Games consoles have been through several waves of being “a thing” to being “not a thing” and back to being “a thing” again. The Mattel Intellivision – launched to the general public in 1980 – was released nearly at the top of the wave… which unfortunately meant that it was all going to be downhill for this interesting console.
The Intellivision had been tested in Mattel’s home market of California at the end of 1979, and in 1980 it was ready for release across the United States. More sophisticated than the Atari VCS, the Intellivision was designed as more than a games console and Mattel hoped that… well, it could be an intelligent television (hence the name).
|Original Mattel Intellivision
It was unusual in several ways. Firstly, the processor was quite unlike anything else that rivals had. The General Instrument (GI) CP1610 was a 16-bit processor with an instruction set closely based on the venerable PDP-11 which was hardly an obvious choice compared to the then-common MOS 6502 and Zilog Z80. A dedicated sound chip and graphics far superior to the Atari VCS certainly caused a splash when it was launched.
One notable hardware feature was the complicated gaming pad with a control pad and 14 buttons. The controllers took some practice to use, and while they were useful for complicated games they were a pain for games where a simple joystick would have worked better. Indeed, unlike other consoles many of the games actually required you to read the instructions before you started.
It was competitively priced at $299 (about $900 in today’s money), it had a reasonable amount of games and better graphics and sound than the Atari. After a somewhat slow start, the Intellivision started to sell strongly – shifting more than three million units up to 1983.
The Intellivision was always meant to be an expandable system, with a “Keyboard Component” which included a 6502 processor, extra RAM and a cassette drive. This add-on was meant to turn the Intellevision into a videotext-capable microcomputers. However, the project was badly delayed and was a high-profile failure resulting in fines from the FTC. Only a few thousand were sold, and most of those were bought back by Mattel when the project was cancelled – making it an exceptionally rare component today. Instead an add-on called the “Entertainment Computer System” was created which was much cheaper and less ambitious. A voice synthesiser called “Intellivoice” was also launched but had only a few games launched for it before that too was cancelled. An online service called PlayCable was trialled but cancelled.
Add-on woes aside, the Intellivision was selling well – and not just under the Mattel name. Bandai, Sears, Tandy, GTE and Sharp had their own versions. A cosmetically updated Intellivision II was launched in the US and Brazil in 1983 which was cheaper to make and less bulky. Mattel had plans for the Intellivision III and IV which would have been progressively better…
..but then in 1983 the bottom fell out of the console market. There were too many different consoles on the market, margins were getting very thin and competition from cheaper and more powerful microcomputers led to a disastrous market crash. Up until that point Mattel Electronics had been profitable and had continued to grow in terms of staff and investment – but suddenly it started posting enormous losses.
Mattel Electronics collapsed over six month period in late 1983, and Mattel sold on the remains for just $20 million in early 1984. But that wasn’t the end of the story. New owners INTV Corporation launched the INTV System III along with some unreleased Mattel games and a few they created themselves, the System III continued in production until 1990.
You might think that the story of this slightly weird games console would end there, but it didn’t. In 2014 the Intellivision Flashback was launched, packaging many popular games into a more modern hardware platform while retaining the same esoteric controller. Scheduled for release in October 2020 is the Intellivision Amico which reimagines the Intellivision concept on modern hardware.
Today the Intellivision is quite collectable, with prices varying widely usually depending on the number of packaged games – prices in the US commonly start at less than $100 and go up to $500 or so. Alternatively the upcoming Amico is slated to be $249, although that will be a very different experience to the original. Either way this 40 year old game system still seems to have its fans today..
Nicolas Nova via Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0
Andy Simmons via Flickr - -CC BY-ND 2.0