I always find it quite interesting reading the comments that get posted on these articles. I’ve noticed that when I hover around the 16bit and beyond period (SNES/Mega Drive), the majority of readers and commenters will recognise, or have a personal connection with the systems. However, if I go further back to when games required a good imagination in order to understand what developers were trying to portray, and functioned on screen with limited hardware at their disposal, I tend to see a lot of “I’ve never heard of that thing before” or “Looks old” comments. This is all well and good considering not all of us have been around since “Tennis for Two”, but for this weeks Retrospective we’ll be going way back to the early eighties so I’m expecting a similar kind of response. Heck even I only had basic motor functions when this system first came out. So hopefully we’ll all walk away with a good history lesson here. I remember seeing the Intellivision when I was a kid and since Atari was all the rage back then I referred to it as the “tight ass Atari” not knowing much more about it, I think it’s time I looked at this system a little more thoroughly now.
In the late 70s Atari was the main name associated with videogames. Their flagship: the Atari VCS/2600 was the dominant home gaming system. A number of competitors made an attempt at capturing some of the market for them selves, but none of then opposed a serious enough threat until Mattel Electronics introduced the Intellivision(Intelligent Tellivision). Mattel began development on the Intellivision in 1978, one year after Atari introduced the VCS/2600, and after a short test marketing phase in 1979 the system was officially released in 1980. Mattel hit hard with a bold advertising campaign emphasising its technical superiority over Atari’s hardware; showing off its 16 directional controller, 16bit graphics processor and promising us all future hardware that could change the Intellivision into a fully functional home computer. A 16bit processor featured in a home gaming console was an industry first and was a noticeable improvement over what Atari was offering, but if you compare it to what we perceive as 16bit graphics today ie Super Nintendo and Mega Drive it pales in comparison.
Initially Mattel were a little sceptical of the Intellivision’s future and did what they could to keep production costs down in case the system wasn’t successful. To save money Mattel enlisted computer students to program software as part of their course studies but to Mattel’s surprise, the Intellivision took off quite well with 175,000 units being sold in the first year. Mattel realised the importance of having first party developed games and at this point were willing to invest further to do so. A team of five programmers was formed to create a development team referred to as the 'Blue Sky Rangers' in public. Their names and work locations were kept confidential to avoid their main competitor Atari from poaching them. In a short period of time this five man team grew into a 110 person work force. In 1982 profits were good for Mattel and the Intellivision was topping the two million units mark. It was no where near the record numbers Atari was having but it was enough to grab the attention of big name game developers such as Activsion and Imagic, who quickly jumped aboard and began producing their own games for the Intellivision.
In 1983 the Intellivision II was introduced. Essentially the same as the first system but redesigned to accommodate new features and reduce production costs, it was common for videogame manufactures to redesign their consoles back then and is still common practice today. The Intellivision II was housed in a smaller case and used a more reliable and cheaper to produce circuitry within its construction. The internal ROM code was changed to lock out unlicensed games from being played on the system, but over time the developers producing these games found ways around this. All licensed games produced prior to the Intellivsion II were still compatible with only a handful of games experiencing minor sound glitches. Apart from the decrease in costs, one of the main advantages of the Intellivision II was its ability to use new accessories that were released, like the Music Keyboard and System Changer(see accessories section for more details). Sadly, the good news stopped there for Mattel. In this year the dreaded videogames crash occurred, and things went from bad to worse. What was originally Mattel giving Atari a good run for their money, turned quickly into a market flooded with many other consoles, all wanting a piece of the industry. As a result Mattel was hit hard with massive profit losses and was quickly laying off employees and dramatically slashing prices off their products. At the beginning of the following year Mattel was the first of the high profile companies to fall victim to the market crash and shut down their electronics division.
Even though Mattel electronics were gone, this didn’t mean the end of the system. The hardware and software of the Intellivision were being sold off by a liquidator who had purchased the rights to the Intellivision and its software. Not long after, Terry Valeski, a former Mattel Marketing executive took over and bought the rights from the liquidator. He then formed his own company: INTV Corp and continued to sell the remainder of the Intellivision stock through retailers and mail order. Once all the original stock was depleted, INTV Corp kept the Intellivision name alive, releasing the INTV III, which was basically a redesign of the original Intellivision system. They also continued supporting the system with a handful of in-house developed new release titles. In the end, it was in 1992 that all production of Intellivision hardware and software ceased.
The INTV III was the last of the Intellivision consoles.
