Mattel Electronics Intellivision console

In 1979 Mattel Electronics released its first video gaming console, the Intellivision.  Mattel Electronics was a subsidiary of Mattel and was formed expressly for the development of electronic games.  In its first year Mattel sold 175,000 Intellivision consoles and the library grew from a mere 4 game cartridges which the console was initially released with and to 35 cartridges.  Throughout its lifespan over 3 million Intellivision units were sold and a approximatly 125 games cartridges were released for the console.

A little fact not many people know is that the word ‘Intellivision’ is a portmanteau of  ‘Intelligent Television’.

Like Atari, Mattel marketed their console to a number of retailers as a re-badged unit.  These models include  Radio Shack TandyVision, the GTE-Sylvania Intellivision, and the Sears Super Video Arcade.  The Sears model was a specific coup for Mattel, as Sears was already selling a re-badged Atari 2600 unit, and in doing so made a big contribution to Atari’s success.

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 Coleco.  The ‘Numb Thumb Club’ was also set up by Imagic where members were to recieve annual newsletters consisting of forecoming game releases, contests and special offers.  Unfortunately only two issues of ‘Numb Thumb’ were ever published in 1982 and 1983 before Imagic finally shut up shop.  Mattel then created  M Network branded games also for Atari and Coleco’s systems.  The most popular titles sold over a million units each and then the Intellivision was introduced to Japan by Bandi.

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

Only a few game titles were written that used the Intellivoice.  Also 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.   Two other games for children were made in very small numbers called Magic Carousel and Space Cant and are hard to find.  In August 1983 the Intellivoice system was quietly phased out.

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

  • Space Spartans
  • Bomb Squad
  • B-17 Bomber
  • Tron: Solar Sailer

A fifth title which is extremely rare is Intellivisions 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 concurrently.  Unlike the Intellivoice-specific games, however, World Series Major League Baseball is also playable without the Intellivoice module (but not without the ECS.)

 

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
  • 159 pixels wide by 96 pixels high (159×192 display on a TV screen, scanlines being doubled)
  • 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.
  • three channel sound, with one noise generator (audio chip: General Instrument AY-3-8910)

Intellivision® TV Commercial: Introducing Intellivision

Does a small part of this commercial make you wonder where the Wii-fit comes from?

Innovations

  • Intellivision can be considered the first 16-bit game console, as the registers in the microprocessor, where the mathematical logic is processed, are 16 bits wide.  It can however be considered a 10-bit system because the CPU’s instruction set and game cartridges are 10 bits wide.
  • 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 and was considered by many Intellivision users to be a useful 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 controller, as seen on the VCS, has not been widely emulated on later consoles.  A third-party joystick attachment was available by around 1984, 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 system to feature downloadable games.  Although, without a storage device the games vanished once the machine was turned off.  In 1981, General Instrument 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.  The voice chip used, the SP0256 Orator, was developed jointly by Mattel and General Instrument.
  • The Intellivision was also the first game console or home computer to offer a full 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.

With over 3 million Intellivision units  sold and a total of 125 games released, it really is up there with the best.  The system was very advanced for its time and with some great add-ons the Intellivision system definately it holds its own and as earned its place in gaming history. . .

Written by: Tony Lyon

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