pong, Super Pong/Ten/Pro-Am, whatever. It's the definitive Pong, for starters. Color graphics, digital scoring (get with it, Odyssey 100/200!), and a psychedelic "game over" screen that's almost as fun to stare at as it is to actually play the game(s). I like the Super Pong Pro-Am Ten because it's the most fully-featured of the Pong-Super Pong series, and it was also the very first Pong console I ever encountered, buried under a mountain of dust and old MAD magazine's at my aunt and uncle's cottage in the late '90s. The handheld controllers and ability to play a one-player game are nice as well. Sears versions of all of these systems tend to be quite a bit cheaper than the Atari-branded ones.
Ultra Pong is cool too, of course--gameplay is pretty much the same but now has more game variations (naturally) and the color is in the background now instead of the paddles; the game objects silhouetted against the colorful trippy background is a pretty unique look. It's also a pretty cheap unit.
The thing about the Atari Pongs (except Ultra) is that they're all fundamentally the same system with different features (or combinations of them) incrementally tacked on with each iteration. Regular Pong on the Super Pong Pro-Am Ten--the last of the Super Pong line--is identical to the one and only game on the original Pong unit, only you can increase the ball speed and add/remove controllers to include anywhere from 2-4 players (or even just one if you want to just shoot the ball into space ).
An interesting sideshow in the Atari/Sears lineage is the Hockey Pong system, which as best as I can tell is an AY-3-8500 system in an Atari pedestal-style Pong case. Weird that they'd make and sell a clone of their own system.
Moving past Atari now, we're pretty much left with AY-3-8500 systems, which all play different numbers and combinations of the exact same games. They are literally identical except for cases, and some will have four games instead of three, and some add gun/target games. Of these, I like the handheld Radio Shack TV Scoreboard with pistol (there was another handheld TV Scoreboard sans gun, as well as "console" versions, but those are just white noise unless you're a diehard Radio Shack/Tandy collector). There's also a Color TV Scoreboard, which is *not* based on the AY-3-8500 and which seems pretty cool (check out the gun with different barrels and stocks you can add on!) but I haven't been able to test mine very much yet. Back to the AY, I'm also partial to the APF TV Fun--yeah, it plays the exact same games as a hundred other systems, but the case has some pretty deluxe appointments that I like: butter-smooth paddles, big brushed chrome switches and control panel (probably aluminum actually ), and some cool-looking simulated walnut.
Since the games are all the same with the AY-3-8500 systems, a lot of it comes down to what you like about the physical aspects of the console.
If you're still with me here, I appreciate it. I didn't mean to write this much when I started to reply, but then I kept thinking of pong systems I like! To answer the original question of which are best to own, the TLDR version is: one analog Odyssey system, one Atari/Sears Super Pong, one system with a lightgun (cuz lightgun games! In the 70s!), and some other AY-3-8500 system of your choice. My personal lineup would be the Odyssey 500, Atari Super Pong Pro-Am Ten, TV Scoreboard, and either the Odyssey 300 or APF TV Fun.
Edited by BassGuitari, Wed Sep 28, 2016 12:06 PM.