There is an old adage “History is Written by the Victors!”.
It’s meant to imply that history, and how things are generally remembered, may be swayed by those who came out on top. That is unless, you dig a little deeper and discover what stories are really out there. This adage can also just as easily be applied to console gaming, as it can a number of other points in history. Look back at what consoles are the most remembered and you will see the Atari 2600, NES, Sega Genesis, PS1, and so on (of course the last two gens are rather muddled). For second generation systems the Atari 2600 was by far the hands down winner, and images of the late 70’s and early 80’s often conjure up that of the Atari 2600 as the one of the fondest memories of the era.
Was it the first, of the second generation home consoles? No, that honor belonged to the Fairchild Channel F. Was it the best second generation console? No, that honor belonged to the Colecovision, and Atari 5200. It was the best selling however, and the best marketed, and for a while it was the best, especially in comparison to the Channel F and the Magnavox Odyssey 2. To be completely honest though if you only have a limited knowledge of gaming systems of the past, many of Atari’s competitors will be completely unknown to you. I lived and gamed in that era, and even for me I had no knowledge of non-Atari systems and clones until the NES, and Master System. So it was by chance one day, after I got back into my older consoles, that I watched the Angry Video Game Nerd and his Double Vision episode about the Intellivision and Colecovision, two systems I knew nothing about. Sure the AVGN isn’t the best way to learn about video games or consoles, but I often tend to keep an open mind against his skewerings. After that I began that to keep an ear open for the systems on gaming podcasts to learn a little more about each and it’s history.
The Colecovision didn’t seem all that strange to me since I had a Coleco Gemini, an Atari 2600 clone which I’ve written an article about before on this site, and a full blooded Coleco system didn’t seem like much of a stretch. The one that was somewhat foreign though, was Mattel’s Intellivision. Of course having had the M-Network game of Space Attack on my Atari 2600 growing up, I never realized the M in M-network stood for Mattel, nor that Mattel made it’s own system.
In the Fall of 2014, news came out that flashback systems had been released for both the Intellivision and Colecovision and I thought it was time to make a decision on whether to buy one of these flashbacks, or just go ahead and buy the real deal for both. So one night while browsing a local antique store I came across a good deal on an Intellivision with games and a few other extras. I bought it, and than after a few days it stopped working. My local gaming store diagnosed it as being irreparable, due to capacitors, and I put the old system aside picking up the two flashback systems in early 2015. The flashback systems are good, and have a lot of cool features but at the same time everything is miniaturized, so although happy with them, I was never as satisfied as I could be playing the real things.
Flash forward to 2018, and to a day that probably had one of the longest mornings I had gone through in a long time. My usual hour and half train ride was cut short to about 30 minutes, when someone in a town ahead decided to…let’s just say reenact the last scene of Anna Karenina with one of the trains directly in front of us. So an hour and a half on the train turned into nearly four sitting in one spot, and by that time I decided I’d had enough and wanted to head home for the day. I didn’t go directly home though but rather on a small shopping trip with my family, after they came to pick me up from my stranded train, stopping at a Half Price Books along the way. It was here I found a pile of Intellivision games complete-in-box for a relatively low price and I decide to pick up a few. My logic was that, with Midwest Gaming Classics in a little over a month, I could pick up both an Intellivision and Colecovision for a good price. Of course per my last article on MGC 2018, you may know only the former came to fruition having picked up the Intellivision alone. Three weeks later, or early in the week I’m writing this, I finally had the chance to hook the Intellivision up. I got out the recently purchased games from Half Price Books, and without so much as a hiccup the old Intellivision worked like a charm and I saw the green title screen for Space Armada pop up. The next two games would work as well, but I noticed that the Star Strike cart needed a little special maneuvering to get the system to read it, probably needs a good cleaning. That gave me the thought that maybe the awkward loading carts and the lack of an RF switch, where what the real issues with the Intellivision I bought in 2014. I wanted to get out the games that came with that system anyway, so I pulled the system out with them and long behold my supposedly irreparable Intellivision worked as well as the one I had purchased three weeks before. So now I have two functioning Intellivisions. Of course though we are here to talk about a little more than this.
