Some Intelligent Competition
As Atari’s game console project Stella moves off the drawing boards and approaches its eventual release as the Video Computer System (VCS), Mattel Development head Richard Chang becomes interested in developing a competing system for his company, known largely as the makers of the hugely lucrative Barbie doll line. In 1976 he contacts Glen Hightower, president of Pasadena California based consulting firm APh to research the possibilities. They find the chipset for the new system from General Instruments, and after some alterations to off-the-shelf GI components, they build a motherboard around a 16-bit (while the CPU is a kludge of a 16 and 10 bit processor they still beat 16-bit systems Sega’s Genesis and NEC’s Turbo Grafix-16 by 10 years) CP-1610 microprocessor, operating at 3.6 MHz with 4K of available system RAM. But by now Stella has become the VCS and is gathering steam, and Mattel balks at the thought of going head-to-head with Atari. Their new videogame design is put on hold while the Hawthorne, CA-based Mattel Electronics tries their luck at hand-held LED games like Auto Race (1976), Football (1977) and Sub Chase (1978). With these pulling in $112 million in sales by 1978, Mattel Electronics president Jeff Rochlis convinces the head honchos to give TV videogames another serious look. The company commissions APh to design a home gaming system based around the hardware.
Inventing the Wheel
Mattel Introduces their new system at the 1979 Winter CES, with the game console inserted into a mock-up of a computer expansion system promising to turn it into a 64K computer complete with 64-key keyboard, cassette drive for storage and retrieval of data, and a microphone to be used by programs allowing audio input. Also touted are advanced sports games, as well as financial planning and personal database software. The unit is dubbed Intellivision, a portmanteau of “intelligent television” that alludes to the brains of the computer add-on. A release date for the video game portion of the system is given as June 1, 1979, with 14 games and educational programs available for purchase in ROM packs alongside it. A price of $165 is reported for the game unit, and an NFL-licensed football game pack is to be bundled with it. This info is later revised by Mattel, with the game console’s price rising to $250, and a release nationwide in July.
In the meantime, test marketing of the system gets underway in Fresno California. Mattel promises a 4 million dollar ad budget for the Intellivision, used largely for TV commercials. The keyboard portion of the Intellivision is initially given the same price as the gaming box, $165, with a release date of October 1, 1979. The price tag is subsequently upped to match the game console at $250. The release date slips to March of 1980, and the price adjusted to a hefty $800 for both the gaming and computer components together. Then Mattel promises to have the first shipments of the computer expansion out to stores in May of 1980, for a full release to the public by July. An explanation for the previous hold-ups is given by the magazine Consumer Electronics that the system was “delayed by engineering changes the firm made to the system, and by Mattel’s inability to obtain semiconductors”. The company then announces yet another slide to March of 1981, and gives a finalized price tag for the unit: a daunting $700 at retail and, lo and behold, the computer component still fails to materialize. The continual delays for the keyboard become such a joke to employees that, when comedian Jay Leno entertains at the Mattel Electronics Christmas party in 1981, he draws a big laugh with the following line:
The Master Component, as the first videogame stage is called, is a distinctive looking device, low and rectangular in shape with wood grain trim and two very unusual controllers. They are flat rectangles, and instead of a joystick, they utilize a round, 16-position gold-coloured disc that the player presses to move the on-screen characters, presaging the D-Pad button that Nintendo would popularize later on their Game & Watch handhelds, Famicom and NES game console. There’s also a keypad, over which plastic overlays included with certain games can be inserted and used for extra commands during play. Unfortunately, the control discs are not a huge hit with players, along with the fact that their flimsy design leads to frequent controller breakdowns. Hardwired right into the system, this becomes a big problem for owners who have to slog the whole machine back to the dealer for repair.
Nonetheless, this first test run in Fresno is a rousing success, and when Intellivision finally goes into wide release in early 1980, the entire run of 175,000 systems sell out. The initial price is now $299.95, 100 dollars higher than the VCS by that time, but with features far superior to its Atari rival, offering 16 available on-screen colours and three channel sound. Twelve games have made it to market along with the system, designed by Glen Hightower and programmed by the gang at APh. The cartridges are smaller profile than the VCS carts, with a cool angled end to them. Each game released from Mattel falls under a category, or Network, to niche the game…i.e. the Action Network, Arcade Network, Education Network, ect., but this concept is later dropped as genres start blending together. These are not to be confused with the later M-Network series of games, introduced in 1982 by Mattel for competing systems like the VCS, ColecoVision and even some Apple II and IBM PC ports.
While Mattel’s computer system initially has no way for the user to create their own programs (user-programmability is expected to arrive in 1981), six pre-programmed tapes for the computer component are also promised, priced in the $30 – $35 range, They include: a Jack LaLanne licensed fitness program called Physical Fitness, a French language tutor titled Conversational French, tax software 1979 Federal Income Tax Preparation, and Family Budget & Estate Planner. The pack-in cartridge with the Intellivision Master Component ends up being Las Vegas Poker & Blackjack, featuring a shifty-eyed croupier dealing cards to the player over a field of casino-table green.
Magnavox v. Mattel
Mattel eventually finds itself across the table from Magnavox in 1982, owners of the infamous U.S. patent 28, 507. This is better known as the Television Gaming Apparatus patent, the first home video game patent, granted in 1975 due to their release of the original Odyssey video game system. When Atari had released the VCS, they paid a minor sum to Magnavox for a license to produce a TV based game. Magnavox soon realizes the error of their ways in the wake of Atari’s success, and they demand a large payment from Mattel for the same rights. Confident that the patent would not hold up to legal scrutiny, Mattel refuses to cough up. Taking them to court, Magnavox wins a patent infringement lawsuit, and Mattel ends up paying several million in damages.
