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Intellivision

The Intellivision is a video game console released by Mattel in 1979. Development of the console began in 1978, less than a year after the introduction of its main competitor, the Atari 2600. The word intellivision is a portmanteau of "intelligent television". Over 3 million consoles and a total of 125 games were released for the system during its 10 year run.

History and development

The Intellivision was developed by Mattel Electronics, a subsidiary of Mattel formed expressly for the development of electronic games. The console was test marketed in Fresno, California, in 1979 with a total of four games available, and was released nationwide in 1980 with a price tag of US$299 and a pack-in game: Las Vegas Poker & Blackjack. Though not the first system to challenge Atari (systems from Fairchild Semiconductor, Bally, and Magnavox were already on the market), it was the first to pose a serious threat to Atari's dominance. A series of ads featuring George Plimpton was produced that mercilessly attacked the Atari 2600's lesser capabilities with side-by-side game comparisons.

One of the slogans of the television advertisements stated that Intellivision was "the closest thing to the real thing"; one example in an advertisement compared golf games. The other console's games had a blip sound and cruder graphics, while the Intellivision featured a realistic swing sound and striking of the ball, and graphics that suggested a more 3D look, although undoubtedly crude when compared with modern gaming consoles. There was also an advertisement comparing the Atari 2600 to it, featuring the slogan "I didn't know".

Like Atari, Mattel marketed their console to a number of retailers as a rebadged unit. These models include the Radio Shack Tandyvision, the GTE-Sylvania Intellivision, and the Sears Super Video Arcade. (The Sears model was a particular coup for Mattel, as Sears was already selling a rebadged Atari 2600 unit, and in doing so made a huge contribution to Atari's success.)

In its first year Mattel sold 175,000 Intellivision consoles, and the library grew to 19 games. At this time, all Intellivision games were developed by an outside firm, APh. The company recognized that what had been seen as a secondary product line might be a big business. Realizing that potential profits are much greater with first party software, Mattel formed its own in-house software development group.

The original five members of that Intellivision team were manager Gabriel Baum, Don Daglow, Rick Levine, Mike Minkoff and John Sohl. Levine and Minkoff (a long-time Mattel Toys veteran) both came over from the hand-held Mattel games engineering team. To keep these programmers from being hired away by rival Atari, their identity and work location was kept a closely guarded secret. In public, the programmers were referred to collectively as the Blue Sky Rangers.

By 1982 sales were soaring. Over two million Intellivision consoles had been sold by the end of the year, earning Mattel a $100,000,000 profit. Third party Atari developers Activision, and Imagic began releasing games for the Intellivision, as did hardware rivals Atari and ColecoVision. Mattel created M Network branded games for Atari and Coleco's systems. The most popular titles sold over a million units each. The Intellivision was also introduced in Japan by Bandai.

The original 5-person Mattel game development team had grown to 110 people under now-Vice President Baum, while Daglow led Intellivision development and top engineer Minkoff directed all work on all other platforms.

Keyboard Component

Intellivision's packaging and promotional materials, as well as television commercials, promised that with the addition of a soon-to-be-available accessory called the "Keyboard Component" (which was actually demonstrated in TV ads as a larger box with an opening in the top that the Intellivision fit into), the Intellivision — unlike its primary rival, the Atari 2600 (then known as the Atari VCS) — could become not just a video-game console, but a fully-functional home computer.

The unit would bring the system's available RAM up to a full 64K (which was a large amount at the time as most home computers only shipped with 4K or 16K), and would have provided both a built-in cassette drive for data storage and a connection for an optional 40-column thermal printer. The cassette drive would be able to provide both data storage and an audio track simultaneously, allowing for interactive audio recording and playback under computer control, and a secondary 6502 microprocessor inside the Keyboard Component would be programmed to handle all of these extra capabilities independently of the Intellivision's CP1610 CPU. The unit would even provide an extra cartridge slot, allowing the original Intellivision (a.k.a. the "Master Component") to remain permanently docked with the Keyboard Component while still being able to play standard game cartridges.

Unfortunately, while the Keyboard Component was an ambitious piece of engineering for its time, it suffered from reliability problems and proved to be expensive to produce. Originally slated to be available in 1981, the Keyboard Component was repeatedly delayed as the engineers tried to find ways to overcome the reliability issues and reduce manufacturing costs.

