Player 3 Stage 3: Contender to the Throne

So. You have a videogame market with one almost totally dominant, but steadily ageing system called the VCS, made by the most powerful company in the business, Atari. Many systems have gone up against them and lost. What do you do?

Intellivision Master Component - Mattel 1980

Intellivision: Some Serious Competition

As Atari's project Stella moves off the drawing boards and approaches release, Mattel Development head Richard Chang becomes interested in developing a competing system for his company, known largely as the makers of the hugely lucrative Barbie doll line. In 1976 he contacts Glen Hightower, president of Pasadena California based consulting firm APh to research the possibilities. They find the chipset for the new system from General Instruments, and after some alterations to off-the-shelf GI components, they build a motherboard around a 16-bit (while the CPU is a kludge of a 16 and 10 bit processor they still beat 16-bit systems Sega Genesis and Turbo Grafix-16 by 10 years) CP-1610 microprocessor, operating at 3.6 MHz with 4K of available system RAM. But by now Stella has become the VCS and is gathering steam, and Mattel balks at the thought of going head-to-head with Atari. Their new videogame design is put on hold while Mattel Electronics tries their luck at hand-held LED games like Football. When these sell beyond expectations, Mattel executive Jeff Rochliss convinces the head honchos to give TV videogames another serious look. The company commissions APh to design a home gaming system based around the hardware.

Test marketing of the console begins in Fresno California in 1979. The unit is dubbed Intellivision, or Intelligent Television, due to a "soon to be released" keyboard and memory storage device which would turn the whole system into a 64k computer. The Master Component, as the first videogame stage is called, is a distinctive looking device, low and rectangular in shape with wood grain trim and two very unusual controllers. They are flat and square, and instead of a joystick they utilize a round, 16 position gold-coloured disc that the player presses to move the on-screen characters, presaging the D-Pad controllers that would become the norm in later years. There's also a keypad, over which plastic overlays included with certain games can be inserted and used for extra commands during play. Unfortunately, the control discs are not a huge hit with players, along with the fact that their flimsy design leads to frequent controller breakdowns. Hardwired right into the system, this becomes a big problem for owners who have to slog the whole machine back to the dealer for repair. Nonetheless, this first test run in Fresno is a rousing success, and when Intellivision goes into wide release in 1980, the entire run of 175,000 systems sell out. The initial price is $250 USD, higher than the VCS by that time, but the capability of the machine is far superior to its Atari rival, offering 16 available on-screen colours and three channel sound. Twelve games are released along with the unit, designed by Glen Hightower and programmed by the gang at APh. The cartridges are smaller profile than the VCS carts,
Las Vegas Poker & Blackjack - Mattel 1980 Las Vegas Poker & Blackjack - Mattel 1980
with an cool angled end to them. Each game falls under a category, or Network, to niche the game...i.e. the Action Network, Arcade Network, Education Network, ect., but this concept is later dropped as genres start blending together. The later M Network series of games are produced for competing systems like the VCS, ColecoVision and even some Apple II and IBM PC ports. The pack-in cartridge with the system is Las Vegas Poker & Blackjack, featuring a shifty-eyed dealer dealing cards to the player over a field of casino-table green.

But Mattel soon finds itself across the table from Magnavox, owners of the first home videogame patent, gained from their release of the original Odyssey system. When Atari released the VCS, they paid a minor sum to Magnavox for a license to produce a TV based game. Magnavox soon realizes the error of their ways in the wake of Atari's success, and they demand a large payment from Mattel for the same rights. Confident that the patent would not hold up to legal scrutiny, Mattel refuses to cough up. Taking them to court, Magnavox wins a patent infringement lawsuit, and Mattel ends up paying several million in damages.

