In the late seventies the Atari 2600 was the videogame console that ruled the roost. Sure, it may have had terrible graphics and sound capabilities (certainly by today’s standards) but it had the most important thing going for it, that being loads of games.
As the eighties were about to dawn toy manufacturer Mattel took a look at this market that Atari had all sewn up, and decided they wanted a slice of the pie, so they set their brightest boffins to work and in 1980 the Mattel Intellivision made it to general release in stores all over the US.
The Intellivision, which was a contraction of the term Intelligent Television, looked somewhat similar to the 2600 what with its black plastic and wooden veneer along the front, but inside it was a far more powerful machine than its arch rival. Both graphics and sound were much improved (although still terrible as we look back on them now) and Mattel used this point as its main advertising point, literally comparing games of similar types on the two systems to show how much better the Intellivision versions were.
The unit had a cartridge port on the right hand edge of the machine, the cartridges protruding slightly when inserted, and came with two hard wired controllers which slotted tidily away into the top of the Intellivision when not in use. The pads had a strange circular pad for directional controllers, which was capable of detecting sixteen directions of movement as opposed to the Atari 2600’s eight.
The controllers also featured an array of buttons which each game could use as it saw fit for other game options. Games came with little cards which could be inserted into the controller over the buttons to remind players what the controls were.
Games for the machine covered the usual genres you’d expect for the time period, including board games such as backgammon, Las Vegas style video poker (the game bundled with the machine, an odd choice really I think), sport games such as golf and hockey and of course the more arcadey games like Space Invaders and Frogger. The games may have been better than their Atari 2600 counterparts, but the only one that sticks in my mind was a car driving game whose name I don’t know that you sometimes saw Michael Knight playing inside KITT on Knight Rider.
The Intellivision ended up being quite popular in the US, giving Atari a good run for their money, but certainly in the UK it struggled to make the same impression that the 2600 did. Part of the reason for its popularity was the proposed keyboard controller add on which would turn the console into a fully functional computer with keyboard and tape deck. Sadly, it never got a proper release due to reliability issues, and most of the few that did make it into Intellivision owners were recalled by Mattel.
Another notable add on for the machine was the Intellivoice, which brought synthesized speech to certain games, something which was unique at the time. In the end though only four games were produced which took advantage of it, so this add on ended up being fairly unpopular too.