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 52K . Two graphics modes are offered: a high-res display at 320×192 and a low-res text mode at 40×24; 256 total characters are available, including the full ASCII character set. Also on the graphics front, the system has access to 16 colours. A barebones version of MS BASIC is built into the 8K of ROM of the computer; an extended version is promised later. All of this in a discreet case measuring just 13 in. by 6 in. by 2 in.
The Aquarius has a 49-key keyboard but in the dreaded rubber-chiclet style, only literally this time: an honest appraisal would probably have the tiny keys SMALLER than chiclets . 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 far side of 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 tape cassette Data Recorder 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.