Bit Generation Series:
Second Generation (1976 – 1983)
“The Birth of Single Player Gaming”
The series continues with the 2nd Generation, covering 1976 – 1983 and the enduring Post Pong technology. The 8-Bit Generation began with the release of the Fairchild Channel F, partly fuelled by the golden age of arcade video games.
The Atari 2600 became the dominant console for much of this generation, although other consoles such as Intellivision, Odyssey 2 and ColecoVision also enjoying part of the market share.
Some features over that of the first generation consoles include Microprocessor based game logic, AI simulation (allowing single player gaming), ROM Cartridges, game playfields that were able to flip screens, resolutions of around 160 x 192, up to 3 channel audio and colour graphics (2 colour (1 bit), 16 colour (4 bit)).
It ended with a flood of low-quality games (eg: Pacman 2600, ET) which caused retailers and consumers lose faith in video game consoles, with most video game companies filing for bankruptcy and abandoning their consoles. Although a group of employees from Mattel formed INTV after buying the rights to Intellivision and continued to release new games until 1991. With revenues for others falling by 97% this marked the video game crash of 1983.
Fairchild Channel F (1976)
Released by Fairchild Semiconductor in November 1976 (North America) and October 1977 (Japan) for a retail price of $169.95 It has the advantage of being the first programmable ROM cartridge game system as well as the first to use a microprocessor (Fairchild F8, 1.79Mhz). It sold over 250,000 until its end in 1983. It wa launched as the Video Entertainment System (VES), although when Atari launched the VCS the following year, Fairchild renamed its machine.
The Chanel F electronics were designed by Jerry Lawson. Lawson worked with Nick Talesfore and Ron Smith. Talesfore was manager of Industrial Design and responsible for the design of the hand controllers, console and video game cartridges. Smith was responsible for mechanical engineering of the cartridges and controllers. They all worked for Wilf Corigan, a division of Fairchild Camera & Instrument.
Channel F Graphics
The graphics were very basic, with only being able to use one plane of graphics and one of four background colours per line, with only three plot colours to choose from (red, green, and blue).
It had a resolution of 128 × 64 (approx. 102 × 58 pixels visible) and help from only 64 bytes of system RAM (half the amount of the Atari 2600). TheF8 processor (at the heart of the console) was able to produce enough AI to allow for player versus computer matches, a first in console history. All previous machines required a human opponent.
Another unique feature was the ability to freeze the game (Hold key) or change the speed of the game. Sound played through the internal speaker in the original unit, although System II passed sound to the TV through the RF modulator.
The controllers were basically a joystick without a base; the main body is a large hand grip with a triangular “cap” on top, the top being the portion that actually moved for eight-way directional control. It could be used as both a joystick and paddle (twist), and not only could it be pushed down to operate as a fire button it could be pulled up as well. The model 1 unit contained a small compartment for storing the controllers when moving it and the System II featured detachable controllers and had two holders at the back to wind the cable around and to store the controller in. Zircon offered a special ‘front action button’ controller, marketed as the ‘Channel F Jet-Stick’ in a letter sent out to registered owners before Christmas 1982.
27 game cartridges (Videocarts, normally yellow in colour) were officially released, with the first 20 being released by Fairchild. Some of these were capable of playing more than one game and were typically priced at $19.95. The console also contained two built-in games, Tennis and Hockey, which were both advanced Pong clones.
01 – Tic-Tac-Toe, Shooting Gallery, Doodle, Quadra-Doodle
02 – Desert Fox, Shooting Gallery
03 – Video Blackjack
04 – Spitfire
05 – Space War
06 – Math Quiz I (Add and Subtract)
07 – Math Quiz II (Multiplication and Division)
08 – Magic Numbers (Mind Reader & Nim)
09 – Drag Race / Drag Strip
10 – Maze (Jailbreak, Blind Man’s Bluff, Trailblazer)
11 – Backgammon, Acey-Deucey
12 – Baseball
13 – Robot War / Torpedo Alley
14 – Sonar Search
15 – Memory Match
16 – Dodge’ It
17 – Pinball Challenge
18 – Hangman
19 – Checkers
20 – Video Whizball
21 – Bowling
22 – Slot Machine
23 – Galactic Space Wars
24 – Pro Football
25 – Casino Poker
26 – Alien Invasion
Other carts never released were:
Keyboard Cart 01 – Casino Poker
Keyboard Cart 02 – Space Odyssey
Keyboard Cart 03 – Pro Football
These carts were intended to use the Keyboard accessory. All further brochures, released after Zircon took over Fairchild, never listed this accessory.
