One day in 1979, during Christmas break, I snuck into my parents’ bedroom while they were away to see if I could get a peek at what “Santa” would be bringing. I just knew that this was the year I would be getting that Atari 2600 that I had been begging for on every Christmas and birthday for the previous two years. I slid open the closet door ever so quietly, paranoid that they might hear me even though they were miles away at the time.
Amongst the various shopping bags holding what was obviously Christmas loot waiting to be wrapped, I saw a large box marked “Intellivision.”
It was like nothing I had ever seen. It was clearly a gaming system—I could tell from the dozens of screenshots decorating the box, but it was not an Atari 2600. “Great!” I thought. “Mom and Dad opted for the cheap knock-off.”
I had no interest in playing it—I wanted an Atari or nothing. However, a few days later, while my parents were out again, I got curious. I went back to the closet, carefully noted the box’s orientation, and then took it out to get a better look. None of the screenshots looked like games I recognized, but the graphics did look much better than the Atari’s.
I meticulously peeled back the seal so I could reseal it and systematically unboxed it so that I would be able to get everything back as it was. I was going to try this puppy out. To my surprise, I loved it even though I only got to play the Blackjack game that came with it. On a second sneak-play, I would get to try out the officially licensed “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” game. The disk pad controller took some getting used to, but the gameplay completely sold me on the system.
To this day, I still argue with my cousins that my Intellivision was better than their Atari. However, while Atari went on to make other, more powerful systems, Intellivision quietly disappeared. What ever happened to the brand that hooked me on console gaming more than 40 years ago?
The mission: To beat Atari
It was the height of the second generation of console gaming when Mattel launched its Intellivision “Master Component” in 1979 for $275, which was a rather steep price for the time ($996 adjusted for inflation).
Atari had already revived an industry flooded with first-gen Pong knockoffs when it released the Atari 2600 in 1977. The two-year headstart gave Atari a distinct advantage as it snatched up a large slice of the market. Licensing deals for video games that were already popular in the arcades, including Namco’s Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and Konami’s Frogger, would cement the console’s hold in the industry.
That is not to say that the Intellivision did not have some great original and licensed games. Mattel licensed Pac-Man and it was far superior on its platform, which we’ll get to in a moment, but it had some highly addictive games that really got me addicted to playing way past my bedtime.
One of my favorites was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. I was a huge fan of tabletop D&D, so the Intellivision video game topped my list. Mattel licensed it from TSR, but it was a license in name only. It was otherwise an original game concept. In fact, it was the first ever D&D video game ever made. I liked it because it played like the tabletop version, only faster and without all the dice rolling.
Astrosmash was another great original IP. It played like a mashup of Space Invaders and Asteroids. The graphics were chunky, but still better than anything Atari had. The passing was slow at first to allow you to get the hang of it, but the difficulty ramped up quickly after about 20 levels or so. It was the first game I ever mastered and could play indefinitely.
A few years later, Mattel released the Intellivoice “voice synthesis module” along with a few compatible voiced games. The best of the bunch was B-17 Bomber. It was a simple game involving dropping bombs from the bomb bay. The best part of the game was the voice though. The best way to describe it is that it sounded like a robot that grew up in Tennessee. To this day I laugh to myself when think of that voice.
Mattel Electronics began developing a gaming system called Intellivision in 1977, the same year that the Atari 2600 launched. It would take two years before Mattel was ready to release the system and only five more before abandoning the brand. However, it made such an impression that the iconic console was never forgotten and is, in fact, making a comeback.
Indeed, Mattel intended to give Atari a run for its money, and the delayed launch allowed it to outshine the 2600 with more refined graphics and better audio. An example of Intellivision’s superior performance is seen when comparing its Pac-Man port with the Atari 2600’s (above and below). As you can see, Mattel managed a fairly faithful reproduction of Namco’s arcade hit. Atari? Not so much…
What set Intellivision apart from Atari was its processor. The Atari 2600 used an 8-bit MOS Technology 6507 running at 1.19 MHz. Mattel equipped the Intellivision with a 16-bit 2 MHz CP1600 built in a partnership between General Instruments and Honeywell in 1975.
What is surprising about this is that 16-bit machines would not really catch on for two more console generations. It also had a three-channel sound chip allowing for overall better music and sound effects. Mattel capitalized on this contrast in a series of print and TV advertisements starring George Plimpton, giving side-by-side comparisons of the two devices (see below).