The Keyboard Component's repeated delays became so notorious around Mattel headquarters that comedian Jay Leno, when performing at Mattel's 1981 Christmas party, got his biggest laugh of the evening with the line: "You know what the three big lies are, don't you? 'The check is in the mail,' 'I'll still respect you in the morning,' and 'The Keyboard will be out in the spring.'

Complaints from consumers who had chosen to buy the Intellivision specifically on the promise of a "Coming Soon!" personal-computer upgrade that seemed as if it would never materialize eventually caught the attention of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), who started investigating Mattel Electronics for fraud and false advertising. Mattel said that the Keyboard Component was a real product still being test-marketed and even released a small number of Keyboard Components to a handful of retail stores (as well as via mail-order to any customers who complained loudly enough), along with a handful of software titles in order to support this claim. The FTC eventually ordered Mattel to pay a $10,000/day fine until the promised computer upgrade was in full retail distribution. To protect themselves from the ongoing fines, the Keyboard Component was officially canceled in the fall of 1982 and the Entertainment Computer System (ECS) module offered up in its place.

While approximately four thousand Keyboard Components were manufactured before the module was canceled and recalled, it is not clear how many of them actually found their way into the hands of Intellivision customers. Today, very few of them still exist; when the Keyboard Component was officially canceled, part of Mattel's settlement with the FTC involved offering to buy back all of the existing Keyboard Components from dissatisfied customers. Any customer who opted to keep theirs was required to sign a waiver indicating their understanding that no more software would be written for the system and which absolved Intellivision of any future responsibility for technical support. Several of the units were later used by Mattel Electronics engineers when it was discovered that, with a few minor modifications, a Keyboard Component could be used as an Intellivision software-development system in place of the original hand-built development boards.

The Keyboard Component debacle was ranked as #11 on GameSpy's 25 Dumbest Moments in Gaming.

Entertainment Computer System (ECS)

In mid-1981, Mattel's upper management was becoming concerned that the Keyboard Component division would never be able to produce a sellable product. As a result, Mattel Electronics set up a competing internal engineering team whose stated mission was to produce an inexpensive add-on called the BASIC Development System, or BDS, to be sold as an educational device to introduce kids to the concepts of computer programming.

The rival BDS engineering group (who had to keep the project's real purpose a secret among themselves, fearing that if David Chandler (the head of the Keyboard Component team) found out about it he would use his influence to get the project killed) eventually came up with a much less expensive alternative. Originally dubbed the Lucky (from LUCKI: Low User-Cost Keyboard Interface), it lacked many of the sophisticated features envisioned for the original Keyboard Component. Gone, for example, was the full 64K of RAM and the secondary 6502 CPU; instead, the ECS offered a mere 2K RAM expansion (not all of which was actually available to the user), a built-in BASIC that was marginally functional, plus a much-simplified cassette and thermal-printer interface.

Ultimately, this fulfilled the original promises of turning the Intellivision into a computer, making it possible to write programs and store them to tape, and interfacing with a printer well enough to allow Mattel to claim that they had delivered the promised computer upgrade and stop the FTC's mounting fines. It even offered, via an additional AY-3-8910 sound chip inside the ECS module and an optional 49-key Music Synthesizer keyboard, the possibility of turning the Intellivision into a multi-voice synthesizer which could be used to play or learn music.

In the fall of 1982, the LUCKI, now renamed the Entertainment Computer System (ECS), was presented at the annual sales meeting, officially ending the ill-fated Keyboard Component project. A new advertising campaign was aired in time for the 1982 Christmas season, and the ECS itself was shown to the public at the January 1983 Consumer Electronic Show (CES) in Las Vegas. A few months later, the ECS hit the market, and the FTC agreed to drop the $10K/day fines.

Unfortunately, by the time the ECS made its retail debut, an internal shake-up at the top levels of Mattel Electronics' management had caused the company's focus to shift away from hardware add-ons in favor of software, and the ECS received very little further marketing push. Further hardware developments, including a planned Program Expander that would have added another 16K of RAM and a more sophisticated, fully-featured Extended-BASIC to the system, were halted, and in the end less than a dozen software titles were released for the ECS.

Intellivoice

In 1982 Mattel introduced a new peripheral for the Intellivision: The Intellivoice, a voice synthesis device which produces speech when used with certain games. The Intellivoice was innovative in two respects: not only was this capability unique to the Intellivision system at the time (although Magnavox soon rolled out a similar device for the Odyssey2), but the speech-supporting games written for Intellivoice actually made the speech an integral part of the gameplay.

