Agent of change: General Instruments CP1610 (1979)
The fourth generation of game consoles is widely regarded as the "16-bit era," beginning in 1987 and populated by such classics as the Sega Mega-Drive/Genesis, the Super Nintendo, the TurboGrafx-16, and SNK's top of the line Neo Geo. Each of these consoles had their share of memorable titles, all of which made use of a 16-bit CPU to harness their pixelated glory (although some games had the benefit of additional coprocessors attached).
Of course, 16-bit microprocessors have been around much longer than that, dating back to the early 70's; in fact the origins of both 8-bit and 16-bit microprocessors are barely a year apart. Moving into the late 70's we start to see 16-bit microprocessors pop up more and more in the computing world, and with the release of the Intellivision, the 16-bit microprocessor made its first entrance into console gaming.
That's right... Intellivision was 16-bit before it was cool; a full 2 generations before it became the industry standard!
There was just one problem though; technically, it was also 16-bit before what we'd commonly refer to as "16-bit" was even possible. As in all hardware designs, a device's true processing power is only as strong as its weakest element, and several components can offset the inherent value of a CPU (ask any Genesis fan). In the case of the Intellivision, not only is its clock speed best measured in kHz (FREQUENCY SLAM!!!), but it could only relay instructions 10 bits at a time, never able to reach a full 16 at once; so really it was just "16-bit" in name only. But hey, for all its deficiencies, it had a good heart.
Agent of change: 12-Number Keypad (1979)
Here's an interesting one. When we think of game controllers, we typically think of a singular device that is held by both hands to cover all available inputs, thereby locking the player's arms in a set position. While still the default console set up by choice, we've also seen in recent years a rise in gaming experiences that allow some extra mobility, keeping a player's arms disconnected during play. Perhaps this is best exemplified by the Wii remote and nunchuk combo where two devices are held separately, but such a designation can also be applied to the motion-based Kinect and Move peripherals (although Kinect doesn't have a physical controller), and going back further to the entertaining maracas controller from Sega's Samba de Amigo.
Oddly enough, this too is something that the Intellivision pioneered, although did so under the most bizarre of circumstances to get around a hardware limitation. Yes, there are games where the best strategy is for the player to hold two controllers at once! Pretty strange, right?
To understand why, we can look at the setup for the individual hand controllers. For a quick review of the design, the Intellivision controller contained a central disc pad for movement, 3 shoulder buttons (there are 4, but the top 2 are linked for the player's left/right preferences... which is kind of a mini innovation in itself when you think about it), and a 12-button keypad. Perhaps a questionable design choice in hindsight, but the disc and keypad share the same communication line to the CPU, meaning that a player may use both the disc and keypad, but never at the same time. So for example in ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS™ (side note: yes, the all caps and trademark are required branding as per Mattel's contract with TSR), you couldn't shoot arrows while running and vice versa.
The way certain games got around this shortcoming was to have both controllers active and responsive to the game world, allowing the player to use the control disc on one, and the keypad on the other! And thus the dual wield approach, as well as the act of incorporating multiplayer inputs into a single player game, was born. Without the Intellivision, how could we ever beat Bubble Bobble on the NES, or defeat Psycho Mantis in Metal Gear Solid?!
Agent of change: Intellivision Sports Network (1980)
Though we sometimes may not wish to admit it; sports games are kind of a big deal. If nothing else, they're a reliable source of revenue each year to the gaming industry, and they're highly marketable to multiple audiences and demographics, gamer and non-gamer alike. EA, of course has claimed dominance in the area, snatching up rights to professional sports organizations through licensing deals to bring the teams, players, and action recognized the world over into the digital realm. Madden NFL, FIFA, NHL, NBA, PGA, NASCAR, even UFC and MMA all have some success in video games with thanks to such partnerships, with both industries coming together under shared interests. Money!... I mean, the love of the game!