The overall question I have to ask is, what is the Intellivisions place in video gaming history. Those who owned the system in its heyday, and those who also worked on it, are highly devoted to it. A devotion almost similar to that of Sega, and Atari Jaguar fans, playing the role of the underdog defending a system that deserved more credit than it got. After the wild and almost unstoppable success of the Atari VCS in the late 70’s, it became apparent to many companies that video games may be the next big thing. For most of companies though the cost in developing a system of their own presented a pretty high barrier of entry, since at the time the components to put such a system together, and the number of skilled engineers and technicians weren’t readily available, and came at a high cost. This lead to many companies, like board game manufacturer Parker Brothers, to simply stick with entering into the market by developing games alone. For other companies like toy maker Mattel, with such wildly successful brands as Hot Wheels and Barbie, and an existing line of basic electronic handheld systems, the money and some experience was there to delve into the market with its own system. Mattel began developing it’s system in 1978, and test marketed it in Southern California in late 1979 with some very positive feedback. As you might have guessed, Mattel would release the Intellivision in North America just before Christmas 1980.
Much like we’d see with the Sega Master System against the NES 6 years later, Mattel would be bringing the Intellivision into a market where competitor Atari, was already firmly entrenched and had a massive library of both first and third party games. To avoid taking a backseat to Atari, as competitors Fairchild, Bally, and Magnavox had, Mattel realized it would have to market the Intellivision in a whole new way. Of course for Mattel, unlike electronics manufacturers Fairchild and Magnavox, they already had firm grasp on how to market to kids and parents from their toy lines, and knew how to make their product seem both different and better. So how do you do that against the powerhouse that was Atari?
For Mattel, it was about making the Intellivision seem more advanced than the Atari VCS (2600). Essentially, this wasn’t exactly a stretch since the Intellivision did have the benefit of 3 to 4 years of advancements in technology that had happened since the Atari VCS was developed, although they were slight. The real stretch occurred when Mattel claimed the Intellivision wasn’t just 8-bit like the Atari VCS, but rather 16-bit. The goal of this claim being that the Intellivision was twice as powerful as the Atari, and in an era when know one knew what the heck 8 or 16-bit meant, no one really questioned the claim. Admittedly, the systems CPU was 16-bit, technically speaking, but I will get into that later
A television marketing campaign followed that compared Atari VCS games to Intellivision. Of course oddly, the spokesman for these commercials would be George Plimpton, a distinguished looking writer and actor, with a stately East Coast accent. This choice was obviously aimed more at parents than kids, giving them a trusted face to connect with the product, but to me it makes about as much sense as having Garrison Keillor as a spokesman for the PS4 or XBox One. For many kids of the era, Plimpton became pretty well connected with the Intellivision and has since been burned into their memories as the Intellivision guy, since he was featured in a number of commercials for the system and its games following. The campaign was often highlighted by showing similar Atari and Intellivision games being played side by side, with kid actors proclaiming the merits of the Intellivision. Having viewed a number of the commercials myself I can tell you that this Intellivision does look considerably more impressive, but of course how else would it look in their own commercials.
So technically speaking is the Intellivision actually better than the Atari VCS/2600. As stated before the Intellivision does have a 16-bit CPU, but with the limitations of the time 16-bit meant very little. It’s like saying your car is a 5 Liter V12, its an impressive amount of cylinders, but it’s just barely any more powerful than a V8 of the same displacement. That analogy isn’t too far from the truth with the Intellivision either, since the 16-bit CPU could only really function at 10-bit graphically. This didn’t so much translate into dynamically better graphics, but did allow for a few more sprites on the screen and slightly faster gameplay, as well as eliminating some of the flicker that was an issue on the Atari. So essentially the Intellivision was better than the Atari, but only marginally. To a parent considering dropping $299 (in 1983) on a game system for their kids, the Intellivision would have seemed like the better value, and many kids of the era weren’t about to argue. Games did look a lot better, and some like sports games were light years ahead of their Atari 2600 counterparts, like MLB Baseball for instance, which played more like what we would later see on the NES than on the Atari 2600. The Intellivision also featured better sound, and had a voice module add-on to give realistic voice like sound on certain games.