A Fighter Arises
This payoff notwithstanding, the Master Component is a solid success. Mattel also enters into lucrative deals with some large-scale retailers. Tandy sells its version of the Intellivision, called the Tandyvision One, through Radio Shack stores. Sears manufactures the console under the Sears Tele-Games label as the Super Video Arcade. A $6 million ad campaign pushes 600,000 Intellivision units off store shelves through the 1981 Christmas season. For the year, the Mattel Electronics division makes up 25% of net sales for the company as a whole, and 50% of the profits of the mother corporation. Another million Intellivision units move between 1982-83, becoming the first real threat to Atari’s dominance of the industry. The game that rapidly becomes the system-seller for the Intellivision is Major League Baseball, going on to become the biggest selling game in the Mattel Electronics library. 1,085,700 cartridges are sold over three years, and foreshadowing what would happen nearly ten years later between Nintendo’s NES and the Sega Master System, the Intellivision becomes known as the “adult” videogame, the serious sports fan’s choice over Atari. MLB and the other spectacular sports titles take centre stage in Mattel’s massive promotion of their machine.
Mattel Declares War
Featuring prominently in Mattel’s advertising push over Christmas 1981 is spokesman/sportswriter/actor/author George Plimpton, famous for his 1966 book Paper Lion, about his tryouts for the Detroit Lions football team. In the hard-hitting Plimpton attack ads, Intellivision sports games like MLB and NFL Football are seen running next to their Atari equivalents, with the blocky graphics of the VCS looking laughingly primitive by comparison. While EXTREMELY annoying to an Atari VCS owner like myself at the time, they are without a doubt highly persuasive and put the name Intellivision on the lips of many video game buyers come Christmas. Atari does have ammunition of its own, however, in the form of the huge number of available VCS games, dwarfing the library of its arch rival. Their ads also highlight the fact that the Intellivision has a weak selection of action games, but Mattel later fights back by pushing such fare as Night Stalker, by Mattel designer David Rolfe. With the digital ball back in their court, Atari counters with their own spots, featuring a young child sporting nerdy glasses and speaking in similar dulcet tones as Plimpton, comparing Atari’s many arcade ports to blank screens, representing the Intellivision’s lack thereof. Mattel, of course, then spoofs this child with their own pint-sized pitch-kid. This war on the electronic battlefield between Atari and Mattel sparks quite a bit of animosity between the two videogame giants, with Atari president Ray Kassar complaining to the big-three TV broadcast networks of Mattel “misleading the facts” with their attack ads. ABC and NBC eventually pull both company’s spots off the air, while CBS continues to air Mattel’s advertising. In a classic case of “If you can’t beat ’em…”, Mattel starts making games for the “inferior” VCS, via the M-Network game line. This fraternizing with the enemy is snafu’d at the start: the tooling of the cases of the initial batch of M-Network games is a bit off so that they don’t quite fit into the VCS cartridge slot. The affected games are Astroblast, Space Attack, and the two Super Challenge sports games, Baseball and Football. Other cartridges are determined to have code inside that render them unplayable on the older version of the VCS. Later, Coleco also loses some troops when they cross over into enemy territory. Their first batch of games for the 2600 also turns out to be incompatible with the older VCS. Both Coleco and Mattel eventually recall these non-working games and send in more compatible reinforcements.
When it becomes apparent to Mattel that their system is on the road to success, they begin hiring designers and programmers to produce games in-house. But, spurred on by the personnel shake-ups happening over at Atari with employees leaving and forming independent game companies such as Activision and Imagic, Mattel keeps the game design department shrouded in secrecy and refuses to publicize the names of its members. In press releases and magazine articles, they are only identified as The Blue Sky Rangers, a name adopted by the group from their brainstorming process when trying to think up new game ideas, known as “blue-skying”. This secrecy extends even to Mattel’s own newsletter, titled Intellivision Game Club News. A winter 1983 issue features strategy game Utopia and offers an interview with the creator, referred to only as “the man who designed and programmed the game”. Thus is Don Daglow’s identity safely kept hidden from Intellivision users. Starting with nine core members, the department eventually peaks at 200 at the height of the video game boom. One of the Rangers’ creations, John Sohl’s action game Astrosmash, follows close behind Major League Baseball in popularity. It originally starts out as an Asteroids clone called Meteor, but the lawsuits in the air cause a shift in the focus of the game to a variation where rocks fall vertically down the screen at the player’s ship. Astrosmash features an innovative, self-adjusting difficulty level, where if the player starts losing ships the game will become easier…allowing for long game play, even for beginners. 984,900 copies of the program are shipped for the Intellivision, along with a later port to the VCS, making it the most popular of the Blue Sky Rangers’ releases. Even an X-rated version is produced of the game, obviously for in-house consumption only with the none-too-marketable title Space Cunt. The whole thing is a joke at the expense of a game made via Mattel’s license from Disney to make games based on their video game themed movie TRON. Designed for use with the Intellivoice speech synthesis module for the Intellivision, Solar Sailer has a hard time pronouncing the word “can’t” correctly, and this becomes a running joke with the programmers. Space Cunt’s title screen touts it for use on the “Genitaliavision”. Instead of rocks and alien craft, players shoot their “semen” at falling I.U.D. devices, birth control pills, and the infamous title character.
The Intellivision Has Something to Say
By 1982 the promised computer keyboard add-on is still MIA, but Mattel does introduce the $100 Intellivoice that year, adding human voices played through the TV to specially designed games. It utilizes a GI speech synthesis chip called the Orator, containing 16K ROM space for voice data. Design and Development engineer Ron Carlson is in charge of hardware development of the device, with Ron Surratt writing the software. At GI’s voice lab in New York, the standard phrases to be contained in the Orator’s ROM are recorded, along with the voices for the first Intellivoice cartridge Space Spartans. When Surratt receives the data at Mattel headquarters in Hawthorne, he loads it into the Intellivoice prototype hardware. But in demonstrations for Mattel executives and marketing personnel, the device can only say the unfortunate sounding phrase “Auk youuu!”, due to a hardware malfunction. But when the bugs are finally squashed out of the system, Mattel begins production of Intellivoice units and games. The add-on is plugged into the cartridge slot of the Master Module and can accept any type of Intellivision cart, although only those specially designed for the add-on contain speech. Even though Space Spartans is given double the ROM of the previous 4K Intellivision carts, it is still a very limiting space for speech synthesis, so all the vocal cues in the game except for the female computer are sampled at a low rate, greatly reducing their quality. The game is extremely similar in game play to Space Battle for the Atari VCS, with the player piloting a space fighter through a galaxy divided into quadrants, protecting space stations scattered throughout. With the Intellivoice, however, we get verbal cues as to which stations are under attack and status conditions such as what shape our forward shields are in. Five Intellivoice carts are eventually produced for the unit. While initial sales for the Intellivision Voice Module and its first game are fairly good, it is obvious that while the public appreciates voice synthesis in their videogames, they don’t enjoy purchasing a new device to get it. After a quick burst of orders for the new unit and games, sales slump.
