Retro Game Console Story: The Mattel Intellivision

La Storia della console Mattel Intellivision su

The design of the Intellivision began in 1978, by Mattel Electronics, the name of the company department dedicated to electronic games. A first marketing took place in 1979, in California, with an availability of four games, in 1980 it was extended throughout the country to a target price of $ 299 and a game included: Las Vegas Blackjack.

Pubblicità della console Mattel Intellivision su

At that time the market of the sector was dominated by Atari, with its Atari 2600 console (or Atari VCS, 1979), other gaming systems were produced by Fairchild Semiconductor, Bally and Magnavox. Intellivision was able to seriously question the dominance assumed by Atari.

In its first year of life, 175,000 copies of Intellivision were sold and its video game collection amounted to 19 titles. Until then, the games developed were production from external companies, but the company realized that this project could be a bigger deal than they thought, so they devoted much of their resources to software production and formed a development team.

I Blue Sky Rangers. La Storia della console Mattel Intellivision su

It was originally composed of five members: Gabriel Baum, Don Daglow, Rick Levine, Mike Minkoff and John Sohl. To protect themselves from rival Atari, Levine’s identity and workplace, Minkoff and the other programmers were kept secret. To speak of them, the name of Blue Sky Rangers was used.

Videogiochi della Console Mattel Intellivision su
Il modulo Intellivoice per la console Mattel Intellivision su

In the 1982 sales were high. Over two million consoles in a year, bringing profits to the parent company of $ 100,000,000. Mattel’s growing success attracted the attention of companies that had already achieved success with Atari, such as Activision, Coleco and Imagic. The main titles were able to sell even in millions of copies. Then Mattel introduced an innovative peripheral device, IntelliVoice, which allowed to use a speech synthesis with certain games. And the development group, that initially was covered by just five components, reached the size of 110 programmers.

La Keyboard Component per la Console Intellivision su

But many users were clamoring for the distribution of the “Keyboard Component”, a heavily advertised computer upgrade by Mattel as “available soon”. The unit had a cassette player to load and save data. The Keyboard component was inserted into the space intended for Intellivision cartridges, and had its own slot to allow the standard game cartridges to be used equally without being disconnected. The truth was that this upgrade was too expensive to develop and produce, so Mattel put it back in the drawer. But it wasn’t that simple. In fact Mattel was investigated by the FTC – Federal Trade Commission for scam not having distributed a widely publicized product. Mattel was threatened with having to pay up to $ 10,000 for each day of delay in the distribution of the upgrade. Finally Mattel produced the Keyboard Component and offered it as an upgrade to buy via mail. 4000 copies were sold, but many were returned to the manufacturer in the 1983 recall campaign.

The reason for the recall campaign was the fact that the unit was expensive and difficult to develop and therefore very, very unreliable compared to the users’ expectations. In this difficult period, Mattel had organized two different engineering teams that had to compete with each other to find a solution to the Keyboard Upgrade problem. The result of this crossover work was the ECS, or Entertaniment Computer System, a cheaper and easier to assemble version of the Keyboard Component. The ECS was absolutely incompatible with the previous version and, when it came out, it turned out to be very little useful and not versatile, compared to the home computers that were spreading in the market in that year. However, it was offered free of charge in place of the defective Keyboard Component.

La console Mattel Intellivision II su

In addition to the ECS launch, 1983 also saw the introduction of a new Intellivision design, called Intellivision II (the differences were “detachable” controllers and a different case) and a new System Changer, a system which allowed to play Atari 2600 games on the Intellivision II. In addition, the music keyboard for Intellivision was released. But now the competition was too fierce: there were Colecovision, Atari 5200 and Vectrex on the market that stole the market and buyers. The new hardware was not properly supported and Mattel was forced to sell off its products, even if they had just been designed, at almost 50% of the original price. Mattel suffered losses of $ 300 million. The consequence was that, within a year, Mattel closed its video game department.

The Intellivision system seemed to be reborn from his own ashes when a group of Mattel employees (now unemployed) bought all the rights to use the console, the software and all the unsold stock. The new company called INTV Corp. continued to sell all the unsold stock by mail until exhaustion. When stocks ran out, INTV produced its own version of the Intellivision, called Super Pro System, and paired it with new software titles. INTV closed its doors in 1991.

Keith Robinson, one of the first programmers of the Mattel team responsible for game production like Tron, bought the software rights to the games after the failure of the INTV and founded a new company: Intellivision Productions. Still active today, Intellivision Production offers the old Intellivision classics on CDRom in editions compatible with today’s consoles: Playstation, XBox and Gamecube.

Intellivision was the first 16bit console, although some people mistakenly called it a 10bit console because the CPU instructions and cartridges were set for 10bit.

The Intellivision was also the first console to offer an “online” gaming system. In 1981, General Instrument (producer of the Intellivision CPU, known today for DVD codecs and other products) collaborated with Mattel on a project called “Play Cable”, a device that allowed the download of new games via cable TV.

Over 3 million Intellivisions were sold during his 12 years of life. 125 games were produced and distributed.

The “Disc Controller” in the console has heavily influenced the development and design of the Apple IPOD scroll.

Videogiochi per Console Mattel Intellivision su
Videogiochi per Console Mattel Intellivision su

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 simulated action in 3D through game angles similar to those of sports TV footage of the time. Games of this genre, previously, used a fixed and flat – two-dimensional angle of the playing area. Daglow and Dombrower also produced Earl Weaver Baseball Games for Electronic Arts in 1987.

One of Mattel’s commercials was pushing his console as “the closest thing to reality”. Intellivision had realistic sounds and 3D look graphics, which although today can only be tender, for the time represented the state of the art in home entertainment.