As was a common marketing tactic for many of the post Atari VCS systems of the second generation, the Intellivision would also be marketed as a base unit for building a home computer around. The Intellivision name itself is a combination of the words “Intelligent” and “Television”, a naming conventions Mattel decided on to convey the fact that their system would transcend being just a video game console, and be something more like a home computer. With a 16-bit CPU and 64k of expandable RAM, the Intellivision could have a keyboard added to it, and even had a insert planned that would set the Intellivision into a computer cabinet, with a keyboard and cassette drive built into it. Of course although prototypes and test programs were developed for such items, they remained vaporware, especially after the 1983 crash. For many parents looking to get their kids both a gaming console and potential computer, the failure of Mattel fulfill the computer promise with the Intellivision left a bad taste, and had some interesting legal consequences. This was made all the worse when Intellivision would later introduce the short lived Aquarius computer.
When it came to games on the Intellivision, most were developed by Mattel, but a few games from Activision, Imagic, and even Atari and Coleco did eventually appear on the system. Some Intellivision games like Astrosmash, MLB Baseball, Masters of the Universe and Imagic’s Micro-surgeon would go on to define the system as it’s killer apps. Like our current era which a single game can be found on all the top platforms like Xbox One, PS4, PC, and even Switch many of games back then also covered multiple systems and of course there was crossover between the Atari and Intellivision, and later the 5200 and Colecovision would join that. Many believe the that Mattel made their first party games better for their own system, but some argue in porting these games to the Atari, M-Network improved some games to take advantage of Atari’s various controller options.
The Intellivision was also one of the first systems to start the trend of the number pad controller, something that would carry onto the Atari 5200, and Colecovision after. Unlike those systems or the Atari VCS/2600, the Intellivision didn’t have any kind of control stick, but rather a directional plate. This by far is one of the system’s biggest detractors, since the control plate didn’t give players as much control as the stick based controls of other systems did. Added on to this was the fact that the Intellivision made a lot of use of its telephone like keypad, and associated overlays for these games. Without the overlays, gameplay can remain a complete mystery to gamers and ruin the experience altogether. Unlike the Atari, the controllers for the Intellivision are hardwired in, which didn’t allow switching controllers out, so love or hate the Intellivision controllers one was stuck with them. One additional major complaint to also come out was the fact that the Intellivision had no real paddle controller capabilities. For those who had played both the Atari VCS/2600 and Intellivision this was an obvious disadvantage, even leading some to note the Mattel’s own Astrosmash played better with the paddle controller on Atari. Of course the Intellivision II would address the issue of interchangeable controllers, but it’s 1983 release was too little to late.
So was the Intellivision actually better than the Atari 2600? My Atari fandom inclines me to say no, but in all fairness I will give the Intellivision a chance. The Intellivision was a system with potential, but also a system with a lot of caveats. The first Intellivision system, which has been the main focus of this article, was more or less built to get Mattel’s foot in the door of home gaming, and get a piece of the profit pie Atari seemed to be hogging. This meant that Mattel built a system that was marginally better than what Atari had, but hardly revolutionary.
Of course the Intellivision, would force Atari to respond with the 5200. The 5200, although maligned by many gamers due to its controller, was actually an outstanding system for the times and had a number of nearly spot on arcade ports, and 8-bit graphics that could easily rival those of the NES. Of course as the story goes by the time the 5200 hit store shelves it wouldn’t be competing with the Intellivision, but rather the Colecovision another outstanding 8-bit system. Both of the latter systems would mark a bridge generation between the systems we knew in Gen 2, and those we’d come to know in Gen 3, and where by far the best of the 2nd gen offerings.
So what is my personal take on the Intellivision?
Well I will start off by saying that it’s an aesthetically good looking system, with the faux wood grain, and brass highlights. I imagine in that era, remembering a bit of it myself, it probably looked very high tech like some piece of modern office technology. The Channel-F, being one of its contemporaries, had a similar look that made it appear like some super hi-fi component like a 8-track player, which it actually was confused for. The Atari of the era was also wood grained, until the “Vader” was introduced. The Atari VCS did however look more like a game console, and its toggles looked like something off a spaceship or military vehicle which is a good look for a console. With that said though all folded up with it’s permanently attached controllers the Intellivision give a rather neat and clean profile, plus you can’t lose a controller or have a friend walk off with one (never happened to me, but I’ve heard many stories).