It was the Intellivision that first realized the power behind obtaining those professional licenses in hoping to drum up additional interest in the console. As video games were still a fledgeling medium struggling both to gain an audience, and accurately relay events on screen (we're talking about an era where context for in-game actions was supplied by box art and manuals), sports were something relateable; something identifiable; and most importantly, something marketable. Sports games skirt the need for further explanation; you don't have to explain that blob over there is a spider, or that the square needs the arrow to kill the fhgwhgads; you can just say Football, and that's all the context you'd need; the rules of the game are already a cultural understanding (unless you meant soccer)! Saying NFL Football not only achieves the same, but pulls in an additional endorsement of quality and interest that spans audience types; and endorsement is exactly what an industry newcomer needs.
Mattel pulled out all the stops; obtaining licenses across the field of sport and featuring them heavily in promotions. Every organization had a game on the Intellivision; they even contracted the USCF to have a logo on their Chess game (side note: this game was also one of the earliest instances of a cartridge concealing a hardware addition - in this case, extra RAM).
This tactic paid off instantly; sports games were what allowed the Intellivision to immediately gain footing against Atari; shooting up to a 20% market share within their first year. Meanwhile, professional sports organizations were introduced to a new revenue stream for business; leading to a longstanding partnership with the games industry that hasn't ceased to earn its keep to this day.
Agent of change: Intellivoice (1982)
Voice acting is a pretty simple topic to discuss; we basically just have it now. Our games talk to us like it was no big deal. Sure we still have some holdout silent protagonists in the industry, but the power of speech is quite common in games today, and has evolved into playing a role that rivals even the most essential programming and design elements of a game for cost allocation on a P&L (AAA voice talent doesn't come cheap, you know).
Games have been speaking for a while now, although back in the early 80's in-game voices were a considerable rarity. Some arcade games like Sinistar played digitized audio recordings (side note: Sinistar; a being that's intimidated many virtual aircraft pilots with his booming vocals, was voiced by a man named John Doremus who in real-life pioneered in-flight music designed to soothe passengers). Other games like Berzerk made use of what's called "speech synthesis;" programming that essentially converts written text, code, or even physical gestures into an audible form. It was through speech synthesis that games began to have a voice on home consoles, and it was on the Intellivision where it happened.
In 1982, Mattel released the Intellivoice add-on for the console, which would work with its own product line of games that could talk; the most famous perhaps at this point being B-17 Bomber which when booting up excitedly told you what game you were playing (of course, it came out like "BAEE SEVENNTAEEN BAWWMAERR"). A total of 13 games went into development for the peripheral, although in the Intellivision's lifespan, only 5 were released.
Admittedly, console speech synthesis wasn't exactly a home run right away, but took some work. It did catch on though; if only briefly before the industry-wide crash in 1983. Magnavox Odyssey² also released their own peripheral in 1982 called "The Voice" using a variant of the same GI-designed SP0256 chip found in the Intellivoice. If you're curious as to which chip came first, Mattel's chip model is SP0256-012 while Magnavox's is SP0256-019; also we should hang out more. Furthering the trend, Atari also released the game Quadrun in 1983 that brought in-cart speech synthesis to the 2600 without any peripheral needed! Voice was perhaps a passing fad at first for games; a simple novelty to enjoy, but it has certainly grown in prevalence since its humble origins.
#6: Software Updates
Agent of change: Running Changes (1981)
Another very common (arguably too common!) feature for today's modern consoles is the ability to tweak their games post-launch, releasing patches and updates to correct and amend the user experience. Online PC's of course have always had this ability, but for consoles it's been a longer journey. It's a feature that has its shares of good and bad; on one hand it fixes game bugs, and there's no harm to making an experience better, but on the other hand, we've also seen plenty of releases rushed to market relying on the ability to fix any errors later on. Arguably this feature should merely be a safeguard, not a shortcut, as current practice is almost counterintuitive to the industry's emphasis on the launch window for sales.
