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I ran my own blog from November 2006 till October 2014. All posts are still online, but I don't have time to update it anymore. Please note that all images and media files have been removed when the backup was moved to a new host in early 2016. Enjoy!

Intellivision: A Game Console Far Ahead Of Its Time

7. december 2007

The Intellivision was a revolutionary video game console developed and released by Mattel (the company probably best known for Barbie dolls, Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars) in 1979. It was the first 16 bit game console ever released and introduced a lot of new concepts and technologies: innovative game controllers, superior graphics and sound, game downloads, home computer extensions, a voice synthesis device and a synthesizer keyboard for example.

 

The CPU used in the Intellivision was a General Instruments CP1610, a general purpose microprocessor capable of supporting 16-bit addresses and 10-bit instructions. The US release used a CPU clock of 894,886.25 Hz while the european release used a 1 Mhz clock, due to the different NTSC / PAL specs, which means that games were running up to 10% faster on european consoles than on their US counterparts!

The CP1610 featured eight 16-bit registers - using a 16 bit CPU in a video game console was quite exceptional indeed. It had 1.2 kb of RAM (including 512 byte video memory) and 7 kb ROM (which included the "Executive ROM" - some kind of a mini-OS - and the "Graphics ROM" which included often used sprites for example). It's graphics performance was outstanding for the late 1970's, allowing a 160 x 196 pixel display using a 16 color palette (all colors could be used simultaneously), plus eight hardware supported sprites offering collision detection, mirroring and streching.

The game controllers were quite different too, as they featured a "disc" (somewhat similar to the Apple iPod clickwheel) instead of a joystick as well as a twelve-button numeric keypad. The disc was capable of 16 direction detection and games usually shipped with "overlay cards" that could be inserted into the controllers (in front of the numeric keypad - switching games required inserting a new cartridge AND flipping the overlay cards).

In 1980 the Intellivision became available in the entire US for US$299, the console was the first to pose a serious threat to Atari's dominance (Atari was the number one video game console producer back then). Mattel sold 175,000 consoles in 1980, with 19 availalble games. After Mattel realized that the game market offered good revenues, they launched their own software development group which became known as the "Blue Sky Rangers".

In 1981, Mattel launched a service that allowed to download games via cable TV. In 1982, Mattel sold 2 million consoles, more and more companies started developing software titles for the Intellivision.

The "Keyboard Component" should transform the console into a home computer, it was planned to include a MOS 6502 CPU (the one used by the C64 later on), 64K RAM and a built-in cassette tape drive. But during the process of developement many reliability problems occurred and the hardware was far too expensive. After repeated delays the Keyboard Component project was officially cancelled in 1982. Apparently about 4000 Keyboard Components had been shipped to selected customers for testing purposes, they are extremely rare today.

As Mattel managers had been aware of the Keyboard Component problems for a long time, they had launched a secondary project in mid 1981 that could replace the component in case of a complete failure. It was released as Entertainment Computer System (ECS), it featured a keyboard with a cassette recorder interface and included 2k of additional RAM. It lacked the originally planned 6502 CPU and the 64K RAM extension, but it was functionalm cost effective and was finally able to turn the Intellivison into a home computer.

 

Shortly after, Mattel introduced a 49-key Music Synthesizer keyboard which could turn the Intellivision/ECS combo into a multi-voice synthesizer. Unfortunately, the ECS received very little further marketing push and further hardware and software developments for the ECS were cancelled.

 

Intellivision was also the first game console to provide real-time human and robot voices during game play. The IntelliVoice module, which was required for using this feature, used an SP0256 Orator "voice chip" developed jointly by Mattel and General Instrument. But the IntelliVoice didn't sell as well as expected, and only a few games supporting it were ever released.

In 1983 Mattel also introduced the Intellivision II (which only introduced a revamped case) and the System Changer module (which allowed to play Atari 2600).

In 1983 and 1984 the video game market crashed. The new home computer systems became more and more popular and interest in classic game consoles vanished. Furthermore there was now a large number of video game consoles available, further subdividing the market. In 1983 Mattel Electronics posted a $300 million loss, in early 1984 the division was closed.

A liquidator purchased all rights, hardware and software sales continued until most of the inventory had been sold. Later on, Mattel Marketing executive Terry Valeski created INTV Corp. which sold the remaining stock via retail and mail order. They then introduced the INTV III, which was nothing but an Intellivison inside a new case, and continued developing a few games. The console was discontinued in 1991. More than 6 million Intellivision consoles were sold during 12 years, and a total of 125 games were available.

Keith Robinson, a former Mattel programmer, finally purchased the software rights, founded Intellivision Productions and released Intellivison emulators including the classic Intellivision games available for MacOS, Windows and modern-day consoles.