Also developed for the Intellivision is PlayCable, a joint venture between Mattel and The PlayCable Company. Introduced in 1981, it offers a 24-hour gaming service to customers via their local TV cable outlet. For $12 a month, a rotating schedule of 15 games is made available to subscribers who receive the General Instrument manufactured PlayCable Adapter box from their cable company and plug it into the cartridge slot of their Master Component. Into that goes their cable connection, and voila! Streaming videogames on demand downloaded to the Adapter via a special data channel on the cable line. Baseball legend Mickey Mantle headlines the PlayCable ad campaign, but the system struggles in the limited markets it is available, offered on only 15 cable systems two years after launch. The PlayCable module also suffers reliability issues. The games library is eventually upped to 20 titles per month but does little to improve the approximately one-percent subscriber penetration rate. The increasing demand for bandwidth for new cable channels, the system’s inability to play the newer 8K+ Intellivision games, and the collapse of the videogame market hobbles the system. After managing about 10,000 subscribers, the PlayCable scheme is shuttered in 1983.
And Now, the News
Mattel gains the license to produce home games based on Tron, a 1982 movie by Disney that sends filmgoers into the inner world of computers, facilitated by the most extensive use of computer generated imagery ever used in a film. To herald this, the company produces an eye-catching two-minute ad to accompany the film in theatres, promoting the first Intellivision Tron game, Deadly Discs, as well as other games for the system. It’s presented as a galactic news broadcast, with the newsreaders rendered in rotoscoped animation and applied with a pixellated effect similar to the graphics of the games.
Intellivision owners get more good news in ’82 when third party manufacturer Imagic starts making games for the system. Imagic boosts the Intellivision library with product like Atlantis, Microsurgeon and Beauty and the Beast. As for the company’s biggest VCS hit Demon Attack, Gary Kabe is in charge of porting Rob Fulup’s space shooter to Mattel’s console. The problem is that the Inty version bears an even stronger resemblance to the 1980 Centuri coin-op Phoenix, to which Atari has purchased exclusive home video game rights. Thus the company, with its home version of Phoenix slated to hit store shelves in January of 1983, sues Imagic for copyright infringement. The two parties eventually settle out of court.
The bad news is, when Coleco releases their powerhouse third-wave video game system ColecoVision in 1982, Mattel suddenly finds themselves no longer the owners of the most graphically advanced game machine on the market. In an effort to refresh the sagging Intellivision line, they debut the Intellivision II at the 1983 Winter CES, as a replacement for the old Master Component. Starting a process that becomes one of the major factors in the entire industry’s destruction one year later, the new system is more of a simple compact redesign of the same old technology than an innovative new product. In a slick new grey box, the Intellivision II is cheaper for Mattel to produce, as the component list on the motherboard is streamlined. It retails for $99, with a few new improvements over the original. The controllers are now removable through joystick ports, facilitating their easy repair, and have longer cords so players aren’t quite so tightly tethered to the console. A LED light is placed next to the power button, to help prevent the machine being left on unattended. Next to the LED is the new dual-mode power button. After turning on the machine, a tap of the power button will soft reset the unit. Users must hold down the button for approximately five seconds to power off the Inty II. Also added is an external video output, allowing for a rather interesting peripheral to be sold. The System Changer plugs into the new Master Component and lets the owner play Atari VCS games. This new add-on is actually a VCS clone in a box complete with Atari joystick ports and game select/reset buttons. Spurred on by the System Changer, as well as Coleco’s Expansion Module #1 Atari adapter for their own ColecoVision, Atari starts to threaten lawsuits. It is helpfully pointed out that clones of the Atari machine are legal due to the off-the-shelf components and un-copyrighted software contained in them. Atari backs off, opening up the floodgates for various versions of the VCS by other manufacturers. An update of the Intellivoice is planned and prototyped for the revamped Intellivision but is eventually shelved.
A Role To Play
1982 also sees a version of the perennial paper-and-dice role playing game Dungeons & Dragons for the Intellivision, titled Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Cartridge. Mattel’s first dealings over D&D licensing comes by way of the company’s electronic version of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s table-top game rules, in fact, the first electronic version of the game, licensed from TSR and sold as Dungeons & Dragons Computer Labyrinth Game. Rights to produce home console, stand-alone and hand held games based on D&D are secured by Mattel in 1981. The Intellivision version of D&D concerns itself with a team of three adventurers traveling across a mountainous landscape in a bid to retrieve the two halves of a broken royal crown, secreted away by a cadre of dragons. The game would later be renamed Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Cloudy Mountain to distinguish it from another first-person AD&D game from Mattel called Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Treasure of Tarmin, released in 1983.
In 1983 the Intellivision game library expands again when Activision joins Imagic as a third-party manufacturer making games for the system. Their first offerings are ports of Bob Whiteheads’s Stampede, as well as David Crane’s immensely popular Pitfall!. Activision’s translations to Mattel’s console don’t bring anything new to the table, however, as they are merely duplicates of the VCS versions. Intellivision owners will have to wait for the Activision’s exclusive creations for their system to utilize its advanced graphical capabilities, games like The Dreadnaught Factor.