Unfortunately, the amount of speech that could be compressed into a 4K or 8K ROM cartridge was limited, and the system did not sell as well as Mattel had hoped; while the initial orders were as high as 300,000 units for the Intellivoice module and its initial game-cartridge offerings, interest in future titles dropped rapidly until the fourth and last Intellivoice title, Tron: Solar Sailer, sold a mere 90,000 units. A fifth game, a children's title called Magic Carousel, was shelved, and in August 1983 the Intellivoice system was quietly phased out.

The four titles available for the Intellivoice system, in order of their release, were:

A fifth title, Intellivision World Series Major League Baseball, developed as part of the Entertainment Computer System series, also supports the Intellivoice if both the ECS and Intellivoice are connected simultaneously. Unlike the Intellivoice-specific games, however, World Series Major League Baseball is also playable without the Intellivoice module (but not without the ECS.)

Intellivision II

In addition to the ECS module, 1983 also saw the introduction of a redesigned model, called the Intellivision II (featuring detachable controllers and sleeker case), the System Changer (which played Atari 2600 games on the Intellivision II), and a music keyboard add-on for the ECS.

Like the ECS, Intellivision II was designed first and foremost to be inexpensive to manufacture. Among other things, the raised bubble keypad of the original hand controller was replaced by a flat membrane keyboard surface. However, because many Intellivision games had been designed for users to play by feeling the buttons without looking down, some of these games were far less playable on Intellivision II.

Mattel also changed the Intellivision II's internal ROM program (called the EXEC) in an attempt to lock out unlicensed 3rd party titles. To make room for the lock-out code while retaining compatibility with existing titles, some portions of the EXEC code were moved in a way that changed their timing. While most games were unaffected, a couple of the more popular titles, Shark! Shark!, and Space Spartans, had certain sound effects that the Intellivision II reproduced differently than intended, although the games remained playable. Electric Company Word Fun did not run at all and INTV's later release Super Pro Football has minor display glitches at the start, both due to the modified EXEC. Mattel's attempt to lock out competitors' software titles was only temporarily successful, as the 3rd-party game manufacturers quickly figured out how to get around it.

Competition and market crash

See also: Video game crash of 1983

Amid the flurry of new hardware, there was trouble for the Intellivision. New game systems (ColecoVision, Emerson Arcadia 2001, Atari 5200, and Vectrex, all in 1982) were further subdividing the market, and the video game crash began to put pressure on the entire industry. The Intellivision team rushed to finish a major new round of games, including Burgertime and the ultra-secret 3D glasses game Hover Force. Although Burgertime was a popular game on the Intellivision and was programmed by Blue Sky Ranger Ray Kaestner in record time, the five-month manufacturing cycle meant that the game did not appear until the late spring of 1983, after the video game crash had severely damaged game sales.

In the spring of 1983, Mattel went from aggressively hiring game programmers to laying them off within a two-week period. By August there were massive layoffs, and the price of the Intellivision II (which launched at $150 earlier that year) was lowered to $69. Mattel Electronics posted a $300 million loss. Early in 1984, the division was closed - the first high-profile victim of the crash.

Intellivision game sales continued when a liquidator purchased all rights to the Intellivision and its software from Mattel, as well as all remaining inventory. After much of the existing software inventory had been sold, former Mattel Marketing executive Terry Valeski bought all rights to Intellivision and started a new venture. The new company, INTV Corp., continued to sell old stock via retail and mail order. When the old stock of Intellivision II consoles ran out, they introduced a new console dubbed INTV III. This unit was actually a cosmetic rebadge of the original Intellivision console (this unit was later renamed the Super Pro System.) In addition to manufacturing new consoles, INTV Corp. also continued to develop new games, releasing a few new titles each year. Eventually, the system was discontinued in 1991.

Intellivision games became readily available again when Keith Robinson, an early Intellivision programmer responsible for the game TRON Solar Sailer purchased the software rights and founded a new company, Intellivision Productions. As a result, games originally designed for the Intellivision are available on PCs and modern-day consoles including the PlayStation 2, Xbox and Nintendo GameCube in the Intellivision Lives! package. A newer version of the Intellivision Lives! game is in development for the Nintendo DS, and a small number of licensed Intellivision games are available through the GameTap subscription gaming service. Also, several LCD handheld and direct-to-TV games have been released in recent years.