The graphics of Studio II games were black and white, resembling earlier Pong games. It did not have a joystick as such but instead used two ten button keypads that were built into the console itself. It was only capable of making simple beep sounds with slight variations in tone and length.
It had 5 built-in games (Addition, Bowling, Doodle, Freeway and Patterns) and used a switchbox that relayed both the modulated RF signal of the console’s video to the television set while powering the console with DC power. This type of switchbox would not be seen again until the Atari 5200.
The Studio II was not a successful product; the previously released Fairchild Channel F made it obsolete at launch and it suffered a final decisive blow when the superior Atari 2600 console was released only 10 months later. After poor Christmas sales in 1977, RCA ceased production of the Studio II and offloaded excess inventory to Radio Shack in a fire sale.
In 1978 RCA laid off 120 workers at its plant that produced the system in North Carolina. Some analysts blamed the fact the RCA Studio II’s games were in black and white, and could not compete with systems offering colour.
(18V400) TV Arcade I: Space War
(18V401) TV Arcade II: Fun with Numbers
(18V402) TV Arcade III: Tennis/Squash
(18V403) TV Arcade IV: Baseball
(18V404) TV Arcade Series: Speedway/Tag
(18V405) TV Arcade Series: Gunfighter/Moonship Battle
(18V500) TV School House I
(18V501) TV School House II: Math Fun
(18V600) TV Casino I: Blackjack
(18V601) TV Casino Series: TV Bingo
(18V700) TV Mystic Series: Biorhythm
Many of the Studio II clones had the same games but they also had unique titles not released in the USA:
(M1200-05) Star Wars (Sheen M1200)
(M1200-07) Pinball (Sheen M1200) or Flipper (German Clone)
List of carts released on the MPT-02 clones (France/Australia)
(MG-200) Grand Pack (Doodle, Patterns, Blackjack and Bowling)
(MG-202) Concentration Match
(MG-203) Star Wars
(MG-204) Math Fun (School House II)
(MG-208) Fun with Numbers
(MG-209) Computer Quiz (School House I)
(MG-212) Spacewar Intercept
(MG-213) Gun Fight/Moon ship
List of carts released on the Visicom COM-100 clone (Japan)
(CAS-110) Arithmetic drill (Math Fun & Fun with Numbers)
(CAS-130) Sports fan (Baseball & Sumo Wrestling)
(CAS-140) Gambler I (Blackjack)
(CAS-141) Gambler II (Slot Machine and Dice)
(CAS-160) Space Command (Space War)
(CAS-190) Inspiration (Bagua and Biorhythm)
Released by Atari on September 11, 1977 (Europe (1978), Japan (1983)), and it is credited with popularizing the use of microprocessor-based hardware and ROM cartridges containing game code, that allowed you to play the games that were physically built into the unit.
It ran the 8-bit MOS 6507 CPU (1.19Mhz) and carried 128b of RAM and 4kb ROM. It was discontinued in 1992 and had sold some 30 million units in its lifetime (retailed $199 and shipped with two joysticks and a Combat cartridge). Its biggest selling game was Pac-Man (7 million) and which eventually led to its downfall.
GameLine was a dialup game distribution service for the Atari 2600, developed and operated by Control Video Corporation (CVC). It allowed subscribers the ability to download games to a storage cartridge to their home console over a telephone line. GameLine is notable for its exclusive selection of games, and for its pioneering business model which eventually gave rise to America Online. The game would typically work for 5-10 plays, after which the user would have to connect to GameLine again and pay for another download (registered users were also given a free game on their birthday, opportunity for players to compete in ‘high score’ contests and professionally pinted magazine titled ‘GameLiner’).