Also at the 1983 winter CES in January, Mattel announces a real technologically advanced addition to their Intellivision line with the Intellivision III, to be released in the fall with a suggested retail price of around $300. It is intended as a bulwark against the ColecoVision and the new Atari 5200, with graphical capabilities that surpass its rivals. The Inty 3 has approx. 12K of ROM and 10K of RAM, and sports a screen resolution of 320 x 192 pixels, compared to 256 x 192 for the other two next-gen systems. It can also handle 64 sprites on-screen at a time, whereas Coleco’s unit can only handle 32 and Atari’s system a measly five. The Inty 3 will also include microwave wireless controllers with real joysticks, a multi-coloured LED status display on the case, built-in voice synthesis and an automatic TV/Game switcher similar to that offered in the 5200. Not to be left off the shopping list of new features are six music channels in stereo sound and backward compatibility with original Intellivision games. Oh, and a real 16-bit CPU is also to be included in the mix. A launch title library of six to eight games is expected, including the Hanna-Barbera tie-in game Yogi Bear’s Adventures, along with other titles like Treasure of the Yucatan and Grid Shock. Air jockeys should revel in the planned Air Ace, an air combat game allowing the player to soar over a full landscape in three-quarter perspective. The system is previewed in a private room during the show, to a select group of individuals.
The plan is to have the Intellivision III hold the line until a top-secret project code-named Decade can come to fruition sometime in 1984, intended to develop the Intellivision IV as the next generation of video games. By the fall of 1983, however, Mattel has scrapped the Intellivision III. The company reports that this is because of an advanced graphics handling technique developed by Ray Kaestner for the aborted system. When applied in games for the current Intellivision systems, Super-Graphics, aka Mattel Electronics Graphic Development System GDS-7809, displays the same high-resolution as the Intellivision III. One such game is Masters of the Universe: The Power of He-Man, part of which Kaestner designs.
For the HECS of It
After fraud investigations by the Federal Trade Commission in 1982 due to consumer complaints about the vapourware Keyboard Component computer add-on Mattel had heavily hyped upon introduction of the original Master Module, monthly $10,000 FTC fines are levied against the company until a computer add-on is offered nationally to consumers. Mattel has the Keyboard Component in a four-city test marketing stage, said cities including Seattle and New Orleans. The computer add-on is a box into which the Master Component fits, giving users access to a 60-key tactile keyboard, built-in cassette tape storage, and an 8-bit 6502 CPU. It provides a screen resolution of 160×192 pixels and allows for 15 colours and eight moving sprites on-screen at a time. It is also to include a voice synthesizer chip to add speech effects to compatible games. The low-priced Commodore computers, however, have lowered price expectations for consumer computers, and the high production expense for Mattel’s unit means a daunting price tag of up to $800 for the 18K RAM version, while the 2K version will only set you back $300. At these prices, at least two major retail chains have let it be known they wouldn’t carry the expansion device. The Keyboard Component is eventually dropped by Mattel, and at the January 1983 CES announces its replacement: the less costly HECS, or Home Electronic Computer System. The new system is advertised to include a plug-in 49-key chiclet-style keyboard and 12k of ROM and 2K of RAM, a magnetic data storage system, and a thermal printer. An optional RAM expander promises to add 12K of ROM and 16K of RAM to the HECS.
This computer module add-on for the Intellivision also adds three new sound tones, for a total of six. Offered optionally is the four-octave 49-key Music Synthesizer keyboard. Taking advantage of this piece of equipment unique to a video game console is Astromusic, a musical version of Astrosmash where instead of falling rocks and spinners, the player shoots down notes by hitting the right keys on the synthesizer. Also planned is a cartridge containing the Melody Maker music program, allowing keyboard users to record up to six musical tracks for later playback, along with the ability for real-time adjustment of tempo and key to any track. An advanced baseball game for the system is previewed by Mattel spokesperson George Plimpton over the 1982 Christmas season. Titled World Series Baseball, it features close-up pitching views and split screen inset boxes of the base runners al la Coleco’s Super Action Baseball for the ColecoVision. Speaking of America’s favourite pastime, one of the big drawbacks of the original Major League Baseball game for the Intellivision is addressed with the announcement of Major League All Star Baseball for the Master Component. To be released in the latter half of 1983, the game allows for solitaire play against the computer. Also announced for the ECS are educational games to utilize the license agreement with animation studio Hanna-Barbera, featuring Flintstones, Scooby-Doo and Jetsons characters. Users who want to program their own games will have to contend with the built-in Intellivision BASIC, and can use the provided cassette recorder interface with a regular tape recorder and tapes to store their creations. On the upside, this unique flavour of BASIC includes a function called “Character Extraction”, where would-be game programmers can lift character figures out of the program code from any Intellivision cartridge, for use in their own game designs.
At Last, a Keyboard
This all sounds very good, but after the system reaches stores later in 1983 as the Entertainment Computer System (ECS), the printer, storage system, and RAM expanders never materialize. It is good news for Mattel, however: along with the company offering a rebate for the 4000 Keyboard Components that have been produced and sold to consumers, the FTC is satisfied with the initial release of the ECS and stops the fines. The RS-232 port included in the design is a kind of consolation prize for users who might be disappointed with the missing peripherals from Mattel, allowing them to purchase compatible printers and equipment from other manufacturers for use with the ECS.
The Age of Aquarius
Mattel Electronics then feels the need to enter the growing stand-alone home PC market, and they find the system close to home… Radofin Electronics of Mountain View, California. Based on Radofin’s line of computers utilizing Zilog’s ubiquitous CPU, Mattel develops the Aquarius Home Computer System and introduces it at what is a very busy 1983 CES in Las Vegas for the company. The computer sports a 3.5 MHz Z80A CPU, but only a paltry 4K of standard system RAM. There are available memory expansion packs taking this up to 64K in 4K and 16K increments. Two graphics modes are offered: a low-res mode at 40×24, and a high-res mode at 80×72. A barebones version of MS BASIC is built into the initial version of the computer; an extended version is promised later.
The Aquarius has a 49-key keyboard but in the dreaded rubber-chicklet style. To further muddy the waters for users trying to operate the computer, there is no space bar… a small SPACE key is located on the bottom left row. Opposite this on the other end is the RETURN key, therefore flying in the face of a standard computer keyboard layout. The format of this keyboard does, however, make possible keyboard templates that can be installed over top to give quick reference for commands. Made available soon after release are to be connectable peripherals such as a modem that can be used to connect to an online service dubbed Aquarius Home Services, and a data storage device. Offered as well is a thermal printer rated at 80 characters a second, up to 40 columns wide, utilizing rolls of 4 3/4″ thermal paper. A switch located at the back of the printer can put the device in either graphics, mixed or text mode.
