DP Royal Archives - Intellivision

Break Out the Intellivision!
by Joe Santulli

intellivision.gif (48437 bytes)There are two kinds of people in the world: those who love the classic gaming console called Intellivision and those who don’t know what Intellivision is.

In 1979, there was Atari. They had revolutionized home gaming, which had previously been (for lack of a better word) "blah." Their competition consisted of: an already-outdated Fairchild Channel F, whose harsh sounds didn’t even come from the TV, but from the console itself; the RCA Studio II, whose harsh graphics were not even in color; and Magnavox’s Odyssey2, a system "making a run for it," but never really taken seriously by the industry.

When Mattel entered the market, they created the first real console war, a tradition in home gaming that will likely live on forever.

Mattel’s console posed the most serious competition for Atari in the battle for home video gaming supremacy. The Intellivision is a fine unit with many qualities that surpass the seemingly archaic Atari 2600, at least "on paper," allowing more on-screen activity (with fewer drawbacks), more sound channels, a 16-direction disc controller with a numeric keypad, an optional voice synthesis module and better graphic resolution. You would think that would have been enough to conquer the Atari 2600 back in 1979, but it wasn't. Several years later, a computer adapter and musical synthesizer were released for the system and even they didn’t inspire enough consumers to make Mattel bigger than Atari.

That is not to say that Mattel was a failure. Far from that, actually. Not only did they remain very close to Atari's sales during their peak years (1980-1983), but they also produced some sophisticated software that even Atari addicts could never hope to play on their machines.

Mattel’s signature was George Plimpton’s TV commercials highlighting the sports games. Watching NFL Football for Intellivision side-by-side with Atari’s flickerfest called Football, could there have been a viewer that didn’t cringe at the difference? Mattel’s game featured play calling via a complex series of keypad codes, a 16-direction pad making fakes a reality and crowd sounds that, at the time, were simply incredible.

Mattel’s "NFL Football" brings up a fond memory for me. Well after my high school years, when I was the scourge of the gridiron, mastering fakes and finding pixel locations where interceptions were simply impossible (my game was all offense - I figured that if I could score on every drive, defense simply did not matter), I was challenged by a friend to play his brother, who he dared call "unbeatable." Certainly up for the challenge to beat this so-called unbeatable gamer, I dusted off my Intellivision and practiced for a week full of nights.

The showdown day finally came, and I felt brushed-up enough to relive my high school years (I guess we all want that at some point in our lives). Yes, I would dare say I felt like I would kick the unholy crap out of this guy. So we got together - the formalities being very brief - for a match that stands up there with the Ali-Frazier bouts, the Yankees-Red Sox rivalries and the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan face-offs - only without so much bloodletting. "Jimmy," as it turned out, played much the same game I did - all offense, hope the other guy makes a mistake and then capitalize on it for another TD.

This was a meeting between two "NFL"ers who had never seen competition rise to their level. He would score, I would score. I’d stop him, he’d stop me. This continued up until the final quarter when, with less than a minute on the clock, he pulled a trick out of his hat that I had never seen before. Fading back for a pass, I had seen him pull the screen or fake it and go diagonally across the middle. I guessed screen as he raced up toward the fat out-of-bounds line at the top of the screen. Ready to defend either option, I heard the pass fly but could not see the ball. If you’ve ever played "NFL Football," you may remember the screaming siren that indicates the ball is in the air. It’s something like an incoming missile. Only this time, the missile was invisible. The next sound I heard was the one that indicates a pass is caught and, sure enough, his receiver was past me, seconds later standing in the end zone. It was too late for me to catch up, and Jimmy won the game. When I asked him to repeat the trick, he did so gleefully. You see, the white ball against the white out-of-bounds line produces no image. If you can get a receiver near that line, a pass could go virtually undetected. I was the hapless dupe.

horsrace.jpg (5850 bytes)There are so many memories for Intellivision owners, probably as common as my experience with NFL Football. Many games were playable only on this machine, as Mattel made a habit early in the race to produce their own original titles. That is not to say that they didn’t pull a few imitations: Space Armada is a really slow Space Invaders clone, Night Stalker tries hard to replace Berzerk and Lock N Chase is yet another Pac-Man wannabe, but these are the exceptions. For the most part, Mattel’s original game concepts made the Intellivision special.

