Some advice on romance for you from a retro video game historian: Find someone who looks at you the way this lady looks at the guy running the Aquarius Home Computer System, by Mattel Electronics.
On second thought, maybe don’t. She looks like she’s thinking about slitting his throat while he sleeps tonight, and whether she could completely bathe her naked body in the amount of blood that came out of him.
And another thing: this photo seems to prove just how unuseable the crap keyboard on the Aquarius was. Look at the man’s fingers, curled up like an old, arthritic witch in order to press on those tiny, rubbery chiclet-keys. The computer came with a built-in flavour of Microsoft BASIC, but can you imagine trying to program on that thing? 20 minutes and I’d be longing for release, as the pumping blood from my carotid artery splashed on my wife’s writhing body.
Also, the dude has a Mini Expander AND two memory packs, but hasn’t installed them into the computer? That means he’s stuck with the anemic 4K standard RAM in the Aquarius. Yes honey, you can bring the kitchen knife to bed tonight.
Here, Mom goggles at the ridiculous language on the screen, while the men go through the motions of learning Conversational French on the Intellivision Keyboard Component. Which appears gigantic in this image. I mean, that is a pretty big table it’s sitting on, but still Mom is shoved over to one edge, and Dad has to hover his elbows OVER the other side while typing on those big, clunky keys.
But I digress. Perhaps the apparent awkwardness between Father and Son has more to do with the kid’s shirt. Look at it. Powder blue with two giant white roses embroidered on it. Dad is probably thinking “I can’t believe a jackass who would submit to a shirt like that came out of my ballsack!” Or Balzac, as it were. C’est l’humour!
There’s also something going on with Jr.’s nose. It’s too red and bulbous. It could be that the “who gives a flying fart?” look on the guys’ faces is due to them nipping at the sherry a bit too hard before rolling over the gargantuan computer on its crash-cart to learn the language of romance. Mon dieu, c’est tellement grand!
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:
George lays into Atari
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.
A spoof of the Inty ad featuring John Hodgman, 2005
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.
Zork box art, TRS-80 version
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:
Recently we seem to be in the timeline of our current generation of video game consoles where companies, anxious to generate renewed interest in their hardware without actually producing something new that would cannibalize sales of their current offerings, simply produce refreshes of their current machines. This involves reducing the size and amount of inner circuitry of their lines, in order to look more sleek and save on production costs and thusly lower retail prices. Atari and Mattel both attempted to stave off obsolescence by remodelling their flagship consoles in the early 80’s, producing the 2600 jr. and Intellivision II respectively.
Big things, small packages
Both the Xbox 360 and PS3 have undergone shrinkage with “slim” versions, and now Nintendo, with the release of its next generation Wii U console safely behind them, has announced what it calls the Wii Mini. Priced at $99.99, the smaller form-factor comes with a red Wii Remote Plus and Nunchuk controller, to match the console’s colour. What it doesn’t include, however, is any online capability, nor Gamecube compatibility. The console also seems to be a Canadian exclusive, at least over the 2012 Christmas season. Nintendo is mum on any details about other countries getting a release, so currently only Canadians have tiny Wii’s. Don’t worry though, we’re not embarrassed. Although I don’t think I’d be telling anyone I had a Wii Mini. Especially in the clubs. Be sure to ask your Future Shop salesman about his Wii Mini on Dec. 7.
Okay, I’ll stop now. Although I still think they should have called it the “WeeWii”. Maybe in Scotland.
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; while the official promotional tagline of the computer was Smart Enough to be Simple, programmers had their own slogan for the machine, referring to its obsolete specifications by 1983 : The System for the 70’s.