These devices are also available along with the computer in a complete package called the COM/PAC for sale around $500. Mattel also promises that hit Intellivision games, such as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Tron Deadly Discs, Football and Lock ‘n’ Chase, will get Aquarius versions. In all, thirty-two titles are planned for the first half of 1983, all in cartridge format, with more to follow by the end of the year. These carts are facilitated by a slot at the rear of the device, protected by a dust cover when not in use. Into this slot can also be inserted the Mini Expander, which can accept program cartridges, the memory expansion modules, or a combo of the two. It also offers two hand controllers (similar to the design of those of the Intellivision, but incompatible with the console) and two additional sound channels.
Since the computer has a Z80 CPU, it can also handle the vast library of CP/M software, via a promised Master Expansion Module that would add dual floppy drives to the Aquarius. This module would also allow 16K memory expansion boards to be added. Getting in on the 80’s home automation craze, a device called the Command Console will be sold for the Aquarius, allowing modules to be programmed to control aspects of the household such as a coffee maker and light fixtures.
At the Summer 1983 CES in Chicago, Mattel boldly announces that a “higher-end” version, the Aquarius II, is to be released later in the year. It is to sport 20K of RAM expandable to 64K, and a real keyboard with fully-travelling keys. Fully compatible with software for the first Aquarius, the later model is to offer 12K ROM and 20K RAM expandable to 64K. Its screen resolution is pegged at 320×192 and will sell somewhere between $130-$175.
Down the Drain
In April of 1983, the initial Aquarius is advertised and sold first in a four-city roll out: Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, and Atlanta. It is given a suggested retail price of around 150 dollars and is eventually offered nationwide. The system, however, tanks badly. While the official slogan for the Aquarius is “Smart Enough To Be Simple”, Mattel programmers loathingly suggest “System for the 70’s” as the advertising line, due to its extreme obsolescence. Heads start rolling at Mattel Electronics in early July, with 260 employees let go. This is followed by a further 400 axed a month later, along with a culling of top executives. This constitutes around 37% of the workforce. A price slashing in November down to around $59 fails to improve matters for the Aquarius, and early the next year Mattel bins plans for the Aquarius II and pays Radofin to release them from the Aquarius contract. Surplus computer hardware and software ends up being sold to Odd Lot Trading Inc., an outfit out of New York City that specializes in selling discontinued merchandise.
These expensive projects, along with the collapse of the videogame industry, are the beginning of the end of Mattel Electronics. Second quarter sales for 1983 have sagged to $3.5 million, compared to $24.9 for the same quarter the previous year. Marketing whiz Mack Morris, a man famous for putting the blue dot in the centre of Breath Savers mints, greatly increasing their sales, is named the head of the division in the summer of ’83. Soon, a particularly catchy hook in a game that sets it apart from the others becomes known as its “blue dot” to Mattel employees. Morris lacks the magic touch here, however, as the division reports a loss of $166.7 million for the first six months of 1983 and total losses of $229.3 million for the year. With Mattel saddled with almost 400 million dollars of short-term debt, Morris lays off practically all the staff in hardware development, and another round of layoffs in the fall decimate the Blue Sky Rangers. On January 20, 1984, Mattel Electronics closes its doors.
But the mighty Intellivision refuses to go down with the ship. In February of 1984, Mattel reports that it has signed a letter of intent to sell all existing stock and rights to the system to Terrence E. Valeski, former sr. vice president of marketing and sales at Mattel Electronics, for 16.5 million dollars. Bankrolling the purchase with Valeski is Tangible Industries, Inc., a division of the Revco drug store chain, the largest such franchise in the U.S.. While the team face stiff penalties from Mattel if they fail to continue the Intellivision line, they float such ideas as using the Intellivision brand on other appliances like hair dryers and VCRs. Valeski insists that he is committed to continuing the Intellivision line as a viable game console, going so far as announcing a 3-D games for the Intellivision, via a licence for technology developed by Richard Steenblik of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. The first such game for the Inty is to be Hover Force 3-D. Valeski subsequently incorporates a new company called Intellivision, Inc (changed to INTV in November 1984, when he takes over Revco’s share of the company). They release the INTV System III (aka the Super Pro System) in the fall of 1985, priced around $60. The System III’s method of sale is partly retail, partly through mail-order, and it is nearly an exact replica of the original Intellivision, both inside and out, but with new game pack-ins. As a cost-saving measure, none of the licenses for the sports games are renewed, and a game like NFL Football is demoted to simply Football. INTV forms an agreement with Mattel to continue service of Intellivision equipment, as well as assemble new carts via a one-year contract. The “new” system brings in $6 million worldwide in sales over Christmas 1986, prompting INTV to hire back many of the original Blue Sky Rangers to finish unreleased games and create new ones. Between 1985 and 1990, when INTV closes its doors and the Intellivision is finally laid to rest for good, over 35 new games are released for the System III. This makes a total of 125 games released for the Intellivision system over 10 years. The Blue Sky Rangers currently have exclusive rights to publish Intellivision system and games, granted to them by Ultimatte Corporation, purchasers of the Intellivision rights from Valeski in 1997. Via Intellivision Productions, a company set up by former Mattel programmers Keith Robinson and Stephen Roney, they continue to keep the system alive today, with Intellivision emulation packs for the MAC, PC and various mobile platforms.
Its roller-coaster ride through the videogame industry nearly sinks Mattel itself. But through restructuring, the company eventually claws its way back to the top of the toy heap, and in 1996 re-enters the videogame industry with a vengeance under the Mattel Media label. They release the Barbie Fashion Designer CD-ROM for the PC that year, going on to sell 15.5 million dollars worth and breaking previous CD-ROM sales records. E.J., the 9-year-old daughter of Mattel Media’s Vice President of Design Andy Rifkin, is one of the designers. In the program, clothes are created and modeled by Barbie on-screen and then the designs can be printed out on special cloth-backed paper and assembled to be worn by real Barbie dolls. It retails at $44.99 USD and spawns a lucrative Barbie line of computer programs, such as Barbie Magic Hair Styler. It is hypothesized that Mattel has broken into the untapped female market for videogames, but others figure that the success has more to do with Mattel’s marketing and the fearsome Barbie brand-name.
