Some Intelligent Competition
As Atari’s game console project Stella moves off the drawing boards and approaches its eventually 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
Test marketing of the console begins in Fresno California in 1979. The unit is dubbed Intellivision, a portmanteau of “intelligent television”, due to a “soon to be released” keyboard and memory storage device which would turn the whole system into a 64k computer. 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 and square, 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 and Famicom 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 goes into wide release in 1980, the entire run of 175,000 systems sell out. The initial price is $299.95 USD, 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 are released along with the unit, designed by Glen Hightower and programmed by the gang at APh. The cartridges are smaller profile than the VCS carts, with an cool angled end to them. Each game 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. The pack-in cartridge with the system is Las Vegas Poker & Blackjack, featuring a shifty-eyed dealer dealing cards to the player over a field of casino-table green.
Magnavox v. Mattel
But Mattel soon finds itself across the table from Magnavox, owners of the first home videogame patent, gained from their release of the original Odyssey system. When Atari released the VCS, they had 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.
This payoff notwithstanding, the Master Component is a solid success. Mattel also enters into a lucrative deal with Sears in 1980, manufacturing the Intellivision under the Sears Tele-Games label as the Super Video Arcade. A $6 million ad campaign pushes 600,000 Intellivisions off store shelves through the 1981 Christmas season, and Mattel sells another million units 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 purchasers 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.
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 shakeups 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 identity of its members. In press releases and magazine articles, they are referred to only 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”. Starting with nine core members, the department eventually peaks at 200 at the height of the videogame 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 a 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 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.