Playing video games has always been tagged as being a rather solitary pastime, even when you consider the ubiquity of online gaming today. Sure, you might be in a shooter with 24 other people, but you don’t see them and probably have never met them IRL, and communication is generally on the level of potty-mouthed trash talk over a tinny mic. In my youth I played a lot with friends in front of my C64 (see: M.U.L.E.), but when I tally up all of the game time, statistically speaking I was by myself playing video games.
Now, collecting retro video games might seem to demand a certain amount of face time with other like-minded traders, looking to score deals and complete collections. However, with the advent of eBay and other online venues for classic game purchasing and trading, it’s possible you could pursue your hobby sequestered at home with your only connection to the outside world being a furtive peek through the curtains at your local UPS guy delivering your latest acquisition.
Developed by Mattel and consulting firm APh, the Intellivision (Intelligent Television) provided the first serious competition against Atari’s popular VCS game console.
With its advanced graphic capabilities and versatile keypad/disc controllers, the console was a success when released wide in the U.S. in 1980. Mattel’s aggressive advertising push for the Intellivision, which highlighted the superiority of its many sports games over Atari’s offerings, sparked a marketing war between the two companies. As Intellivision spokesperson George Plimpton was quick to point out, between Atari’s Home Run and Mattel’s Major League Baseball, there was simply no comparison. While Atari promoted their library of popular arcade game translations unavailable on other systems, hits like Night Stalker and Astrosmash help solidify the Intellivision’s success.
George lays into Atari
Speech synthesis via the Intellivoice module, as well as a game delivery system through Cable TV called Playcable, were eventually made available for the system. In 1983, Mattel redesigned the original Master Component console into the Intellivision II, simply a retooled box and controllers with the same capabilities at a reduced price. The Intellivision III was announced early that year, with such features as a built-in voice synthesizer, colour LCD display on the case and wireless joystick controllers. It and the top-secret Intellivision IV next-gen console project were cancelled by the end of the year as the home video game market collapsed.
Intellivision II and controller
After the company made a tenuous grasp for the home computer market with the ill-fated Aquarius computer, Mattel Electronics went out of business in 1984. All rights and existing stock for the Intellivision were sold to T.E. Valeski, former VP of Sales and Marketing at Mattel. As Intellivision, Inc. (later changed to INTV), the company marketed a cosmetically altered version of the original Master Component called the INTV System III in the fall of 1985. They met with enough success to produce several new games for the console, until this new venture closed its doors in 1990.
30 years ago, the video game industry in North America bottomed out. Having enjoyed a meteoric rise since PONG had created a sensation a decade previous, what had been a $3.2 billion industry in 1983 was reduced to maybe $100 million in 1984. It was utter devastation. One of the reasons for the Great Video Game Crash was because of the immense river of garbage product that flooded the market at its peak. In this series on TDE we’ll look at some of these lamentable games.
Games like the one we feature today, Kool-Aid Man, created by Mattel Electronics for the Intellivision under the auspices of General Foods, purveyors of the sugary beverage concoction Kool-Aid. The game was initially part of a promotion where you could get it, or a different version made for the Atari 2600, by sending in 125 proof of purchases to the company. It later also saw release at retail.
I guess the Intellivision version could have worked, if they had have taken the kid-friendly and action(and sugar)-packed company mascot and put him inside of a compelling game. Instead, we get this dreck: a boy and a girl wander around a cavernous house, collecting the supplies needed for some delicious Kool-Aid: a glass pitcher, a Kool-Aid packet, and the most important ingredient: lots and lots of sugar. A whole bowl of it, in fact. It’s no wonder that Kool-Aid Man has the energy to smash through walls: he’s on a maniacal sugar-high. The kids collect this paraphernalia while avoiding the dreaded Thirsties, who bounce around the house with impunity. If one of these critters touch a kid, they are incapacitated, apparently with thirst. If each kid gets hit twice, no Kool-Aid for you! The player can switch between the two children via any button on the control pad, which they’ll have to, since there are three things to collect and the kids can only carry one thing at a time. If everything is gathered and brought to the kitchen sink, the titular jug then makes his thunderous appearance, causing what I estimate to be about $5,000 dollars damage to the kids’ near-endless domicile. Kool-Aid Man thusly gives the Thirsties their comeuppance while chasing down various badly-drawn versions of strawberries, lemons, grapes and such. This is the closest Kool-Aid will ever get to actual fruit. Then repeat, until diabetes sets in.
Typical for an Intellivision game, the action is slow, here to the point of plodding. Not good for a game catering to sugar-addicted youngsters. Having to schlep back and forth to pick up the various items is tedious in the extreme, with the repetitiveness made worse by the fact that the item placement is not randomized, so it’s just a matter of getting to each one while avoiding the bad guys. There are a few difficulty levels that speed up the Thirsties movement and shorten the time allotted to get things done, but you’re probably better off just getting up off your butt and mixing yourself a real glass.