Out of the ashes of the Intellivision system has come an amazing amount of quality product by spin-off companies, not the least of which is the continuing emulation work of the Blue Sky Rangers. In 1998 they release two emulation CD-ROMs, Intellivision Lives! for the PC and Mac, and A Collection of Intellivision Classic Games for the Sony PlayStation console. Both feature plenty of perfectly emulated original games, including some never seen outside of the development labs, along with historical information on their creation. Keeping the love alive for classic Intellivision games for continuing generations of video gamers, further Intellivision Lives! packages are released for the subsequent later generation consoles such as Sony’s PlayStation 2 and Microsoft’s XBox. Outside of emulation, some software companies created by former Intellivision programmers include Quicksilver Software – Castles I(1991) & II(1994), Conquest of the New World(1996), Starlet Command(1999); Realtime Associates – M:TG-Battlemage(1997), Crusader: No Remorse(console versions-1997); and Storefront Studios né Beyond Software, headed by Don Daglow of Utopia fame – Gateway to the Savage Frontier(1991), Tony LaRussa Ultimate Baseball(1991), Madden 97(1996), Byzantine: The Betrayal(1997), NASCAR Revolution(1999).
As pointed out previously, the Intellivision’s unique control disc could be seen as a precursor to the modern D-Pad control scheme, pioneered by Nintendo in their Game & Watch handhelds and Famicom home console. In 2013, the influence can also be seen when venerable video game developer, publisher, and distributer Valve Software introduce the Steam Controller, for use on PCs and presumably their Steam game console. With two flat, round touch surfaces, Valve’s product is met with about the same acrimony from gamers as Mattel’s original controllers.
Carving out 15% of the video game market during its heyday (compared to 80% for Atari’s 2600) and selling around 3 million units across its production life (and another 3 million as the System III), the Intellivision may have come up second-best against Atari in the heated battle for videogame supremacy during the early 1980’s. But the Master Component, its varied sequels and components, and its thoughtful and sophisticated library of games continue to be highly appreciated by videogame enthusiasts. With continued support through emulation, Intelligent Television lives on.
Sources (Click to view; inert links are kept for historical purposes)
“Mattel Announces Intellivision Will Be Released in Time for Christmas.” Intelligent Machines Journal 18 July 1979: 15. Print. The master component module of Mattel Electronics’ component-based Intellivision system…will be shipped to dealers nationwide in July. It will have a suggested retail price of $250. The six tapes, which wil be ready for distribution in the fall and are expected to retail in a range of $30 – $35…
“Mattel’s Intellivision: A new Computer-Based Entertainment System.” Intelligent Machines Journal 17 Jan. 1979: 1 . Print. It [Intellivision] will consist of a 64 key keyboard, a cassette drive, and a microphone for use with programs featuring audio input, according to Mattel. Preliminary information indicates that this expansion unit will be priced at $165 and should be available October 1, 1979. Mattel is expected to have the basic unit, as well as 14 games and education programs in ROM packs, available by June 1, 1979. The master component with a football simulation pack is expected to sell for $165. The company is said to be planning a four million dollar advertising campaign to promote the system, most of it to be in the form of television commercials.
“Electronic Games Hotline: Inside Mattel.” Editorial. Electronic Games Winter 1981: 15. Electronic Games – Volume 01 Number 01 (1981-12)(Reese Communications)(US). Internet Archive. Web. 07 Feb. 2016. …Mattel has gone straight to the role-playing game source, TSR Hobbies, and pulled off a hat trick. The company now has the rights to make electronic versions of Dungeons & Dragons in stand-alone, videogame and hand-held formats.“Mattel Strikes Back.” Editorial. K-Power Nov. 1983: 18+. Video Games Player – Vol 2 No 2 (1983-11)(Carnegie Publications)(US). Internet Archive. Web. 07 Feb. 2016. …the actual cost of the system, including rebates, is somewhere between $20 and $60, even lower than the Atari VCS. Image of The Jetsons: Ways With Words game Image of The Aquarius COM/PAC product shot In addition to a full-stroke typewriter keyboard, Aquarius II is more powerful than Aquarius – 12K ROM and 20K RAM expandable to 64K. Aquarius II has…320×192 resolution… The Aquarius Printer connects to the rear of the computer and can print 80 characters per second, and up to 40 columns wide The Aquarius Modem will connect you with Aquarius Home Services… …the Command Console, which will be able to turn appliances on and off in your home automatically. It [Intellivision III] would have a 16-bit microprocessor… Super Graphics (official name “Mattel Electronics Graphic Development System GDS-7809”)… …according to a source at the company, Mattel is busily at work, in another dark room somewhere, creating the next Intellivision, which will be available sometime in 1984.Creative Computing, “Dateline: Tomorrow, Mattel Keyboard Unit–Late and Expensive” by David H. Ahl, pg. 48, April 1981. “After much delay, Mattel has announced a $700 retail price tag for its Intellivision keyboard module.” “Two major retail chains of stores indicated that the price was excessive and they would not handle the unit.” “Both Intellivision units were originally scheduled for introduction in October 1979. The game component finally reached some stores in February 1980.” Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Creative Computing collection, Oct 22 2015.
Videogaming and Computergaming Illustrated, “Focus On: I/O Breakdown!” by Vincent Papa, pgs. 19-24, Nov 1983. “Cheaper, more diversified, shoot-em-up-orientated Atari held eighty percent of the videogame market, Intellivision fifteen percent, and Odyssey five.” “Charlene Margaritas says that morale is very good at Mattel’s electronics division, despite the layoff of hundreds of employees and the announcement of $100 million pre-tax losses for the first six months of the year.” Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Videogaming Illustrated collection, Sept 18 2015.