Reviews and game guides

Ken Uston published Ken Uston's Guide to Buying and Beating the Home Video Games in 1982 as a guide to potential purchasers of console systems/cartridges, as well as a brief strategy guide to each cartridge then in existence. He described Intellivision as "the most mechanically reliable of the systems...The controller (used during "many hours of experimentation") worked with perfect consistency. The unit never had overheating problems, nor were loose wires or other connections encountered." However, Uston rated the controls and control system as "below average" and the worst of the consoles he tested (including Atari 2600, Magnavox Odyssey², Astrovision and Fairchild Channel F).

Innovations

  • Intellivision was the first 16-bit game console, though some people have mistakenly referred to it as a 10-bit system because the CPU's instruction set and game cartridges are 10 bits wide. The registers in the microprocessor, where the mathematical logic is processed, were 16 bits wide.
  • The Intellivision was also the first system to feature downloadable games (though without a storage device the games vanished once the machine was turned off). In 1981, General Instrument (manufacturer of the Intellivision's CPU) teamed up with Mattel to roll out the PlayCable, a device that allowed the downloading of Intellivision games via cable TV.
  • Intellivision was the first game console to provide real-time human and robot voices in the middle of gameplay, courtesy of the IntelliVoice module. (Although Magnavox's voice module for the Odyssey² wasn't far behind.) The voice chip used by both machines, the SP0256 Orator, was developed jointly by Mattel and General Instrument.
  • Intellivision was the first console to feature a controller with a directional pad that allowed 16 directions. The disc-shaped pad allowed players to control action without lifting the thumb (using motions similar to those used upon the Apple iPod clickwheel) and was considered by many Intellivision users to be a useful and novel--even revolutionary--innovation. However, the ergonomics of the "action" buttons on the side of the controller were poor, and the disc-pad was perceived by potential buyers as unfamiliar. Along with cost, this was one of the factors in making the Intellivision less popular than the Atari 2600. However, it is interesting to note that the method of controlling movement on the Intellivision (with the thumb) is emulated in many subsequent video game controllers. The joystick-style controller, as seen on the VCS, has not been widely emulated on later consoles. A third-party joystick attachment was available by around 1984 (although not at all widespread), that was installed by opening the controller and fitting the paddle over the disc. A flange around the hollow plastic conical joystick held it in securely when the controller's upper cover was replaced; and a much easier joystick control was the result. The Joystick was about three inches in height; it could not be gripped by the entire hand.
  • The Intellivision was also the first game console (and the first home computer, as well) to offer a musical synthesizer keyboard. The Music Synthesizer keyboard was designed as a secondary add-on for the ECS, and was intended to lead to a series of music-oriented software titles for both educational and entertainment purposes, but only one title -- Melody Blaster -- was ever released.
  • A collection of Intellivision games was reproduced onto a PlayStation game, titled Intellivision Classic Games.

Technical specifications

  • 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 color 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)

Game controller

  • Twelve-button numeric keypad (0–9, Clear, and Enter)
  • "Four" side-located "action buttons" (where the top two are actually electronically the same, giving three distinct buttons)
  • "Directional Disk", capable of detecting 16 directions of movement
  • "Overlays" that would slide into place as an extra layer on the keypad to show game-specific key functions

The Intellivision console could detect the user pressing either the directional disk or a number on the keypad, but not both at the same time on the same controller. Some action games, such as Tron Deadly Discs and Night Stalker, used the disk to move and the numeric keypad to fire weapons, meaning players had to stop running momentarily in order to fire. However, since these games would accept input from either controller, players could avoid this disadvantage by holding one controller in each hand, with one hand operating one controller's directional disk, and with the other hand operating the numeric keypad on the other controller. This allowed continuous movement while firing.

Fans of the game console recall that an overuse injuries was possible when playing for extended periods of time due to the pressure needed to use the keypad and especially the side buttons. This was a phenomenon similar to BlackBerry Thumb today. The problem was worsened significantly when the cost-reduced Intellivision II changed from solid rubber side buttons to plastic ones with a hollow center, leaving a rectangular imprint on players' thumbs and causing pain after even short periods of play. The change was apparently made to fractionally reduce the materials cost of the units, and was never play-tested for usability due to the rush to bring the system to market in the early days of the Video game crash of 1983.

References

See also

External links

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