But enough about modern gaming, let's get back to the Intellivision. Like modern publishers, Mattel was also interested in responding to criticism; ordering running changes to the programming of several games after they'd been first released. These occurrances were minimal, but usually the change was to make the game more responsive to player input, or to correct a glitch. Original games weren't recalled; the rom was simply replaced when it came time to make more cartridges.
For example, in 1982 space games became a targeted area of interest (E.T. had a big cultural impact). To combat Atari, Mattel reprinted their existing space games as part of the Space Action Network line, and one game Space Battle was actually corrected to make the experience harder, as its initial release was a bit too slow to pose any challenge (side note: if your version of the game came in a blue box, you got the good updated version!). They also updated Star Strike to correct a steering glitch experienced through one of the controllers. Changes like these showed that Mattel wasn't just after a quick repackaging, but was willing to spend extra time and money to ensure they were giving the best games they could to consumers, and made efforts to be responsive to consumer feedback. Pretty neat!
Of course, anyone who bought earlier versions of the games didn't necessarily benefit from this; period technology barring them from updating the game they bought while consoles today simply transfer updates online. However, it's worth acknowledging Intellivision had its own way of making good on this practice as well; it was theoretically possible for some players to play an old and updated version of the game without purchasing multiple copies. For how, please refer to the number 2 entry on this list.
#5: Thumb Control
Agent of change: Disc Controller (1979)
Nintendo gets a lot of credit for it's patented D-pad (side note: no, seriously; that little plus sign was patented - look up patent #US4687200A), but on the road to the highly sophisticated controllers of today's consoles, there's another important stop along the way that doesn't always get the attention it deserves; likely because its own innovation was marred by its love/hate implementation, and coupled with some all-around questionable ergonomics.
As previously mentioned, the Intellivision came with a circular disc pad, which was most often used for player movement. If you look at its console brethren; the 2600 and 5200, the Odyssey², the Channel F, the APF-MP1000, the Astrocade, the Arcadia 2001, the VC 4000 and it's software-compatible variants, the Vectrex, the CreatiVision, Sega's SG-1000, and the Colecovision; ALL of them used joysticks! What a waste of motor skills when (unlike arcade cabinets) the player has to use the controls while holding them steady! Most were even rigged to place directional control in the right hand, while the left hand was in charge of buttons; virtually the opposite of today's standard! It was Intellivision to recognize that dexterity is what separates man from ape, and allowed players to free up their fingers by placing all movement under the thumbs of players everywhere! Players could simply move their thumb around on the disc; rotating if they desired without ever having to recoil or lift their finger off the pad; very much like we're all used to doing today.
Not only that, but the disc pad was able to accomodate a total of 16 different directions, while most consoles before AND after only went up to 8. Of course now both are rendered obsolete with the widespread adoption of today's analog sticks, although they still make use of that same thumb-based control. Intellivision kicked off a console revolution for controllers that by the next generation would lead to a new industry standard, turning the phrase "all thumbs" into the definition of accuracy.
Unfortunately, abandoning the joystick at the time posed several problems for the user experience; arguably people just weren't ready for it, but the pad wasn't always the most responsive anyway. What's funny was some people even actively subverted the disc pad; cracking open the controller case to add in a plastic joystick mold a third party vendor developed. Progress is an uphill battle, as always.
(another side note: A select few of you may also be wondering where the Bandai Super Vision 8000 fits into all of this. Well... me too! Also, we should hang out more. Both consoles had their hardware specs finalized by 1979, and each did end up using similar controller setups. While neither console is a clone of the other, and the Intellivision appears to have a lengthier...or at least more public development history, there doesn't seem to be a definitive answer for which controller was actually designed first, and any motivations for deciding further had been voided out with a mutually beneficial agreement for Bandai to be Mattel's Intellivision manufacturer for that region in 1982. Suspicious behavior, or just good business... you be the judge.)