Major League Baseball - Mattel 1980This payoff not withstanding, the Master Component is a solid success, selling another million units between 1982-83 and becoming the first real threat to Atari's dominance of the industry. The game that rapidly becomes the system-seller for the Intellivision is Major League Baseball, going on to become the biggest selling game in the Mattel Electronics library. 1,085,700 cartridges are sold over three years, and foreshadowing what would happen nearly ten years later between Nintendo's NES and the Sega Master System, the Intellivision becomes known as the "adult" videogame, the serious sports fan's choice over Atari. MLB and the other spectacular sports titles take centre stage in Mattel's massive promotion of their machine. Their spokesman is sportswriter/actor/author George
Plimpton Attack Ad Atari Responds Ad
, famous for his 1966 book Paper Lion, about his tryouts for the Detroit Lions football team. In the hard-hitting Plimpton attack ads, Intellivision sports games like MLB and NFL Football are seen running next to their Atari equivalents, with the undetailed and blocky graphics of the VCS looking laughingly primitive by comparison. While EXTREMELY annoying to an Atari VCS owner like myself in 1980, they are without a doubt highly persuasive and put the name Intellivision on the lips of many videogame purchasers come Christmas. Atari does have ammunition of its own, however, in the form of the huge number of available VCS games, dwarfing the library of its arch rival. After it becomes apparent to Mattel that their system is on the road to success, they begin hiring designers and programmers to produce games in-house. But, spurred on by the personnel shakeups
Astrosmash - Mattel 1981
happening over at Atari with employees leaving and forming independent game companies such as Activision and Imagic, Mattel keeps the game design department shrouded in secrecy and refuses to publicize the identity of its members. In press releases and magazine articles, they are referred to only as The Blue Sky Rangers, a name adopted by the group from their brainstorming process when trying to think up new game ideas, known as "blue-skying". Starting with nine core members, the department eventually peaks at 200 at the height of the videogame boom. One of the Rangers' creations, John Sohl's action game Astrosmash, follows close behind Major League Baseball in popularity. It originally starts out as an Asteroids clone called Meteor, but the lawsuits in the air cause a shift in the focus of the game to a variation where rocks fall vertically down the screen at the player's ship. Astrosmash features an innovative, self-adjusting difficulty level, where if the player starts losing ships the game will become easier...allowing for long game play, even for beginners. 984,900 copies of the program are shipped for the Intellivision, along with a later port to the VCS, making it the most popular of the Blue Sky Rangers' releases. Even a X-rated version is produced of the game, obviously for in-house consumption only with the not-too-marketable title Space Cunt, for play on what is touted on the title-screen as the Genitaliavision. Instead of rocks and alien craft, players shoot their "semen" at falling I.U.D. devices, birth control pills and the infamous title character.

Intellivoice - Mattel 1981 By 1981 the promised computer keyboard add-on is still MIA, but Mattel does introduce the Intellivoice add-on module that year, utilizing a GI speech synthesis chip called the Orator, containing 16K ROM space for voice data. Design and Development engineer Ron Carlson is in charge of hardware development of the device, with Ron Surratt writing the software. At GI's voice lab in New York, the standard phrases to be contained in the Orator's ROM are recorded, along with the voices for the first Intellivoice cartridge Space Spartans. When Surratt receives the data at Hawthorne, he loads it into the Intellivoice prototype hardware. But in demonstrations for Mattel executives and marketing personnel, the device can only say the unfortunate sounding phrase "Auk youuu!", due to a hardware malfunction. But when the bugs are finally squashed out of the system, Mattel begins production of Intellivoice units and games. The add-on is plugged into the cartridge slot of the Master Module, and can accept any type of Intellivision cart, although only those specially designed Space Spartans - Mattel 1981for the add-on contain speech. Even though Space Spartans is given double the ROM of the previous 4K Intellivision carts, it is still a very limiting space for speech synthesis, so all the vocal cues in the game except for the female computer are sampled at a low rate, greatly reducing their quality. The game is extremely similar in game play to Space Battle for the Atari VCS, with the player piloting a space fighter through a galaxy divided into quadrants, protecting space stations scattered throughout. With the Intellivoice, however, we get verbal cues as to which stations are under attack and what condition our forward shields are in. PlayCable - 1981Five Intellivoice carts are eventually produced for the unit. While initial sales for the Intellivision Voice Module and its first game are fairly good, it is obvious that while the public appreciates voice synthesis in their videogames, they don't enjoy purchasing a new device to get it. After a quick burst of orders for the new unit and games, sales slump. Also developed for the Intellivision is a system similar to Gameline for the VCS, called PlayCable. Introduced in 1981, it offers a 24 hour gaming service to customers via their local TV cable outlet. For $4.95 a month, a rotating schedule of 20 games (15 when the service is first inaugurated) is made available to subscribers who receive the PlayCable box from their cable company and plug it into the cartridge slot of their Master Component. Into that goes their cable line, and voila! Streaming videogames on demand. The system enjoys success in the limited markets it is available, but the increasing demand for bandwidth for new cable channels, the system's inablity to play the newer 8K+ Intellivision games, and the collapse of the videogame market eventually shuts down the PlayCable scheme in 1983.