The “Master Module” physically resembles an oversized silver Atari cartridge. It has a phone jack on the side that was used to link the Master Module with the CVC computers. The module is able to transmit with pulse or tone dialing, allowing the unit to be versatile in the field. The games available on the GameLine service were all from third-party gamemakers, the largest of which was Imagic (now controlled by Activision). CVC tried, but failed to obtain licensing agreements from the largest game makers, such as Atari, Activision, Coleco, Mattel, and Parker Brothers.
GameLine was originally envisioned to not provide just games, but also news (NewsLine), stock quotes (StockLine), sports reporting and scores (SportLine), electronic mail (MailLine), online banking (BankLine), online forums (OpinionLine), and a wide variety of information including airline schedules, horoscopes, and classified ads (InfoLine). It ceased operations (video game crash) before any of these expanded services were offered, though StockLine and SportsLine were reportedly near complete implementation.
The investors and founding members of CVC went on to start a new company that would continue to use the technological infrastructure they had built. The company, named Quantum Computer Services (created by Steve Case). This company created a service named Quantum Link which linked together Commodore 64 and Commodore 128 users offering many of the expanded services originally envisioned for GameLine. Quantum Computer Services eventually became America Online in October 1991, which became extremely successful during the 1990s, and eventually took over Time Warner in 2001 and although the company still technically exists, support for the GameLine has now ceased.
Games available on Gameline
- Bank Heist
- Bermuda Triangle
- China Syndrome
- Commando Raid
- Cosmic Ark
- Cosmic Creeps
- Cosmic Swarm
- Cross Force
- Crypts of Chaos
- Deadly Duck
- Demolition Herby
- Demon Attack
- The Earth Dies Screaming
- Encounter At L-5
- Fantastic Voyage
- Fast Food
- Fire Fighter
- Flash Gordon
- Frankenstein’s Monster
- Gangster Alley
- King Kong
- Lost Luggage
- M. A. D.
- Mines of Minos
- Name This Game
- No Escape
- Piece O’ Cake
- Planet Patrol
- Raft Rider
- Ram It
- Revenge of the Beefsteak Tomatoes
- Riddle of the Sphinx
- Room Of Doom
- Save The Whales
- Shark Attack
- Shootin’ Gallery
- Sneak & Peek
- Solar Storm
- Space Cavern
- Space Jockey
- Spacemaster X-7
- Squeeze Box
- Star Voyager
- Tape Worm
- Towering Inferno
- Trick Shot
- Word Zapper
- Worm War I
History of 2600
Ted Dabney and Nolan Bushnell developed the Atari gaming system in the 1970s. Originally operating under the name “Syzygy”, Bushnell and Dabney changed the name of their company to “Atari” in 1972. In 1973, Atari Inc. had purchased an engineering think tank called Cyan Engineering to research next-generation video game systems, and had been working on a prototype known as “Stella” (named after one of the engineers’ bicycles) for some time. Unlike prior generations of machines that use custom logic to play a small number of games, its core is a complete CPU, the famous MOS Technology 6502 in a cost-reduced version known as the 6507. It was combined with a RAM-and-I/O chip, the MOS Technology 6532, and a display and sound chip known as the Television Interface Adaptor (TIA). The first two versions of the machine contain a fourth chip, a standard CMOS logic buffer IC, making Stella cost-effective. Some later versions of the console eliminated the buffer chip altogether.
Hewlett-Packard manufactured desktop computers costing thousands of dollars such as the HP 9830, which packaged Read Only Memory (ROM) into removable cartridges to add special programming features, and these were being considered for use in games. At first, the design was not going to be cartridge-based, but after seeing a “fake” cartridge system on another machine, they realized they could place the games on cartridges essentially for the price of the connector and packaging. Nolan Bushnell eventually turned to Warner Communications, and sold the company to them in 1976 for $28 million on the promise that Stella would be produced as soon as possible.