For example, who could not appreciate the charm of Frog Bog, where two toads compete by sucking up flying insects? Is there a gamer alive who has played Star Strike and doesn’t remember the fear of losing, the culmination of which is a visual display of the entire Earth being blown to bits? Could you play Snafu with a buddy and put it down moments later, saying "no, this is really boring?" Of course not. These games added character to the system. They are distinct in style and, for some odd reason, in sound. When I see someone get "burned" in life, my mind plays the little derezz sound from Tron Deadly Discs: "POK! Shhhhhhhhhhhhh." Whenever I’m driving along and shamelessly cut off a driver not paying close enough attention, I hear the Snafu "dead snake" sound bite, "BAM! Zooooooooooooot," as I wave in my rear view mirror. Maybe I’m weird that way. Who am I kidding? There’s no "maybe" about it. But I guarantee that any Intellivision addict still hears some of the memorable moments play back, even if it’s just for a brief moment.

A third-party developer called Imagic provided some really special software for the Intellivision. Sure, they were busy with Atari consoles too; they even did a few games for the ColecoVision and Odyssey2. But their contributions for the Intellivision are absolutely classic by today’s standards. Give me Microsurgeon, where you play a tiny science probe out to destroy the nasties inside a human patient. Watch in horror as the patient’s head scrolls into view and you are attacked by renegade bacteria! I’ll never walk away from Dracula either, where a huge city awaits the bite of the count - a game that also includes zombies, bats, flying stakes and a white wolf. Right out of Bram Stoker’s brain, that was. I can also play White Water or Ice Trek until the power supply dies, which these days is after about fifteen minutes. Both of these Imagic games feature angry gods who will strike you down if you attempt to cheat! Ya gotta love that.

While all of these terrific games were being produced, Atari was going nuts with consoles and software all over the place. Coleco entered the market with their own formidable machine (ColecoVision) and, by late 1983, it seemed there were more games and systems than anyone could keep track of (curiously, just like late 1996, it would seem). Before any of us knew it, game companies were bailing out. At first, this was a good thing, my buddies and I being the first to sweep the discount bins and clearance racks. Good turned to bad as we realized these guys were serious. There weren’t going to be any new games.

Moments before the crash, Mattel sold off their remaining stuff to INTV, who disappeared for a while, reappearing well after the crash to sell some top-notch software. They remade most of the sports games, adding one-player capability (a real glitch in the early Mattel games) and "super" improvements, hence the words "Super Pro," which preceded the new titles. Besides the great sports games (Super Pro Golf, Super Pro Skiing, Super Pro Football, Super Pro Basketball, Super Pro Hockey and Super Pro Decathlon), INTV also added some of the best Intellivision games to an already impressive lineup. Diner, a sequel to the classic Burgertime, is a memorable 3-D experience in the world of fast food. Very fast, in fact. Very fast and very angry. Stadium Mud Buggies incorporated eight different games into one tight package, an excellent head-to-head racing game. In my humble opinion, the underrated Tower of Doom shows just how much you can cram into a few K of memory. As we all found out, it was quite an enormous amount indeed.

There’s more to like about the Intellivision, like the computer adapter that came out in 1983, allowing us to play the greatest baseball sim of the classic era (World Series Major League Baseball) and the voice synthesis adapter that, for the first time, brought real speech into our games (B-17 Bomber: "That was not our target!," to which the typical Intellivision player would respond "heh heh heh... accidentally hit the hospital!"). We all cried when INTV announced that they would no longer be supporting the Intellivision. Well, maybe we didn’t cry... but the eyes were definitely moist.

Nowadays, all you need is pocket change to get a used Intellivision console, and it’s hard to find too many bad games for this system. Try the games I’ve listed here for starters, and if you’re looking for advice on future purchases, drop me a line. I am an Intellivision die-hard, and I don’t expect I’ll ever do without a quick fix of those games for very long.

Intellivision Technical Information:

Processor: General Instruments CP1610 (16-bit) Screen RAM: 7K internal ROM, RAM and I/O structures - remaining 64K address space available for external programs
Screen Resolution: 192x160
Colors: 16
Sound: Three sound channels
Controllers: 12-button hardwired (on original unit), with four side-action buttons and 16-direction movement disc.

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Last updated Tuesday, February 13, 2007 06:01 PM