With a lifespan lasting more than a decade, the Intellivision managed to sell roughly three million consoles and build a solid gaming library of 125 titles. Back then it was a brave move by Mattel to go up against Atari when they were at their strongest and their VCS/2600 was the console of choice by most consumers. Having said that even Atari themselves couldn’t out do the popularity of the VCS/2600, with every new system released after it being kicked to the side while VCS/2600 continued to chug along past it. Who knows what direction Mattel would have taken if the videogames crash of 83 didn’t cripple them. The legacy was later resurrected through the release of Intellivision Lives: is a gaming compilation of Intellivision classics that was released for the Game Cube, Xbox, PS2 and is soon to be released on the Nintendo DS.
The Intellivision controller had some unique features for its time but unfortunately those features didn’t do the system any favours. The controller itself resembles a TV remote more than an actual gaming controller and was quite cumbersome for gamers to hold. An industry first for the Intellivision was the control disc, that gave the controller the ability to input 16 different directionals; a groundbreaking motion considering even after this, D-Pad controllers were still only eight way functional. This disc system sounded good in theory because you could have more control over your intended direction, however users continuously complained about the disc not translating the most basic of movements correctly. The primary action buttons were situated on the sides of the controller which required an uncomfortable gesture to press the buttons. 12 more buttons were featured in a keypad form on the face of the controller with some games coming with a plastic overlay (pictured on right)
that slid over the top of the key pad to indicate what each button represented. Without the overlay playing a game effectively was a trial and error process where all you could do was press each and all of the buttons to see what they did. One of the controller’s biggest flaws was its inability to receive instructions from the control disc and the keypad at the same time, with some games forcing the player to stop movement before firing a weapon. To keep things tidy after playing the Intellivision, Mattel made the controllers slide back into the systems case. The Intellivision controller was the systems Achilles heel with users having a laundry list of complaints about it.
This was quite the controversial accessory. When the Intellivision was first released Mattel put a strong emphasis in it’s advertising that the Intellivision was more than a videogames system and promised that a Keyboard Component, which could easily transform the console into a home computer, was just around the corner. This was one of Mattel’s efforts to separate the Intellivision from the Atari VCS/2600 which at the time was dominating the market. Built by the original developers of the Intellivision, the Keyboard component also known as the Blue Whale, added features and performance enhancements to the system by dropping the Intellivision system into the unit for flush finish. By doing so, an additional 64K of dual port dynamic RAM (which was a decent amount for the era)and its own 6502 processor that could work independently from the Intellivision’s CP1610 processor could be harnessed. A cassette drive that could read and write both data and audio was built in as well as a connection for an optional 40-column thermal printer. Given that the Intellivision sits inside of the Keyboard Component a relocated cartridge slot could be used to play cartridge based games without the need to separate the two units. This all sounded like a good deal at the time with many consumers purchasing an Intellivision because of this promised feature. However things went a little sour with the Keyboard Component because its release never eventuated. This was mainly due to the engineers struggling with reliability issues and keeping the unit cost effective. The official release date was continually pushed back in a vain attempt to rectify the production problems. This angered consumers that were looking forward to this accessory and it even got to the point where the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) stepped in and investigated Mattel for fraud and false advertising. Mattel eventually buckled and released a hand full of units with a very limited selection of software to select retail stores or available for purchase via mail order. However, this wasn’t enough to keep the FTC happy, and a $10,000 a day fine was issued to Mattel until the Keyboard Component was officially released. Since Mattel couldn’t overcome the engineering issues the Keyboard Component was plagued with they had no choice but to cancel it and recall all units that were sold. Consumers had the option too keep the Keyboard Component but a legal document had to be signed acknowledging they knew no new software would be produced or any tech support offered. Roughly 4000 of these units were made but no one has an exact number on how many are actually in public circulation. If any are still about they would be quite the collector’s item. Even though a great deal of time and money was consumed by this project it wasn’t a complete waste. One Mattel employee discovered that the Keyboard Component could be used as a cheap development tool and was later dubbed the Black Whale. It was slower than the original development tool but it still got the job done and at the same time helped solve the demand issue Mattel was having creating development tools.