Its superior performance led to the console’s warm reception, and Mattel ended up selling out its entire first-year production run (175,000 units). The following year it sold 200,000. In 1981, Mattel ramped up production and sold over one million consoles. By 1983, sales had exceeded 3 million units—not bad for a gaming system priced higher than an automatic dishwasher at the time.
The only thing Intellivision had going against it, other than its expense, was the controllers. Most players were accustomed to joysticks and one or two buttons, as was the norm in arcades. Atari stuck with tradition, designing the CX-40, a simple single-button joystick. Mattel took a completely different approach, with a controller that looked more like a television remote than a game controller.
The Intellivision came with two wired controllers, which nested in the top of the console. Each had a 16-directional disk at the bottom, a 12-button keypad on the face, and two inputs on either side. While the design allowed developers to add more interfacing options to their games, it also required plastic overlays that slid in over the keypad to display what each button did. These would often get bent and become annoying to insert. The disk was also hard on the thumb as the skin would inevitably rub raw on the raised plastic encircling the pad.
The keyboard component and other bad ideas
What’s in a name? Mattel’s gaming system was commonly referred to as simply “the Intellivision.” However, as the company licensed the console out, it fell under other monikers.
For instance, Sears called it “Super Video Arcade,” and Radio Shack branded it “Tandyvision One.” However, Mattel’s original designation of “Intellivision Master Component” had a significant meaning because it was intended to be the core of a whole other system meant to bring home computers to the consumer.
Ironically, this vision turned out to be part of Mattel’s failure in the gaming sector.
The company intended to release a keyboard component shortly after the Master Component launch. Mattel announced the two products during CES 1979 in Las Vegas. The “Keyboard Component,” as it was officially called, was massive. Mattel designed it so that the Master Component would attach within it. It was so big that its internal codename was the “Blue Whale.”
Mattel wanted to release the Keyboard Component in the summer of 1980 for the same price as the Master Component ($275). However, it was plagued with delays. By December 1979, the company had determined that the manufacturing costs were too high and tasked engineers with completely redesigning the internals.
By late 1980, Mattel finally had an almost completed product to release into a test market in Fresno, California. “Almost completed” because it launched with only the BASIC Programming cartridge rather than the software promised in the television ads it had already run (below). It’s unclear how well it performed in that test market, but it likely didn’t do well because it would be another year of work before the keyboard would see another trial launch.
In the fall of 1981, Mattel conducted a limited release of the Keyboard Component in Seattle and New Orleans at a whopping $600—more than twice its initially advertised price. However, the price point was not wholly unreasonable, considering the device was not just a peripheral.
The Keyboard Component had an 8-bit 6502 processor, which gave users a dual-processor computer when combined with the Master Component. The two processors could act independently, creating something like a composite graphical output. That is to say, the 6502 could output a “high-resolution” 40×24 text overlay on top of the CP1610’s graphics. The Keyboard Component also had 16KB of shared RAM, which does not seem like much by today’s standards, but considering an average Intellivision cartridge was 4K, it was considerable. The device also had a four-track built-in cassette tape drive with high-speed indexing, two expansion ports for peripherals, a RAM expansion port (up to 64KB), and a microphone jack.
It was an excellent home computing solution at the time, and despite its obscene price point and the lack of software, it could have done well. In fact, many families bought the Master Component intending to pick up the keyboard on release. When Mattel failed to deliver the device when advertised, customers began complaining. The FTC became involved and opened an investigation into Mattel for false advertising and fraud.
In mid-1982, the FTC ruled that Mattel was to pay a fine every month until the Keyboard Component was fully launched. Mattel then canceled the device. As part of the settlement, Mattel bought back all units it had sold to test markets. Those who chose to keep the Keyboard Component had to sign a waiver acknowledging they understood no other software would be released for it. They were also given vouchers worth $1,000 in Mattel Electronics products. However, the FTC still wanted to see a released device before easing up on the fines. Fortunately, Mattel had an ace in the hole.
The struggles of the Keyboard Component created a rift in Mattel’s upper management. When the division failed to release anything by 1981, they began to worry that the device would never be marketable. So they set up a separate secret division tasked with creating a cheaper and more profitable machine. It was an introductory computer programming system for kids called the “Basic Development System.” Designers kept the work secret because management feared that Keyboard Component head David Chandler would try to snuff the work.
