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M > MATTEL ELECTRONICS  > Intellivision


Mattel Electronics
Intellivision

Untitled Document

The Intellivision was developed by Mattel Electronics, a subsidiary of toy company Mattel (yes, the same people that make the famous "Barbie doll"), specifically for the development of electronic games. The console was test marketed in Fresno, California, in 1979 with a total of four games available. At a price of $299 (US) and the supplied games: Las Vegas Poker & Blackjack the consoles went to market in early 1980. Intellivision was not the first system to challenge Atari as products from Fairchild Semiconductor, Bally, and Magnavox were already on the market; it would prove, however, to be the first to pose a serious threat to Atari's dominance.

One of the slogans of the television advertisements was "Intellivision is the closest thing to the real thing"; one example cited was a golf game for Intellivision compared to an equivalent by a competitor showing theirs with a simple "blip" sounds and crude graphics, while Intellivision boasted a realistic swing and striking sounds, alongside a more realistic look - advanced for the time. Atari received the brunt of most of these ads in a series featuring actor George Plimpton that mercilessly attacked the Atari 2600's lesser capabilities with side-by-side game comparisons.

Like Atari, Mattel also marketed their console to 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).

Intellivision was well placed to take on it's competitors as it was by far the more technologically advanced machine. Using a General Instruments CP1610 processor, Intellivision was the first 16-bit game console, the console is often referred to as a 10-bit system because the CPU's instruction set and game cartridges were 10 bits wide. A 10-bit chunk of data is called a "decle". The registers in the microprocessor, where the mathematical logic is processed, were 16 bits wide, however.

Running at 894.886 kHz speed (< 1 MHZ), the console featured :

  • 1352 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: the area where the game programs (all written directly in machine code) were executed, and 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 supporting 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: GI AY-3-8914)
  • Twelve-button numeric keypad (0-9, Clear, and Enter) using a raised rubber keypad organized in such a way that players could easily memorize the play key positions and never let their eyes leave the TV screen.
  • "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, resembling a much more primitive "jog wheel" found on modern DVD and CD players. This was great innovation but in truth was one of the biggest complaints of users at the time as it was unlike any other joystick system and needed much training time to get used to.
  • Plastic "Overlays" could slide into place as an extra layer on the two keypads to show game-specific key functions. Again, an excellent idea in theory but when combined with all the other differences in the Intellivision control pad an overuse injury 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.

 

In the beginning, all Intellivision games were developed by an outside firm named APh. It wasn't long, however, before the company realized that this little secondary experimental project called "Intellivision" was making some serious money and more could be made by developing their own in-house software, so Mattel formed its own in-house software development group. The original five members of that Intellivision team were: Gabriel Baum (manager), Don Daglow, Rick Levine, Mike Minkoff and John Sohl. Levine and long-time Mattel Toys veteran Minkoff had transferred 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 a closely guarded secret. In public, the programmers were referred to collectively as the "Blue Sky Rangers". Within 2 years the game development team had grown to 110 people under now-Vice President Baum, while Daglow led Intellivision development, and engineer Minkoff directed all work on all other platforms.

In the first year Mattel sold 175,000 Intellivision consoles, and the library grew to 19 games. By the end of 1982 over two million Intellivision units had been sold, earning Mattel a $100 million U.S. profit. Intellivision was now a serious player and third party Atari developers: Activision, and Imagic began releasing games for the Intellivision, as did hardware rivals Atari and Colecovision. Mattel created "M Network" to brand versions of their games for Atari and Coleco's systems. The most popular titles of which sold over a million units each!

 

FIRST DOWNLOABLE GAMES

The Intellivision was 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 using what we would now call a primitive "Cable DSL Modem". This device of course assumed the user had Cable TV, as in the Early 1980's most people still did not.


Intellivision with PlayCable attached

 

THE INTELLIVISION HOME COMPUTER

Sometime before the failed Aquarius home computer scheme was hatched by Mattel, the Intellivision team had attempted to expand Intellivision into the growing home computer market by turning it into a full fledged computer dubbed as the "Intellivision Keyboard Component", much in the same way Coleco was soon to do with their Adam computer. The unit featured a built-in cassette tape drive for loading and saving data. The Keyboard Component would plug into the cartridge slot on the Intellivision, and had an additional cartridge slot of its own to allow regular Intellivision game cartridges to be played in the usual way. It used the famous 6502 microprocessor as its base. This device was a promise made by Mattel way back in 1979 when they claimed the Intellivision could be upgraded to become a 64K computer.