Entertainment Computer System(ECS):
Mattel had promised that the Intellivision would have an accessory created that could transform the gaming console into home computer and they had to deliver. Since the Keyboard Component didn’t officially get released Mattel went to their backup plan the ECS. The ECS wasn’t a last minute job either as this project was in development not long after the Keyboard Component commenced. The decision was made to start work on the ECS when the designers of the Keyboard Component began to experience design problems, and all information regarding the ECS’s development was kept under wraps to avoid conflict with the design leader of the Keyboard Component team. The ECS design team were given a different set of directions, with their goal being to produce a cost effective system that could be used as an education tool helping children with the introduction of computer programming. Originally named LUCKI ( Low User-Cost Keyboard Interface) the ECS had nowhere near the specs the Keyboard Component had with only an additional 2K RAM. Gone was the secondary 6502 CPU, but since ECS could be used to make programs with a simple version of BASIC, and could save them to tape, it was enough to keep the FTC happy and Mattel’s ongoing fines were ended. As a bonus and an industry first, an optional 49-key Music Synthesizer keyboard was also available for the system. Unfortunately for anyone that bought the ECS, Mattel didn’t offer much support with any future software. A program expander was also announced that would have increased RAM and offered an extended version of BASIC but it was never released.
The system Changer for the Intellivision II was an accessory that allowed Atari VCS/2600 games to be played on the console and it gave Mattel bragging rights for having the system that could play the most games. Naturally Atari wasn’t happy with this and made an attempt to sue Mattel but failed. If something like this happened today I’m sure every possible action would be taken from the competitor to stop it but Mattel’s lawyers found a way around it all.
The System Changer doesn’t use the Intellivision console to emulate Atari games, instead the accessory is basically an Atari 2600 clone made from cheaper off the shelf components. So when an Atari 2600 game is inserted, the Intellivision reads it as if it were a game cartridge and only uses the Intellivision for its RF out put and power source. Since the System Changer didn’t have it’s own video output it would only wok when connected to the console and not on its own like a stand alone Atari 2600 clone.
Intellivoice: A unique accessory for its time the Intellivoice was a speech synthesiser module that added pre-recorded voices to specific games. There was a limit to how much voice could be added to games due to the small cartridge sizes which were 4K or 8K ROM. Mattel used a few tricks to get as much recorded voice onto games and work around storage limitations. Some commonly used words, number and phrases were recorded directly onto the Intellivoice accessory. When the voices were being digitized the lowest possible sampling rate was used and often the sample rate would fluctuate between words depending on how easy a word would be to recognise. Even though Mattel invested in a state of the art voice lab that was well suited for recoding and digitizing voices for the Intellivoice, only five compatible games were released.
PlayCable: The All Game Channel:
General Instrument, the company that made the Intellivision’s CPU, brought another industry first to the Intellivision by offering Play Cable which was an accessory that allowed games to be downloaded via a cable TV subscription. When booted up the PlayCable displayed a selection menu which prompted the user to select one of the games to download. There were twenty titles available at the time and these games would be rotated on a monthly basis. Each game code would be countinuosly broadcasted until its next rotation. When selected for download a game would only take approximately ten seconds before it was playable. The downloaded game would sit in the PlayCable’s memory where the Intellivision system would read it as if it were a normal cartridge game. The downside to the PlayCable was games could not be saved to system memory and would disappear when the system was turned off. PlayCable was discontinued in 1983 because the TV cable operators thought it would be a better investment using the required bandwidth reserved for PlayCable on additional TV channels instead. On top of that, many games made after 1983 were of a larger size(8K+) and PlayCable couldn’t support it.
- General Instrument CP1610 16-bit microprocessor CPU running at 894.886 kHz (i.e., slightly less than 1 MHz)
- 1456 bytes of RAM:
- 240 × 8-bit Scratchpad Memory
- 352 × 16-bit (704 bytes) System Memory
- 512 × 8-bit Graphics RAM
- 7168 bytes of ROM:
- 4096 × 10-bit (5120 bytes) Executive ROM
- 2048 × 8-bit Graphics ROM
- 160 pixels wide by 196 pixels high (5×2 TV pixels make one Intellivision pixel)
- 16 colour palette, all of which can be on the screen at once
- 8 sprites. Hardware supports the following features per-sprite:
- Size selection: 8×8 or 8×16
- Stretching: Horizontal (1×, 2×) and vertical (1×, 2×, 4× or 8×)
- Mirroring: Horizontal and vertical
- Collision detection: Sprite to sprite, sprite to background, and sprite to screen border
- Priority: Selects whether sprite appears in front of or behind background.
- 3 channel sound, with 1 noise generator (audio chip: General Instrument AY-3-8910)
Previous Retrospective articles
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Written by: Matthew Armitage