Codenamed LUCKI (Low User-Cost Keyboard Interface), the device got rid of the more expensive parts used in its rival system. It lowered the RAM from 16KB to 2KB and ditched the secondary processor and the high-resolution text. It also went with a much simpler cassette and printer interface. It plugged into the side of the Master Component like a cartridge with a pass-through port on the opposite side for game carts (or peripherals like the Intellivoice pictured below).
The result was somewhat like a very unsophisticated Keyboard Component, with a built-in BASIC programming language that was very limited in what it could do.
However, it was enough to get the FTC off Mattel’s back, so they changed the name to the Entertainment Computer System (ECS). It began marketing efforts during the 1982 holiday season and showed off the system at CES 1983. Before the end of that spring, the ECS launched under a new name, the Intellivision Computer Module, and the FTC stopped the monthly fines.
Unfortunately, management had become disenchanted with offering hardware add-ons and decided to focus solely on software. So before the ECS could even have a chance, Mattel pulled its marketing budget and stopped all further development of upgrades already in progress. In the end, the system only had about six software titles released, with a few others that were completed but never released.
Before giving up, Mattel had had many other irons in the fire where hardware was concerned. For example, it successfully launched a follow-up to the Master Component called “Intellivision II.”
It was the same as the original, except for its reduced size and lower manufacturing cost. It also released the Intellivoice module, which added voice synthesis to some games, but it never caught traction. It broke ground on a first-of-a-kind online game delivery service operated through cable TV service providers, but it flopped due to high backend costs and hardware limitations. The Intellivision III and IV were also in various planning and development stages, but neither saw the light of day.
The video game crash of 1983 would ultimately precipitate the close of the Intellivision division. In 1984, Mattel sold the rights and assets to former Mattel executives and investors, who formed the INTV Corporation and continued the brand until 1990, when it declared bankruptcy and the Intellivision brand was officially retired.
Intellivision Lives: The Retro Revival
Despite throwing in the towel in 1990, that was not the last we would hear from the Intellivision brand. In 1997, former Intellivision programmers Keith Robinson and Stephen Roney bought all rights, including games, and formed Intellivision Productions.
The company ported the games to MSDOS and released Intellivision for PC Volume 1. It was a free download that included three games and an emulator. They followed up with volumes 2 and 3 and expanded the emulation to Windows and Macintosh. The following year the company launched Intellivision Lives!, followed by Intellivision Rocks in 2001. These compilations included over 100 emulated games on CD for DOS, Windows, and Mac.
Consoles also saw various Intellivision compilations. In a licensing deal with Intellivision Productions, Activision released Intellivision Classics for the PlayStation in 1999. Likewise, Crave Entertainment ported Intellivision Lives! to the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube. Other publishers brought versions of Intellivision Lives! to the Nintendo DS and the Xbox 360.
The surge in retro gaming also saw a miniature console hit the market in 2014. Called the Intellivision Flashback, the system had 60 on-board games and two full-size controllers that were exact replicas of the original Intellivision. However, it would be four years before the nearly 40-year-old gaming console would see a genuine modern revival.
In May 2018, long-time video game music veteran Tommy Tallarico announced that he had acquired the brand and formed Intellivision Entertainment. In October, Tallarico unveiled the Intellivision Amico, a next-gen version of the beloved console. Make no mistake. The Amico is not looking to compete with the likes of the PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X, but it does have some appeal.
The Amico is a retro gaming system at heart. However, with modern hardware (video introduction above), including an 8-core 1.8GHz Snapdragon SoC, 2GB RAM, 32GB storage with microSD expansion, and 1080p HDMI, it is far more capable than the old Master Component. It has a slick re-imagined design in a smaller form factor with arguably unnecessary but cool LED lighting. The controllers harken back to the originals, but the disc pad is way more advanced, and designers replaced the physical number pad with an LED screen.
The games revealed so far (above) are retro in style but not in substance. Many of the classic Intellivision classics that I knew and loved, like Astrosmash, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (now called Cloudy Mountain), Biplanes, and even Missile Command, are being brought back with gorgeous new coats of paint and updated gameplay mechanics.
I must admit, when Tallerico first announced he was bringing back the Intellivision, I was less than enthused. However, the project is coming along nicely, and I’m very interested in seeing the reviews when it releases on October 10, 2021. For only $250, it may be a system that I pick up “for the kids.”
TechSpot’s Gone but Not Forgotten Series
The story of key hardware and electronics companies that at one point were leaders and pioneers in the tech industry, but are now defunct. We cover the most prominent part of their history, innovations, successes and controversies.
Masthead credit: The Dot Eaters