Intellivision II - Mattel 1982When Coleco releases their powerhouse third-wave videogame system ColecoVision in 1982, Mattel suddenly finds themselves no longer the owners of the most graphically advanced game machine on the market. In an effort to refresh the sagging Intellivision line, they introduce the Intellivision II as a replacement to the old Master Component that same year. Starting a process that becomes one of the major factors in the entire industry's destruction one year later, the new system is more like a simple compact redesign of the same old technology than an innovative new product. In a slick new grey box, the Intellivision II is cheaper for Mattel to produce, as the component list on the motherboard is streamlined. It retails for $99 USD, with a few new improvements over the original. System Changer - Mattel 1982The controllers are now removable through joystick ports, facilitating their easy repair. A LED light is placed next to the power button, to help prevent the machine being left on unattended. And an external video output is added, allowing for a rather interesting peripheral to be sold. The System Changer plugs into the new 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.

Keyboard Component - Mattel 1982Heading into 1983, Mattel starts to stretch itself too thin with various planned additions to the Intellivision line. The Intellivision III is a stopgap system to compete with the advanced graphics of the ColecoVision and new Atari 5200, and the Intellivision IV is a top-secret project to develop the next generation of videogames....neither system is eventually released. After fraud investigations by the Federal Trade Commission in 1982 due to consumer complaints about the vapourware Keyboard Component computer add-on Mattel had heavily hyped upon introduction of the original Master Module, monthly $10,000 ECS - Mattel 1983FTC fines are levied against the company until a computer add-on is offered nationally to consumers. Mattel has the Keyboard Component in a three city test marketing stage, but its high production expense leads to the release instead of the less costly Entertainment Computer System, developed through a different division and barely meeting the promises previously made for an Intellivision computer add-on. The new system is advertised to include a plug-in chiclet-style keyboard, 49 key music synthesiser, RAM expanders to bring it up to 64K, a magnetic data storage system, and a thermal printer. These last three items never materialize, however. Along with a rebate offer for the 4000 Keyboard Components that have been produced and released to consumers, the FTC is satisfied and stops the fines. Mattel Electronics then feels the need to enter the growing home PC market, and they find the system in their own backyard...the Hong Kong manufacturers of the Intellivision line, Radofin Electronics Far East. Based upon Radofin's Z-80 line of computers, Mattel develops and releases the Aquarius Home Computer System in 1983, with a suggested retail price of around 150 dollars US. The computer sports a 3.5 MHz CPU and standard system RAM of 4K. There are available memory expansion packs taking this up up to 64K, along with connectable peripherals such as a modem, thermal printer and data storage device. The system, however, tanks terribly upon release. Programmers loathing suggest "The System for the 70's" as its advertising slogan, due to its extreme limitations as a computer. By the fall, Mattel is paying Radofin to take back the stock and release them from the contract. These expensive projects, along with the collapse of the videogame industry, are the Aquarius - Mattel 1983beginning of the end of Mattel Electronics. Former marketing whiz Mack Morris, a man famous for putting the blue dot in the centre of Breath Savers mints, greatly increasing their sales, is named head of the division in the summer of '83. Soon, a particularly catchy hook in a game that sets it apart from the others becomes known as its "blue dot" to Mattel employees. Morris lays off practically all the staff in hardware development, and another round of layoffs in the fall decimate the Blue Sky Rangers. On January 20, 1984, Mattel Electronics goes out of business.