Intellivision clipped into the "keyboard component"

But Mattel kept delaying the launch of the new device. Truth of the matter is and unknown to the public at the time, the project was so bungled up in technological problems that Mattel just wanted it to "go away" as the unit had proven too expensive to develop and produce, so Mattel had repeatedly kept redesigning it to attempt to increase reliability and reduce cost. But the project wouldn't just quietly vanish, and finally the consumers got angry and complained. Mattel was subsequently investigated by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and they concluded that Mattel had made claims constituting "deceptive advertising" for failing to produce the promised upgrade, and ordered them pay $10,000 a month (about $25,000 in 2005 when adjusted for inflation) until it was released. Not surprisingly and very quickly, Mattel offered the Keyboard Component for sale via mail order. In 1983, after only 4,000 units were sold Mattel recalled and discontinued the device due to continuing technical faults and their inability to offer their customers proper servicing of it. Users who opted to keep theirs were made to sign a waiver absolving Mattel of all future responsibility for technical support. In the end, the Keyboard Component was modified into a development platform for the Intellivision, and such units were used internally for game development. But Compro, Inc., the company that had licensed the component for manufacture sued Mattel for $10 million on charges of breach of contract, fraud, and nonpayment for the last 1,300 units. This was just one of the lawsuits Mattel settled shortly after Mattel Electronics was closed in early 1984

 


The Entertainment Computer System,
the attempt to fix the Keyboard Component.

There is one more chapter to the "Keyboard Component", however. Mattel was in a bind to compete with the increasing amount of game systems and computers entering the market so they set up competing internal engineering teams, each trying to either fix the Keyboard Component or replace it. The result was a new component system dubbed "the Entertainment Computer System" that proved to be was much smaller, sleeker, and easier to produce than the original Keyboard Component. Users who opted to keep their old "Keyboard Components" were offered the new system in exchange. In the end, however, the "ECS" was a retail flop. Although the original Keyboard Component offered some promise if it could have been fixed, the new one was designed to be cheap, not functional and simply could not compete with the likes of computers like the Commodore 64, never mind that it was totally incompatible to the older "Intellivision Keyboard Component". The keyboard component became so notorious around Mattel headquarters that comedian Jay Leno, when performing at Mattel's 1981 Christmas party, got a huge response with his joke, "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. The Keyboard Component debacle was ranked as #11 on GameSpy's "25 Dumbest Moments in Gaming". In 1983 Mattel goes deeper down the rabbit hole with their investment in the Aquarius PC.

In the end the component offered:

  • ECS EXEC/BASIC ROM (system BIOS and built-in BASIC programming)
  • additional 2 kilobytes of system RAM (system could have up to 64 kilobytes RAM with add-on memory modules)
  • additional sound chip (same sound chip as in the Intellivision)
  • a cassette recorder/printer interface
  • two additional input ports for the computer keyboard (used both ports), two Intellivision controllers, or the music synthesizer (used both ports)

The promised RAM expanders, thermal printer and magentic tape system on the ECS version never appear.

The system came with:

  • ECS add-on module (plugged into the Intellivision)
  • Two Intellivision controllers (for four-player games)
  • computer keyboard (chicklet style plug in)
  • music synthesizer (49 keys)
  • AC adapter
  • Melody Blaster game cartridge

The following games were either released or unreleased for this unit:

  • BASIC Programmer (unreleased)
  • Doubles Tennis (unreleased)
  • Flintstones Keyboard Fun (unreleased)
  • Game Factory (unreleased)
  • The Jetsons' Ways With Words
  • Melody Blaster
  • Melody Maker (unreleased)
  • Mind Strike
  • Mr. BASIC Meets Bits 'N Bytes
  • Music Conductor (unreleased)
  • Number Jumble (unreleased)
  • Scooby Doo's Maze Chase
  • Super NFL Football (unreleased)
  • Super NASL Soccer (unreleased)
  • World Series Major League Baseball

 

INTELLIVOICE

The "Intellivoice" was launched in 1982 to much fanfare when it was introduced as the second voice synthesis system ever made for video games (The first was Magnavox's voice module for the Odyssey). Innovative for the time, "Intellivoice" produced speech when used with certain games, most of which would not work without the add-on component. The VSM was a large, brown cartridge that could be plugged into the Intellivision, at which point games specifically designed for the device could be inserted like a normal cartridge into the right side of the module.

The voice chip used by IntelliVoice was the SP0256 Orator, same as for Odyssey, and was adapted for Intellivision jointly by Mattel and General Instrument. Top Mattel programmers including Bill Fisher, Steve Roney, Gene Smith and John Sohl were diverted to the project, slowing the previous initiative to counter Atari with new arcade-style games. Voice titles included: Bomb Squad, B-17 Bomber, Intellivision World Series Baseball (Intellivoice optional since the game already required the aforementioned ECS keyboard), Space Spartans and TRON Solar Sailer. A unit capable of speech in languages other than English was planned but never released.