#4: Console Wars
Agent of change: George Plimpton (1981)
As long as there have been multiple consoles in existence, there has been competition. Prior to the Intellivision, the Atari 2600 (before it was labeled as such) entered the market as the Atari VCS; arguably a deliberate attempt to steal market share from the already available VES (which then changed its name to the Fairchild Channel F). This was competition, but not war... what was missing was a direct approach. War needs confrontation; war needs expressed motive; and above all, war needs spectacle. War's not something that's only visible behind closed doors; it's out in the trenches for all the world to see! For the Intellivision to go up against Atari, they recognized that war was inevitable, and they knew just the man for the job... George Plimpton!
Don't be fooled by his clean suit and charming smile; though known primarily for his sports writing, Plimpton was a legit demolitions expert in World War II, and literally wrote the book on Fireworks; even being appointed Fireworks Commissioner of New York by the mayor in 1979 (ok... it was an honorary title). Through Plimpton's help in marketing the Intellivision, the first console wars began with a full-on assault against the reigning Atari.
Intellivision ran TV commercials and print ads featuring Plimpton simply comparing Atari games to Intellivision games for side by side comparisons to prove Intellivision's quality. Where other competitors would avoid talking about other systems, Mattel went right for Atari's throat, saying their Baseball game didn't look like baseball, or that their Astroids game was "rather flat," when compared to the 3-dimensional Star Strike. Long before "Genesis does what Nintendon't," you had in bold letters "Two pictures are worth a thousand words" over two TVs, and the conclusion was always the same; Intellivision was the superior choice! Atari even fired back mocking Mattel's two-TV setup in their own ads, but this time lining up 2600 games with blank monitors saying "There's no comparing it with any other video game." In looking back at the ads for both companies during this time period, the message was clear; these consoles were at war with each other, and console marketing would never be the same.
But Plimpton's campaign was just the beginning! When Atari gained the license to produce an E.T. game and hype was high (yes, people were looking forward to it), Intellivision did the next best thing; they hired the kid that played Elliot to endorse the Intellivision instead! When they released the System Changer (which allowed Intellivision to play 2600 games... I know, right?), they began to market the Intellivision as the console that played the most games, using Atari's own library against them! They even went after Coleco once they moved from developer to rival company; denying them additional revenues for their Intellivision games by saying their old games weren't working with the Intellivision II, when it was in fact Mattel that applied a level of DRM to the new console to make them stop working! (side note: in doing so, they even made one of their own games unplayable as collateral damage!) While Sega's campaign against Nintendo has since become legendary, it never got this ugly!
There's still some division between console fans today; either held over from the 16-bit era, or extending into the current generation between Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. Every once and a while a direct shot is fired (like Sony's adorable 2013 demo on how to share games), although with increases in multiplatform titles and differences in purchasing behavior (hey, many people own multiple consoles at this point), the battlefront has certainly quieted down some; arguably for the better.
Agent of change: Entertainment Computer System (1983)
Saving; friends. Saving! That thing that most every game now does when you feel like taking a break. That thing that in its absence, gaming as we know it today would crumble and fall. That thing that nobody did on consoles for years without backup in-cart batteries, additional peripherals, or building an entire internal hard drive! Intellivision did it three decades ago... Intellivision!!!
ahem... well, sort of.
In 1983 Mattel released the Intellivision II; an updated version of the Intellivision that was a bit more economical, and had a few added benefits. Also released was a peripheral keyboard unit called the Entertainment Computer System; the ECS for short; that would dock with the Intellivision II unit, and expand the console's utilities even further (we'll talk about this more a little later). One of the components to go with the ECS was the ability to hook up a cassette deck to record data as well as play it back... see where we're going with this?
By way of the cassette deck and the ECS, games were now able to transmit bits of data to recording tape. Through essentially a peripheral of a peripheral of an updated release, Intellivision managed to give their console a makeshift hard drive; effectively able to record a player's progress! Intellivision changed the world!