With the key to the eventual success of the machine was the hiring of Jay Miner, a chip designer who managed to squeeze an entire wire wrap of equipment making up the TIA into a single chip.
The second 2600 model is the “Light Sixer”, which has lighter plastic molding and shielding, and a more angular shape, than the 1977 launch model, the “Heavy Sixer”. Later 2600 models only used four front switches.
To compete directly with the Channel F VES, Atari named the machine the Video Computer System (VCS). The VCS was also rebadged as the Sears Video Arcade and sold through Sears, Roebuck and Company stores. Another breakthrough for gaming systems was Atari’s invention of a computer-controlled opponent.
For its first year of production it was manufactured in Sunnyvale, California. Thereafter production moved to Hong Kong, and the consoles manufactured there had thinner plastic molding. In 1978, only 550,000 units from a production run of 800,000 were sold, requiring further financial support from Warner to cover losses. This led directly to the disagreements that caused Nolan Bushnell to leave the company in 1978.
Once programmers learned how to push its hardware’s capabilities (aka Adventure by Warren Robinett), the VCS gained popularity. By this point, Fairchild had given up; thinking video games were a passing fad, thereby handing the entire quickly growing market to Atari.
By 1979, the VCS was the best-selling Christmas gift due to its exclusive content, and 1 million units were sold that year alone.
With the increasing popularity in 1980, Atari released Space Invaders (Taito) which doubled its sales to over 2 million units. Sales then doubled again for the next two years; by 1982, the console had sold 10 million units, while its best-selling game Pac-Man sold 7 million copies.
By 1982 the 2600 console cost Atari about $40 to make and was sold for an average of $125. The company spent $4.50 to $6 to manufacture each cartridge and $1 to $2 for advertising, and sold it for $18.95 wholesale.
In 1980, the VCS was given a minor revision in which the left and right difficulty switches were moved to the back of the console, leaving four switches on the front. Other than this, these four-switch consoles looked nearly identical to the earlier six-switch models. In 1982, another version of the four-switch console was released without woodgrain. They were nicknamed “Darth Vader” consoles due to their all-black appearance. These were also the first consoles to be officially called “Atari 2600”.
Later however, they designed the Atari 2700, a wireless version of the console that was never released because of a design flaw.
Codenamed “Cindy”, and designed by Atari engineer Joe Tilly, the Atari 2800 had four controller ports instead of the standard two on the Atari 2600’s. The controllers are an all-in one design using a combination of an 8-direction digital joystick and a 270-degree paddle, designed by John Amber.
Atari continued their OEM relationship with Sears under the latter’s Tele-Games brand label, which started in 1975 with the original Pong. Sears released several versions of the 2600 as the Sears Video Arcade series from 1977 to 1983. These include the Rev. A “Heavy Sixer” model in 1977, the Rev. B “4 switch” model in 1980, and the US version of the Atari 2800 branded as the Sears Video Arcade II in 1983. Three games were also produced for Sears as exclusive releases under the Tele-Games brand: Steeplechase, Stellar Track, and Submarine Commander.
With the programmers of many of their biggest hits becoming disgruntled (for not crediting game developers); many left the company and formed their own independent software companies. The most prominent and longest-lasting of these third-party developers was Activision (1980), whose titles quickly became more popular than those of Atari itself. This made Atari attempt to block third-party development for the 2600 in court but failed, and soon other publishers; such as Imagic and Coleco, entered the market. Atari also suffered from an image problem when a company named Mystique produced a number of pornographic games for the 2600. The most notorious of these, Custer’s Revenge, was protested by women’s and Native American groups.
By mid-1984 most software development for the 2600 had stopped except by Atari and Activision, with many other developers emphasizing on ColecoVision games. Warner quickly grew tired of supporting Atari and started looking for buyers in 1984.