Intellivoice was impressive for its time but the technology inside was very crude and simple: The "Orator" had 16k of Read-Only Memory (ROM), and this was utilized to store a database of generic words that could be combined to make phrases in Intellivision games. The words included numbers, "left," "up," "right," "down," and "Mattel Electronics Presents", as well as the voice data for its first game, 'Space Spartans'. The problem was that even though the Orator chip could support 16k of ROM, the gaming cartridges could only utilize 4-8k memory. Therefore, the words used had to be processed at a very low sampling rate, ruining the quality of the output, which is probably why the VSM did so poorly in sales going from 300,000 in 1982 to only 90,000 by August of 1983 when the device was deemed as obsolete and discontinued.

 

SYSTEM CHANGER

The System Changer plugs into the Master Component and lets the owner play Atari VCS games. This new add-on is actually a VCS clone in a box complete with Atari joystick ports and game select/reset buttons. Spurred on by the System Changer, as well as Coleco's Expansion Module #1 Atari adapter for their own ColecoVision, Atari starts to threaten lawsuits. It is helpfully pointed out that clones of the Atari machine are legal due to the off-the-shelf components and un-copyrighted software contained in them. Atari backs off, opening up the floodgates for various versions of the VCS by other manufacturers.

 

INTELLIVISION II

1983 also saw the introduction of a redesigned Master Console model, called the Intellivision II (featuring detachable controllers and sleeker case) as well as the System Changer that allowed the playing of Atari 2600 games, 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. Many Intellivision games had been designed for users to play by feeling the buttons without looking down, and many 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. Most games didn't mind the programming change but 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. An Intellivision III & IV were planned but never made it to market.

 

INTELLIVISION III

During the winter Consumer Electronic Show in January 1983, Mattel presented their latest project "Intellivision III". Their rival ColecoVision was now gaining a large percentage of the American market, and Mattel decided to skip a console generation to propose what they would dub "the machine of the decade". Their promise was to develop a machine that the graphic chipset would be capable of a resolution of 320x192 pixels.

- The audio processor would feature 6 stereo channels and Intellivoice would be integrated in the console.
- The Intellivision III would be the first console to provide built-in retro compatibility with all the existing games.
- The controllers should be substituded by wireless infrared joypad!

Unfortunately the project was scrapped by the time the Summer Consumer Electronic Show arrived that same year! In favor of the development of Intellivision IV and deciding these features would be put into the new ECS, most never were. The now dead console will have a comeback by INTV Corp. in 1987, when the INTV System IV was announced... but it too was never marketed.

 

THE END OF THE ERA

1983 would spell the end of the classic Intellivision for by the beginning of 1984 the Video Game Crash was in full force. New game systems like ColecoVision, Atari 5200, and Vectrex were subdividing the market, never mind the arrival of the Commodore 64 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 Burger Time and the ultra-secret game Hover Force (a game that required the use of 3D Glasses). Although Burger Time, programmed by "Blue Sky Ranger" Ray Kaestner in record fast time, proved to be popular, the five-month manufacturing cycle meant that the game did not appear until the late spring of 1983, after the video game crash had already seriously eroded game sales. Indeed, up until now Mattel couldn't hire game programmers fast enough but by August of 1983 there were massive lay-offs. Mattel was also forced to drop the price of the Intellivision II units that were selling for $150 to just $69. That year Mattel recorded a $300 million loss and on January 20th, 1984 all production stopped and the Mattel Electronics division was closed; all remaining inventory was sold to a liquidator. It would take 10 years for Mattel to recover from this financial loss and 15 before they ever tried to re-enter the electronics world, this time with a PC CD-ROM for Barbie game.

 

INTV SYSTEM III

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 (later renamed Super Pro System). This unit was actually a cosmetic rebadge of the original Intellivision console. 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 called Intellivision Productions. As a result, games originally designed for the Intellivision have now become available for 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.

 

Summary:

  • There were 2 original version of the Intellivision system and the re-badged INTV System III version.
  • Master Console sold for $299, Intellivision II sold for $150 (then $69).
  • More than 6 million Intellivision consoles were sold during its 12 year run.
  • There were a total of 125 Intellivision games released during the initial run; the Intellivision Lives! project has suggested new games may be offered in the 21st Century.
  • Intellivision was the first 16-bit game console, though it's instruction set is 10 bits wide.
  • The Intellivision was also the first system to feature downloadable games.
  • Intellivision was the second game console to provide real-time human and robot voices in the middle of game play, courtesy of the IntelliVoice module. The first was Magnavox's voice module for the Odyssey². The voice chip used by both machines, the SP0256 Orator, was developed jointly by Mattel and General Instrument.
  • Intellivision World Series Baseball, designed by Don Daglow and Eddie Dombrower and released in 1983, was the first video game to use the concept of displaying the action in simulated 3D through "camera angles" that emulated those used in TV sports coverage. Prior games always showed a single fixed or scrolling camera view of the field. Daglow and Dombrower went on to create the Earl Weaver Baseball games at Electronic Arts in 1987.
  • 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 click wheel) 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.

____________

Author: "Skel" (Derek McDonald)
Sources of research: Wikipedia, The Dot Eaters, Emperor Multimedia Electronic Archives.

 





 
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