Or rather, maybe they would've if more than one released game made use of this feature. World Series Major League Baseball was released in the wake of the video game crash in 1983, and offered players the ability to save their starting lineup (side note: this game was also the first ever to capture real ballplayer stats, although Mattel's legal team forced their real names to be changed for the final product), and allowed players the ability to quit games in progress and return to them later. This is some pretty amazing stuff; game saves in console gaming found in 1983. If only Mattel hadn't come to their senses at the worst possible time to realize they were spending too much on peripheral devices, they would've promoted the game a bit more, and we'd be heralding this game for the fantastic technology behind it.
(another side note: thankfully the game's programmers Eddie Dombrower and Don Daglow didn't give up on their ideas; after Intellivision, they moved to EA, where they again made use of player stats and stylized PiP graphics to create the now legendary Earl Weaver Baseball, which along with Madden, laid the groundwork for what has now become EA Sports!)
Agent of change: PlayCable (1981)
Isn't that something? Digital distribution is a major force in today's console marketplace with each major console having its own online shop to purchase, download, and play games without purchasing a physical copy. Certainly the feature may have become an industry-wide standard during the 7th generation (Wii/PS3/360), but looking back it's surprising just how many older consoles have given online a try. Xbox Live in the early 2000's was certainly an important step from a competency standpoint for an online console, and you also have some nobel attempts at the service from Sega with the Dreamcast, and even earlier with the Sega Channel on the Genesis, but there's one console service that predates them all, dating as far back as 1981 when it was rolled out to select cities for testing.
PlayCable was an additional subscription purchase contracted with your cable company that would pump Intellivision games through your coaxial cable line into a special plug-in peripheral for your intellivision master unit. For $12 a month, players could have access to up to 20 games at a time, with a rotating game list that would allow access to the newest and the greatest Intellivision games available. Since individual Intellivision games were mostly $30 on store shelves (side note: Price has always been an uphill battle for Mattel, as not only was the 2600 half the cost of an Intellivision, but many 3rd party vendors flooded the 2600 market, releasing sub-par games to Atari's console for cheap to parents who didn't know any better), the subscription service was quite the economical option and to vouch for the service, Mattel brought in the "Commerce Comet" himself, Mickey Mantle, to sell the idea. They even sent in a stack of controller overlays with subscription, so that players could be guaranteed the same experience.
PlayCable was in operation from 1981-1983, and during that time, the service was positively reviewed for its innovation and its business sense. Unfortunately, the experience did not last for the duration of the Intellivision's lifespan due to technical limitations (later games with additional hardware on cartridges or increased memory could not be transferred properly to the PlayCable device), but it's amazing how much Mattel's digital distribution model had gotten right. Think about it - reduced cost, an identical experience to physical purchases, back-catalog support, software updates (Space Battle mentioned in #6 was one of the games offered), subscriptions for new content, and an easy to navigate user interface; not even today's services can attest to all of those criteria 100% of the time!
The other area to note about PlayCable was that it actually had some relevance to the homebrew gaming scene (which actually continues for Intellivision to this day, albeit with more sophisticated methods). In 1982, a pair of would-be developers Joe Jacobs and Dennis Clark ended up running a PlayCable device through their home computer and found a way to create their own Intellivision development studio. Amazingly, they ended up getting hired by Mattel before they could start releasing games for themselves. If you enjoyed the Intellivision's port of the game Bump 'N' Jump, you have the PlayCable and the "Technology Associates" to thank for it!
Agent of change: Intellivision Keyboard Component (1981... er, 1982... er...), never mind, here's the ECS again (1983)
If there's one area above all others where the Intellivision can identify the most with today's modern consoles, it's in its creative vision and development philosophy towards a broadened demographic. Tune in to any E3 presentation from the leading console companies for the past few years, and you'll see that consoles clearly aren't just for games any more. TV, music, and movie subscriptions; non-gaming hardware components; live streaming and social media; diet and exercise; consoles have moved beyond their toy/novelty origins to become the centralized source of activity to be had in the living room. This cutting edge idea was ultimately shared by the Intellivision decades prior, not only within its lifecycle, but a promise to consumers made at the time of its first ever introduction to the market... the only problem was delivering on that promise.