Image of World Series Baseball for Mattel’s ECS, as well as other information from Video Games Player, “Mattel Strikes Back”, pgs. 18-21, 36, Oct/Nov 1983. “Well, Intellivision III has been scrapped. Mattel claims they have come up with a new graphics system – Super-Graphics- that allows them to program games for the Intellivision II that are just as spectacular as anything Intellivision III would have been able to display.”. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Video Games Player collection, Sep 11, 2015.
Electronic Fun with Computers & Games, “Gamemakers: the Good Doctor”, pgs. 38-40, Dec 1982. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Electronic Fun with Computers & Games collection, Sep 8, 2015
Images of the Aquarius Data Recorder, Memory Cartridges, Printer, Master Expansion module, FileForm, Hints From Heloise, Tron Deadly Discs and Utopia, as well as other information, from the Aquarius Program Catalog, Mattel 1982. Retrieved from trailingedge.com, Sept 7, 2015.
InfoWorld, “Software for Defunct Machines” by Denise Caruso, pgs. 34-35, May 14, 1984. “Aquarius machines and software, however, have been shipped off to a company in New York City called Odd Lot.” Retrieved from Google Books, Sep 7, 2015.
Electronic Games, “Electronic Games Hotline: ACTV Rolls Intel Carts”, pg. 16, Mar 1983. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Electronic Games magazine collection
www.intellivision.Us – intellivision.usJoyStik, “Future Waves – Aquarius Computer”, pg. 7, Vol. 1 Num. 6, July 1983
Uston, Ken. “Reflections on CES.” Creative Computng Sept. 1983: 224-31. Creative Computing Magazine (September 1983) Volume 09 Number 09. Internet Archive. Web. 25 Feb. 2016. Mattel has apparently given up on the Intellivision III. The system was displayed in January in a private room to a select group of attendees. It was impressive with its remote controllers, stereo sound effects, and fabulous simulated 3-D graphics.Arcade Express: Mattel in the Chips – “Mattel Electronics accounted for 25% of the net sales…”, pg. 6, Aug 30, 1982. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Arcade Express newsletter collection
Cyberroach Magazine #6 – www.cyberroach.com/cyromag/six/cge991p.htm
“Space Cunt” images courtesy of CyberRoach
Video Games Player, “Video Game Wars”, by Dan Gutman, pgs. 38 – 40, 56 Vol. 1 Num. 1, Fall 1982
UNDERDOG of PERFECTION – John Hodgman in George Plimpton homage – blog.room34.com/archives/161
Radio-Electronics, “Buyers Guide to Home Computers” by Jules H. Gilder, pgs. 45-67, Oct 1980
Image of the Aquarius COM/PAC box from Electronic Games, “Readers Replay – Intellivision III Dropped”, pg. 26, Vol. 2 Num. 9, Nov 1983
Image of PlayCable executives, the PlayCable splash screen, and other information from Video Games, “Playing Games with Cable”, by David Smith, PlayCable splash screen photo by Rob Gray, pgs. 73 – 75, 89, Vol. 1 Num. 5, Feb 1983
Omni, “Games: The ten best games of the year”, by Scot Morris, pgs. 170 – 171 Dec 1981
Mattel Aquarius – commodore-gg.hobby.nl/mattel_aquarius.htm
Close-up image of the Intellivision controller from Wikimedia Commons, photo by user Evan-Amos
Legal, “IN Re Northern Specialty Sales, Inc.”, Jan 27, 1986. “…for defendants Intellivision, Inc., Tangible Industries, Inc., and Revco D.S. Inc.”
Electronic Games, “Electronic Games Hotline: Atari Attacks Demon Attack”, pg. 10, April 1983. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Electronic Games magazine collection
Online Store Intellivisiongames.com – www.intellivisiongames.com/store/index.php?cPath=22
Compute!, “The Fall Computer Collection At The Summer Consumer Electronics Show” by Tom R. Halfhill, pgs. 22-42, Aug 1983
Omni, “Cyber Fun!”, pg. 97 – 99, Nov 1979
Intellivision Lives! Boxshot – www.gamespot.com/…/boxshot.php?pid=919290
Official Intellivision Website, “Intellivision III”
intellivisionlives.com, “Intellivision 1983 Releases, pg. 3 of 3, Masters of the Universe: The Power of He-Man”. Retrieved on May 17, 2015>
Electronic Games, “Electronic Games Hotline: Intellivision Debuts Hot Hardware”, pg. 14, Jun 1983. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Electronic Games magazine collection
JoyStik, “Future Waves – Intellivision III”, pg. 6, Vol. 1 Num. 6, July 1983
Computer Closet Collection | INTV System III – www.computercloset.org/INTVSystem3.htm
Intellivision System Changer Support Modification – Intelliwiki – intelliwiki.kylesblog.com/index.php/Intellivision_System_Changer_Support_Modification
Hunter, David. “Newspeak.” Softalk Apr. 1984: 191-96. Softalk V4n08 Apr 1984. Internet Archive. Web. 27 Feb. 2016. Obit: Mattel, battered by losses in its video game and home computer businesses, is selling off all its divisions…Mattel Electronics, which lost $283.5 million in the first three months of fiscal 1983, was purchased by Mattel executive Terrence E. Valeski and two backers, Ike Perlmutter and Bernard Marden – who together own New York-based Odd Lot Trading, a firm specializing in closeout merchandise. The Collection V, Bill and Christina Loguidice – www.billandchristina.com/vgamecomp/collection5ar5.htm
“Electronic Games Hotline: Intellivision Debuts Hot Hardware.” Editorial. Electronic Games June 1983: 14. Electronic Games – Volume 01 Number 16 (1983-06)(Reese Communications)(US). Internet Archive. Web. 08 Feb. 2016. The big news, however, concerns the Intellivision III, expected to reach market with an initial selection of six to eight games, and a price tag of slightly under #300…Possible game releases include Air Ace, throwing gamers into the cockpit of a fighter plane, assigned to patrol a full-screen landscape seen from three-quarter perspective. Image of John Sohl taken at CGE 2014, Las Vegas
Video Games, “The Selling of Intellivision”, by Susan Prince, pgs. 32 – 34, 68 – 69, Vol. 1 Num. 3, Dec 1982
Image of PlayCable from Intellivision Brasil
Creative Computing Video&Arcade Games, Fall of 1983, Review of Intellivision II by Owen Linzmayer, page 82
Electronic Games, “The Summer Game Goes Electronic” by Arnie Katz, pgs. 46-52, Aug 1983. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Electronic Games magazine collection
Images of Aquarius Box, Mini Expander Box, ECS box, Keyboard Component with box and motherboard, INTV System III box, Tandyvision Box, and Mattel Electronics’ Auto Race and Football boxes taken at the Videogame History Museum display, CGE 2014 in Las Vegas
Compute!, “New Home Computers At The Winter Consumer Electronics Show: Spectra Video and Mattel” by Tom R. Halfhill, pgs. 38-40, Mar 1983
The Orange County Register, “New owners of Intellivision to spend ‘substantial’ capital”, pgs. B8, B11, Feb. 8, 1984
Staples, Betsy. “What’s New for ’82, Video Games, Mattel.” Creative Computing May 1982: 70-72. “They [Mattel] also announced that the Intellivision keyboard unit is being test marketed in New Orleans and Seattle…” Creative Computing Magazine (May 1982) Volume 08 Number 05. Internet Archive. Web. 05 Nov. 2015.