INTV System III - INTV Corp. 1985But the mighty Intellivision refuses to go down with the ship. All existing stock and rights to the system are sold to T.E. Valeski, former Vice President of Marketing and Sales at Mattel Electronics, along with other investors, for 16.5 million dollars. Incorporating a new company called Intellivision, Inc (later changed to INTV), they release the INTV System III (aka the Super Pro System) in the fall of 1985. The System III's primary method of sale is through In Hal We Trustmail-order, and it is nearly an exact replica of the original Intellivision, both inside and out, but with new game pack-ins. As a cost-saving measure, none of the licenses for the sports games are renewed, and a game like NFL Football is demoted to simply Football. The "new" system brings in $6 million worldwide in sales over Christmas 1986, prompting INTV to hire back many of the original Blue Sky Rangers to finish unreleased games and create new ones. Between 1985 and 1990, when INTV closes its doors and the Intellivision is finally laid to rest for good, over 35 new games are released for the System III. This makes a total of 125 games released for the Intellivision system over 10 years. The Blue Sky Rangers continue to keep the system alive today, with two Intellivision emulation packs for the MAC and PC featuring six games, including Night Stalker, Astrosmash and Space Spartans, the latter complete with Intellivoice emulation.

Its roller-coaster ride through the videogame industry nearly sinks Mattel itself. But through restructuring, the company eventually claws its way back to the top of the toy heap, and in 1996 Barbie Fashion Designer - 1996re-enters the videogame industry with a vengeance under the Mattel Media label. They release the Barbie Fashion Designer CD-ROM for the PC that year, going on to sell 15.5 million dollars worth and breaking previous CD-ROM sales records. E.J., the 9 year old daughter of Mattel Media's Vice President of Design Andy Rifkin, is one of the designers. In the program, clothes are created and modelled by Barbie on-screen and then the designs can be printed out on special cloth-backed paper and assembled to be worn by real Barbie dolls. It retails at $44.99 USD, and spawns a lucrative Barbie line of computer programs, such as Barbie Magic Hair Styler. It is hypothesized that Mattel has broken into the untapped female market for videogames, but others figure that the success has more to do with Mattel's marketing and the fearsome Barbie brand-name.

Out of the ashes of the Intellivision system has come an amazing amount of quality product by spin-off companies, not the least of which is the continuing emulation work of the Blue Sky Rangers. In 1998 they release two emulation CD-ROMs, Intellivision Lives! for the PC and Mac, and A Collection of Intellivison Classic Games for the Sony Playstation console. Both feature plenty of perfectly emulated original games, including some never seen outside of the development labs, along with historical information on their creation. Intellivision Lives! - Blue Sky Rangers 1998Outside of emulation, some software companies created by former Intellivison programmers include Quicksilver Software - Castles I(1991) & II(1994), Conquest of the New World(1996), Starfleet Command(1999); Realtime Associates - M:TG-Battlemage(1997), Crusader: No Remorse(console versions-1997); and Stormfront Studios - Gateway to the Savage Frontier(1991), Tony LaRussa Ultimate Baseball(1991), Madden 97(1996), Byzantine: The Betrayal(1997), NASCAR Revolution(1999).

Selling around 3 million units across its production life (and another 3 million as the System III), the Intellivision may have come up second-best against Atari in the heated battle for videogame supremacy during the early 1980's, but the Master Component and its varied sequels and components continue to be highly appreciated by videogame enthusiasts. With continued support through emulation, Intelligent Television lives on.

The runnin' dude

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