When Mattel first introduced the Intellivision, they actually introduced two pieces of hardware simultaneously. The first; the "master component" was the gaming/educational device that we commonly know now as just "Intellivision." The Second, was the "Keyboard Component," initially scheduled for a 1981 release, that would dock with the master unit to extend its functionality further so the entire family could benefit from it beyond gaming alone. The development history of the Keyboard Component is perhaps a longer story than this article may benefit from, but suffice it to say it did not meet its deadlines, and following some hefty fines for consumer fraud from the Federal Trade Commission for failing to bring it to market, the Keyboard Component was cancelled and ultimately replaced by the ECS (side note: which admittedly had its own set of innovations, such as the music synthesizer and corresponding game Melody Blaster). Only 4,000 Keyboard Components were produced, and supposedly around 1,000 are still out there.
Now, some of you may be wondering why I'm choosing to draw the line here at the Intellivision's failed console peripheral, when APF had already successfully released their own keyboard/computing attachment called "The Imagination Machine" to their M1000 console back in 1979. It's an excellent question; also we should hang out more. My answer is because of the differences in marketing the respective devices, coupled with the expanded scope of support. First off, APF's attachment was called the Imagination Machine; who do you think that console was primarily designed for? Meanwhile the Intellivision began pitching its non-game uses for adult audiences before even mentioning it also played games. More importantly, while both machines effectively turned your TV into a computer, that was where APF cared to quit, while the Intellivision attempted to be "the home video system from Mattel Electronics that can change your family's life."
Did you pick up on the difference there? This wasn't just some cheap alternative to buying a proper computer; this was a "home video system" for the family with implications beyond the computing world. This is furthered through the planned software lineup; a quarter century before Wii Fit, the Intellivision had Jack LaLane's Physical Conditioning which would've allowed customized exercise routines at a comfortable distance from the screen. Before Muzzy, Rosetta Stone, and other language software companies, Intellivision would've had Conversational French, which through using the audio playback and microphone options, would allow for proper interactive instruction to tease out inflections and proper pronunciation. That same audio playback device could also allow a user to insert their own cassettes to pump music throughout their living room. Intellivision was thinking of ways to capture all the possibilities of computing technology, and translate it to a comfortable user experience appropriate for its surroundings.
So there you go; 10 different ways the Intellivision changed the shape of the console industry, ultimately for the better, even though at the time of release their brilliance was cut down due to hardware deficiencies, limited scope, and extensive peripheral support.
Of course, we don't tend to remember the Intellivision for its technology; a system is only as good as its software, and the Intellivision's library was fantastic. The two AD&D games offered exciting early takes on both the Action Adventure and RPG genres, while Utopia was basically the world's first Sim-game (commonly referred to as Sim City 0). SNAFU was not only a fun game by itself, but was one of the first games to use audio channels to provide background music in addition to sound effects, and BurgerTime is one of the greatest examples of an arcade re-release with its own unique level design. I've included some pictures of Intellivision games along the way during this list, but I highly encourage people to look into the console's library to see for themselves.
Well that about wraps it up! Admittedly, there was a bit of hyperbole in play when discussing a few of these innovations; sometimes innovation is simply looking at something from a different perspective, even when in actuality the success of that something always had something else holding it back. Still, I hope this ended up being a fun look at an important time in video game history that always seems to fall short in discussion compared to the generations to come. I'd also like to thank some tremendous resources online for helping to iron out console histories and other bits of information; Intellivision Lives!; INTV Funhourse; Atari Age; Coleco World; and the Ultimate Console Database just to name a few.
Thanks for Reading!
List by BlueGunstarHero (04/25/2014)
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