Although not formally discontinued, the 2600 was de-emphasized for two years after Warner’s 1984 sale of Atari Consumer Division to Commodore Business Machines founder Jack Tramiel, who wanted to concentrate on home computers.
The Atari 2600 Jr was the 1986 cost-reduced ‘smaller form factor’ version. It was advertised as a budget gaming system (under US$50) that had the ability to run a large collection of classic games.
It was originally to be packaged with a Pro-Line joystick (the same one used on the Atari 7800), but when it was released, it instead included the original CX-40 Joystick. Later European versions of the 2600 Jr. included a joypad, which was also featured with the European 7800.
The Atari originally shipped with two types of controllers, a joystick as well as a pair of paddle controllers. Later, new controllers were added to the game system including a driving controller, a track-ball controller, and finally keypad controllers. The Atari joystick port and CX40 joystick became industry standards, many peripherals are interchangeable with the MSX and other Japanese systems, the Commodore 64, Commodore 128, Amiga, Sega Master System, and Mega Drive/Genesis, though functionality may be somewhat limited. Also, although Master System and Mega Drive/Genesis controllers work on the Atari 2600, only the “B” button can be used in most games.
The Starpath Supercharger that expands the game capabilities by adding an extra 6 kB to the Atari 2600’s 128 bytes of RAM, allowing for larger games with higher-resolution graphics. A cord coming out of the side of the cartridge plugs into the earphone jack of any standard cassette player. Games for the Supercharger are stored on standard audio cassettes.
In 1977, nine games were released on cartridge to accompany the launch of the machine, including Outlaw, Space War and Breakout. During the initial era, 136 titles were created including:
Adventure (often credited as starting the action-adventure game genre), Breakout, and Yars’ Revenge. The console’s popularity attracted many third-party developers, which led to popular titles such as Activision’s Pitfall! and Imagic’s Atlantis. However, two Atari published titles; E.T. and Pac-Man, are frequently blamed for contributing to the video game crash of 1983, and rumoured to have their unsold stock buried in the middle of the desert.
The Atari 2000 (model number CX-2000) was a prototype version of the Atari 2600 that was intended to be released as a cheaper alternative for children in 1982. Although identical in specification to the original 2600, the 2000 included built-in controllers and an innovative case design. The 2000 was originally intended to be black, but it was later recoloured blue to appeal more to children. While Atari never officially stated the reason for not releasing the 2000, experts have cited the poor quality and durability of its built-in joysticks and the greater in-house popularity of the competing 2600 Jr. design as the most likely reasons.
Atari started work on a replacement to the 2600, called the Atari 3200, with codenames including Super Stella, Sylvia, and PAM (a note attached reads “Super Stella: Multipurpose”). The system was to have compatibility with Atari 2600 cartridges, and was rumoured to be based on a 10-bit processor, although design documents shows it was to actually be based around the 6502 8-bit CPU. It was still unfinished when preliminary game programmers discovered that it was difficult to program. The project was cancelled, and Atari went with the second “System X”, also titled PAM, that would later become the Atari 5200. Atari also cloned the Atari 3200 into the Sears Super Arcade II, but this was never released.
Bally Astrocade (1977)
Designed by Midway and marketed only for a limited time ($299) before Bally decided to exit the market. The rights were later picked up by a third-party company, who re-released it and sold it until around 1983. It utilitises the Zilog Z80 (1.789Mhz) CPU. It has 4k-664k (with external module) RAM and 8k ROM and is particularly notable for its very powerful graphics capabilities: 160×102 (8 colours), 160×88 (2 colours), 320×204
Midway contracted Dave Nutting Associates to design a video display chip that could be used in all of their videogame systems. Nutting delivered and it was used in most of Midway’s classic arcade games of the era, including Gorf and Wizard of Wor.
Delays in the production meant none of the units actually shipped until 1978, and by this time the machine had been renamed the Bally Professional Arcade. In this form it sold mostly at computer stores and had little retail exposure (unlike the Atari VCS). In 1979 Bally grew less interested in the arcade market and decided to sell off their Consumer Products Division, including development and production of the game console.