The Daily Herald (AP), “Toymaker Mattel enters the home computer market”, pg. Section 2 – 5, April 24, 1983
Arcade Express, “M-Network Overcomes Launching Problems”, pg. 1, Sept 26, 1982. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Arcade Express newsletter collection
Compute!, “A 6502 Version Of The Winter Consumer Electronics Show: January, 1981” by David D. Thornburg, pg. 10, Mar 1981
Image of Intellivision console and computer add-on at CES , as well as other information, from Creative Computing, 1979 Winter CES coverage, pg. 17, April 1979. “They’ve [Mattel] also got math and spelling exercises along with speed reading and French… and financial planning and personal improvement.” Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Creative Computing collection, Sep 29 2015.
Syracuse Herald-Journal, “Beat the Video Games” by Michael Blanchet, pg. C-11, Mar. 3, 1983
Lawrence Journal World (N.Y. Times News Service), “Games turn serious in commercial ‘war'”, pg. 36, Dec. 20, 1981
Intellivision Game Club News, “Utopia Challenges You to Run Your Own Country!”, pg. 5, Winter 1983. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Intellivision Game Club News collection
Image of Intellivision sitting atop the Keyboard Component from Electronic Games, “Q & A” by The Game Doctor, pg. 16, Aug 1982. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Electronic Games magazine collection
Electronic Games, “Reader Replay: M Not-Work?”, pg. 21, Jan 1983. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Electronic Games magazine collection
Linzmayer, Owen, and David Ahl. “Barbie, Bits and Bytes: Mattel Aquarius Home Computer System.” Creative Computing Aug. 1983: 49-54. Creative Computing Magazine (August 1983) Volume 09 Number 08. Internet Archvie. Web. 25 Feb. 2016. The Aquarius comes with a version of Microsoft Basic residing in the 8K ROM…Mattel plans to offer an Extended Basic upgrade later this year.Ahl, David H. “Mattel Electronics.” Creative Computing Magazine (March 1984) Volume 10 Number 03. Internet Archive, n.d. Web. 02 Mar. 2016. Aquarius was finally rolled out in April in four cities – Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and Atlanta – at an average street price of $150.; By November the street price had propped to around $59…; In early July, 260 employees were laid off. A month later, 400 more employees were dropped, making the total reduction some 37% of the division. Moreover, the top management of the division was dismissed.; Sales in the second quarter of 1983 were $3.5 million compared to $24.9 million in the like period a year earlier. In early September, the company announced a loss from the electronics division of $166.7 million in the first six months of 1983. In December, the loss for the first nine months was reported as $229.3 million… Images of Melody Maker and World Series Baseball, as well as other information from Radio-Electronics, “Videogames ’83” by Danny Goodman, pgs. 56-58, Jun 1983
The Orange Country Register (Minneapolis Star and Tribune news service), “Remember video games? …”, pg. E10, Jan. 7, 1987
Compute!, “Mattel’s New Home Computer” by Tom R. Halfhill, pg. 43, Jan 1983
Hunter, David. “Newsboys: Intellivision 3-D – Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Play Video Games Again.” Softtalk Apr. 1984: 198. Softalk V4n08 Apr 1984. Internet Archive. Web. 27 Feb. 2016. A toned-down version of [Steenblik’s] process will be under veiled later this year when Intellivision Incorporated – the first licensee-begins marketing a 3-D video game for its Intellivision unit…the game Hover Force 3-D…Intellivision Lives, “Intellivision Keyboard Component #1149”, referenced Mar 26, 2015 – http://www.intellivisionlives.com/bluesky/hardware/keyboard_tech.html Lakeland Ledger (Knight News Service), “Solving the mystery maze of video games”, by Jonathan Takiff, pg. 2C, Dec. 10, 1982
Electronic Games, “Electronic Games Hotline, ‘Stealing a march on the other manufacturers, Mattel has gone straight to the role-playing source…’, pg. 15, Winter 1981. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Electronic Games magazine collection
Winnipeg Free Press (LA Times wire service), “New owner says he will continue Intellivision line”, pg. 30, Feb. 8, 1984
Popular Science, “New add-ons turn video games into computers”, by Myron Berger, pgs. 114-155, 166, Oct 1983
Internal Intellivision dealer ECS memo and sales invoice, dated May 1, 1983, Intellivisionbrasil.com
Billboard, “Games, Computers Get Strong Push From Mattel”, pg.34, Mar 12 1983
Computer Games (ne: Video Games Player), “News”, pg. 8, Feb, 1985. “Intellivision is now owned by Revco, the largest drugstore chain in the U.S.”. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Video Games Player collection, Sep 13, 2015.
Williams, Tom. “Mattel and APF Competing for the Home Users Market.” Intelligent Machines Journal 04 Feb. 1980: 5. Print. Mattel’s Intellivision, which will cost approximately $800, according to the company… …the Mattel system is not user-programmable. The company expects to have user-programmability by 1981…