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Knyte's VGM #3 - Intellivision
posted 4/9/2009 6:02:55 PM

"Mattel Electronics Presents"*: Intellivision!

Intellivision was released in 1979 by Mattel. It was also released under different names to expand its market. The Intellivision was released in Sears stores as the Super Video Arcade, at Radio Shack as the Tandyvision I, and as the GTE/Sylvania Intellivision.

Intellivision was the main competitor of the Atari 2600. It's graphical capabilities were much better than Atari's console.It was the system to own for playing sports games, but also had a fair amount of action games and strategy games thrown into the mix as well. While Intellivision excelled at graphics and sound, the Atari 2600 was more capable of handling action games due to its superior speed.

So why didn't the Intellivision surpass the Atari 2600 in popularity? For one thing, the Intellivision had little 3rd party software developer support until late in it's life (nowhere near the amount the Atari 2600 had). Also many people did not like the disc controllers, which may have been great for sports games, but made other games difficult to play. Atari also had nailed down almost every popular arcade / movie license they could get their hands on. This left Mattel scrambling for less popular arcade games from Data East and other developers. So what better way to expand your game library then to add your competitor's consoles games! Mattel released a Atari 2600 adapter which gave the Intellivision an even greater library of games.

In 1982, the console would be remodeled (Intellivision II) with a lockout feature that prevented Atari 2600 (and unfortunately some of their own games) from being played. Also in July of this same year, Mattel approached Bandai to distribute Intellivision in Japan. The Bandai Intellivision retailed for 49,800 yen.

In 1983 Mattel introduced a new peripheral innovative for the time: Intellivoice, a voice synthesis device which produced speech when used with certain games, most of which would not work without the add-on component. Top Mattel programmers including Bill Fisher, Steve Roney, Gene Smith and John Sohl were diverted to the project, slowing the previous initiative to counter Atari with new arcade-style games. Voice titles included:

Bomb Squad
B-17 Bomber
Intellivision World Series Baseball (Intellivoice optional since the game already required the ECS keyboard)
Space Spartans
TRON Solar Sailer

Many users waited patiently for the promised release of the "Keyboard Component", an add-on computer upgrade unit touted by Mattel as "coming soon" even when the original console was first shipped. The unit featured a built-in cassette tape drive for loading and saving data. The Keyboard Component would plug into the cartridge slot on the Intellivision, and had an additional cartridge slot of its own to allow regular Intellivision games to be played in the usual way.

The keyboard component became so notorious around Mattel headquarters that comedian Jay Leno, when performing at Mattel's 1981 Christmas party, got a huge response with his joke, "You know what the three big lies are, don't you? 'The check is in the mail,' 'I'll still respect you in the morning,' and 'The Keyboard will be out in the spring.'"

After its limited release, four thousand units were sold; many were later returned for a full refund when Mattel recalled the unit in 1983 due to various support problems, including the then-innovative cassette tape unit which had never proved to be reliable. According to the Blue Sky Rangers web site, users who opted to keep theirs were made to sign a waiver absolving Intellivision of all future responsibility for technical support. In addition, the Keyboard Component could be modified into a development platform for the Intellivision, and such units were used internally for game development during the latter portion of the system's lifespan.

By this time, Mattel had set up competing internal engineering teams, each trying to either fix the Keyboard Component or replace it. The rival Mattel engineers had come up with a much less expensive keyboard alternative. The Entertainment Computer System (ECS), was much smaller, sleeker, and easier to produce than the original Keyboard Component. While the original Keyboard Component had some advantages over the small computers of its day, the new Keyboard Component was designed to be inexpensive, not functional, and was far less powerful than emerging machines like the Commodore 64. The two keyboard units were incompatible, but owners of the older unit were offered a new ECS.

To maintain secrecy in a toy industry where industrial espionage was a way of life, many projects had code names, so documents and casual discussion did not reveal company secrets. With the video games business already staggering by the time the new Keyboard Component was planned, Daglow suggested the new device be code-named LUCKI (for "Low User Cost Keyboard Interface.") The name stuck but the good fortune did not: the cheaply manufactured ECS keyboard add-on was a retail failure.

In 1984, the rights to the Intellivision were sold for 16.5 million dollars. The new company called INTV Inc began rumors of the release of the INTV III, or Super Pro System. This redesigned unit was identical to the original console, except that it had a black plastic case with silver plates, and also had a Power LED indicator between the Power and Reset switches. The console was released in 1985, and appeared in Toys R Us, Kiddie City, and mail order catalogs. The console continued to sell into the 1990's with 35 new game titles released. INTV Inc continued to sell out it's stock in 1991, and it eventually became a piece of gaming history.

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