The video game console wars of the early 80s were reminiscent of the video format wars a few years earlier, where VHS won the popularity contest hands-down, yet Betamax still boasted a better quality. In this arena, the Atari 2600 played the role of the VHS tape and underdog challenger was Mattel’s Intellivision, a fine little video game system that never quite captured the same spotlight, but will forever be remembered by many from that era as the superior system.
Mattel Electronics had primarily been focusing on games of the handheld variety, notably Football, when the Atari 2600 was introduced. But it soon became hard to overlook the respectable sales their competitor was enjoying in the home gaming market. Finally deciding to step into the ring and take a jab or two at the big guy, Mattel introduced its contender, Intellivision, in 1979. In a decision they would later regret, they boasted that their product was not only a game, but would one day grow up to be a functioning home computer.
Connected to its wood grain base by coiled cable, were two unique controllers that deviated significantly from the standard joystick controller of the competition. The Intellivision controllers each contained a numbered keypad consisting of 12 buttons. By simply inserting a plastic game-specific overlay, each button was clearly labeled in regard to the purpose it served. Alongside the keypad were four “action keys” and a nifty golden disk that could be moved in sixteen directions. All in all, it was a well-thought out and unique design and managed to catch the eye of those in the market for a system to call their own.
Of course, the true test of a video game isn’t in plastic overlays, but, rather, a respectable library of cool games to play. The Atari 2600 was rapidly expanding its collection and Mattel would hire an elite team of secret programmers, known as The Blue Sky Rangers to start churning out a plethora of game cartridges. Mattel went through great lengths to keep the individual names of their programmers a mystery, lest they get lured over to Atari or another competitor. Thanks to the efforts of these covert creators, Mattel was able to launch their system with a respectable twelve games. Oddly enough, the game they chose to include with the system was Las Vegas Poker and Blackjack – because nothing says family entertainment like a virtual trip to a gambling den.
But the prolific Blue Sky Rangers had plenty more excitement to offer up to up-and-coming gamers. Popular arcade games were well represented by cartridges such as Frogger, Q*Bert, and Donkey Kong. Major League Baseball was an addictive little game and considered far superior to the Atari counterpart. How much so? Well, it became the Intellivision’s biggest selling game of all time, selling well over a million units. For those interested in RPGs (role-playing games, for the uninitiated) Mattel’s answer was Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, and its sequel, Treasure of Tarmin – each based upon the popular fantasy board game. Astromash, another very popular cartridge, took players into the deep recesses of space as they did their best to avoid galactic obstacles, as did Space Spartins, where the patented “Intellivoice” option (see below) helped space travelers in their battle to protect their starbase. And a pair of games based on the popular Disney film, Tron, called Tron: Deadly Discs and Tron: Maze-a-Tron gave gamers a chance to wage battle in a futuristic realm. All in all, Mattel would issue more than 125 game cartridges in an attempt to keep up with the Joneses and retain a foothold in the highly competitive market.
While still trying fumbling with the home-computer promise, Mattel instead released an option called “Intellivoice”, a voice synthesis module that didn’t catch on quite as well as they had hoped. Only four games were produced that utilized this technology and all though its release was highly anticipated, its reception was markedly lukewarm. As a result, Mattel refocused their attention on the upcoming sequel, Intellivision II, released in 1983. What made this follow up unique and notable was the inclusion of the System Changer – which expanded the game library to formidable levels by allowing any Atari game cartridge to be played on the Intellivision system.
By 1983, the Federal Trade Commission was breathing down the neck of Mattel and imposing annual fines on the company for not keeping that pesky home computer promise they had so proudly touted in the early years. To put matters to rest, Mattel introduced a number of options for the Intellivision including a computer Keyboard, a musical keyboard, and some updated controllers. Calling it a home computer was quite an overstatement but it did manage to get the FTC watchdogs called off. Sadly, these nifty additions weren’t enough to counter the sagging overall video game sales in the early 80s and it was lights out for Mattel’s struggling video game division. They sold the rights for Intellivision to a new company, Intellivision Inc., which later became INTV.
INTV was able to pump a little new life into things with the release of Intellivision III, Super Pro System in 1985 and valiantly managed to keep the video game system alive for the rest of the decade. In 1990, after almost 10 years of battling it out with their rival, Intellivision finally went down for the count and production was forever halted. To the delight of loyal fans though, within a few years, the elusive Blue Sky Rangers would bestow one final gift upon their devoted followers. They formed Intellivision Productions and, by obtaining the rights to many of the classic games, released them in versions that could be played on actual home computers that were now finding their way into homes across America. The library would also eventually be released for the Sony Playstation and Playstation 2 as well – allowing new generations of gamers to see what all the fuss was about.
If you have fond memories of playing Mattel Intellivision, we invite you to share them in our comments section. Tell us what your favorite games were, and any other recollections associated with this classic home gaming system.