It was, most likely, 40 years ago this month that Gary Gigax and Dave Arneson started showing friends and family their freshly printed rule books for a new tabletop miniatures fantasy game, sold under the company name Tactical Studies Rules or TSR. A combination of Gygax’s Chainmail and Arneson’s Blackmoor, the new ruleset would be called Dungeons & Dragons and it would change the landscape of gaming forever. D&D, and its later branch-off Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, widely influenced computer and video games at their onset, both in the games themselves and those that create them. To wit:
Willie Crowther was part of the team that built the foundations of the Internet at BBN in Cambridge, MA. in the early 70’s. He was also involved in the large D&D community in the area, and later created the seminal text-adventure computer game Adventure.
Dave Lebling created a bookkeeping program on MIT’s computer in the 70’s, to help manage his D&D obsession. He later worked with a team at the school to make the wildly popular computer text adventure Zork, and subsequently helped found Infocom.
Jim Connelly and Jon Freeman were regular players in a D&D group in the 70’s, and they went on to start up Automated Simulations, producing the heavily D&D influenced Temple of Apshai, as well as other games in the Dunjunquest series. Automated Simulations would eventually morph into Epyx.
That’s not to forget Richard Garriott’s penchant for organizing D&D games at his parent’s house in Houston, Texas in the late 70’s. Garriott would create the profoundly successful Ultima computer role playing games, and himself sink into a fantasy role as the fabled Lord British.
And then there are the direct licenses of D&D to video and computer games. Too numerous to count here, but I’ll leave you with one of the first. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Cartridge (its full name, as per the contract with TSR) was developed by APh Technological Consulting and published by Mattel Electronics for the Intellivision in 1982. A D&D game in label only, it concerns itself with a team of three adventurers travelling across a mountainous landscape in a bit to retrieve the two halves of a broken royal crown, secreted away by a cadre of dragons. It would later be renamed Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Cloudy Mountain to distinguish it from another AD&D game from Mattel called Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Treasure of Tarmin, released in 1983. While it may not do much with the D&D lore, the first AD&D game from Mattel is still a fun adventure that accomplishes a lot inside its 6K boundaries:
Venerable game developer, publisher and distributor Valve Software introduced their new Steam Controller yesterday, and the shrill whistle of those blowing their stacks was deafening. People were pretty steamed, if you will. Gamers were taken aback by the design of the controller, which eschews traditional user interfaces such as analog joysticks or a pressable D-pad with two round, flat trackpads. Players use their thumbs on the surface of the pads, which also serve as buttons since they are clickable. Valve promises the high-resolution trackpads give players a much higher degree of control over previous methods. Haptic feedback and a large touchscreen are also thrown into the design for good measure.
Gamer response was quick and furious. It reminded me of another unique control scheme that was met by derision from gamers back in the day…
Today the Visual Cortex is sporting an Intellivision magazine ad, featuring the system’s well-heeled attack dog, author George Plimpton.
Plimpton featured prominently in a series of attack ads by Mattel that highlighted their system’s advanced graphics capability, especially when compared with the anemic visuals of their chief rival, Atari’s VCS/2600 unit. You might be excused for thinking, “Why Plimpton?”. Well, Plimpton came to national prominence as a kind of high-brow intellectual for the Budweiser set, a sportswriter who would poke fun at his high-falutin’ ways by attempting to play sports at the pro level and then write about his haplessness. So he was a pretty good fit for the Intellivision, which specialized in sports games like NFL Football and MLB Baseball that blew away the Atari versions in terms of both graphical quality and realistic gameplay. Here is the ad:
Plimpton lets Atari have it.
These hard hitting attack ads irked Atari president Ray Kassar so much that he complained about the “unfairness” of the comparisons to the TV networks airing them and threatened legal action. Eventually Atari would come out with their own version of the highly intellectual pitchman; a child dressed up in a suit and glasses who would point out the versions of popular arcade games that were absent on the Intellivision. Of course, Mattel then struck back with Plimpton schooling their own version of the pint-sized pitchman.
As a couple of bonuses, here is John Hodgman’s spoof on the Plimpton ad, used to shill his own book The Areas of My Expertise in 2006, as well as a link to Newground’s hilarious (and fun to play) fake web-based ColecoVision game George Plimpton’s Video Falconry, created in 2011.
The Aquarius was Mattel’s attempt to enter the burgeoning personal computer market, released in 1983. It’s strange that Mattel would attempt to market a computer alongside the ECS or Entertainment Computer System that they also sold as an add-on to their Intellivision console, designed to turn the Master Component into a full-fledged computer. I guess it shows that the company had no real confidence in either system. At any rate, the Aquarius failed miserably as a home computer of the era. The writing was on the wall internally at Mattel; programmers had their own slogan for the machine, referring to its obsolete specifications by 1983 : “The System for the 70’s“.