Graphics wise it looks really good and you can tell there is a little something extra going on under the hood. It’s like playing the 2600 but with slightly more vibrant colors (reminded me of the TI-99), and things felt like they moved a little smoother. Of course that notorious Atari flicker isn’t as common in games of the Intellivision, as the little extra power helps reduce that. Of course to me Atari flicker has never been a real bother.
Controller wise though is where I feel the system slips up. Star Strike for instance is extremely hard to play with the Intellivision controller. The plate couldn’t react fast enough, or give the appropriate type of control over the player controlled spacecraft sprite. Another major downside to the controller is also something we see on the Atari 5200, and Colecovision as well, whereby the firing button are located on the side of the controller. At least for those two systems the buttons where located in the same area as the joystick, but for the Intellivision the control plate is on the bottom of the controller, while the buttons are located on the top of the controller. It makes for some painful play at times. I’m glad by the next generation with systems like the NES and SMS, buttons would be placed back on the top of the controller, taking a hint from the Atari 2600, and the have stayed on top since.
Overall, the Intellivision is a fairly remarkable system and gave gamers a reasonable alternative to the Atari. If I had to choose in that era though, I think I would’ve gone with the VCS, due to its library of big arcade ports, and better controller. With that said though the Intellivision was an important system because it forced the evolution of home gaming consoles, and upset Atari’s comfortable reign. The Atari 5200, and Colecovision would evolve from the Intellvisions arrival and the NES, SMS, and Atari 7800 would take it from there. To me experiencing this system in its original form was a remarkable treat since it’s always a pleasure to see what makes a systems and it’s claims valid, and what detracts from that validity. Or to put it another way sorting out the system from the legend.
Here are my plays of Intellivision titles after hooking it up:
Space Armada (Intellivision) ⭐⭐⭐ 1/2 – This is basically a Space Invaders rip-off, although it’s not too bad. The Intellivision has some nice big and colorful sprites, and the games is a challenge (no thanks to the controller). I still prefer the Atari 2600 Space Invaders though for its ease of play yet arcade like level of challenge. Mid-level marks for this one.
Star Strike (Intellivision) ⭐⭐ – I’ve played this one before on other systems but I don’t think they were named the same thing. It was a standard naming convention that M-Network games didn’t get the same name as their actual Intellivision counterpart. Anyway this is kind of a Star Wars rip-off (like many games of the era), but here your doing the trench run to save Earth. I will give it props on looks, but again the Intellivision controller kills the game, which is already hard to play as it is.
Astrosmash (Intellivision) ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ – This is probably one of the better known Intellivision titles and I can see why. The Asteroids meets Space Invaders concept works exceptionally well, and the game presents its challenges while being neatly addictive to play. The sprites and coloring are basic simple, but hardly detract from the game. This one also works really well with the Intellivision controller, especially with the auto-fire option in place, which is a real thumb saver.
Burger Time (Intellivision) ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ – Is there a system Burger Time isn’t fun on? No! Yes, it’s Burger Time, and even with the Intellivision controller it’s fun to play. A few things lacking in this version graphics compared to the NES port, but it’s more than forgivable. It’s pure joy to play.
Space Battle (Intellivision) ⭐⭐⭐⭐ – On the Atari 2600 the M-Network is known as Space Attack. It’s the same game either way and at times just as enigmatic. This is a game that when it works as it does on the Atari 2600, and is just as fun as hell to play (but when it doesn’t it’s just a mess). I love it anyway from my Atari 2600 upbringing.
Poker & Blackjack (Intellivision) ⭐- Remember back in the day when buying card based video games where a good way of getting your Dad to play video games, and have fun too. Truthfully, I’m sure Dad would rather play Burger Time instead. Anyway, FYI this game sucks, you have to have two players and read the manual to even start. Yeah, I’m out already. Anyway this was the “biggest seller” on the system, (i.e. the pack in game), it would suck if this was the only game you got with the system though.
MLB Baseball (Intellivision) ⭐⭐⭐ – I’m giving it three stars for potential. Sadly this is another two player entry, in an era when the Atari 2600 and 5200 has one player baseball games. It looks like it would be fun if I had someone else to play it with. This particular game was one of the Intellvisions “killer apps”, and really sold the system as the sports game system.
NBA Basketball (Intellivision) ⭐⭐⭐ – See the above just with basketball. There is potential here too, wish I had a second player to play with.