A deal was made between a 3rd party group (Astrovision) and a corporate buyer from Montgomery Ward (who was in charge of the Bally system). It was 1981 when they re-released the unit with the BASIC cartridge included for free, this time known as the Bally Computer System, and then changed the name again in 1982 to Astrocade. It sold under this name until the video game crash of 1983, and then disappeared around 1985.
Unlike the VCS, the Astrocade did not include hardware sprite support. It did, however, include a blitter-like system and software to drive it. It was also one of the early cartridge-based systems, using cartridges known as Videocades that were designed to be as close in size and shape as possible to a cassette tape. The unit also included two games built into the ROM, Gunfight and Checkmate, along with the simple but useful Calculator and a “doodle” program called Scribbling.
The Astrocade featured a relatively complex input device incorporating several types of control mechanisms: the controller was shaped as a pistol-style grip with trigger switch on the front; a small 4-switch/8-way joystick was placed on top of the grip, and the shaft of the joystick connected to a potentiometer, meaning that the stick could be rotated to double as a paddle controller, although they had the downside of breaking frequently.
On the front of the unit was a 24-key “hex-pad” keyboard used for selecting games and options. Most cartridges included two games, and when they were inserted the machine would reset and display a menu starting with the programs on the cartridge and then listing the four built-in programs. On the back were a number of ports, including connectors for power, the controllers, and an expansion port. One oddity was that the top rear of the unit was empty, and could be opened to store up to 15 cartridges. The system’s ability to be upgraded from a Videogame console to Personal computer along with its library of nearly 30 games in 1982 are some reasons that made it more versatile than its main competitors.
The Astrocade also included a BASIC programming language cartridge which was based on Li-Chen Wang’s Tiny BASIC. Supporting BASIC on the system was difficult, because the display alone used up almost all the available RAM. The solution to this problem was to store the BASIC program code in the video RAM.
Programs were entered via the keyboard, with each of the keys assigned to a single command, number, and several alpha characters. These were selected through a set of 4 coloured shift keys.
There were 28 officially released video games for the system.
- 280 Zzzap / Dodgem (1978)
- Amazing Maze / Tic Tac Toe (1978)
- Artillery Duel (1982)
- Astro Battle (1981) (originally titled Space Invaders)
- Bally Pin (1981)
- Biorhythm (1981)
- Blackjack / Poker / Acey-Deucey (1978)
- Blast Droids (1981)
- Clowns / Brickyard (1979)
- Cosmic Raiders (1978)
- Dog Patch (1978)
- Elementary Math and Speed Math (1978)
- Football (1978)
- Grand Prix / Demolition Derby (1978)
- Gun Fight (1977)
- The Incredible Wizard (1981)
- Letter Match / Spell’n Score / Crosswords (1981)
- CandyMan (1983) (very rare)
- Muncher (1981)
- Panzer Attack / Red Baron (1978)
- Pirates Chase (1981)
- Sea Devil (1983) (rare)
- Seawolf / Missile (1978)
- Galactic Invasion (1981) (originally titled Galaxian)
- Galaxian (1981) (later retitled Galactic Invasion)
- Solar Conqueror (1981)
- Space Fortress (1981)
- Space Invaders (1981) (AKA Astro Battle)
- Star Battle (1978)
- Tornado Baseball / Tennis / Hockey / Handball (1978)
- Machine Language Manager
- Treasure Cove (1983) (Spectre Systems)
- ICBM Attack (Spectre Systems) With the Spectre Systems handle (Extremely rare)
Magnavox Odyssey 2 (1978)
The Magnavox Odyssey², also known in Europe as the Philips Videopac G7000 is a home video game console released in 1978 (North America 1979). It was discontinued on 20th March 1984 with some 2 million units sold at an introductory price of $179. It ran the Intel 8048 CPU alongside 64b of RAM and 1Mb of ROM. Video was handled by the Intel 8244 (NTSC) or 8245 (PAL) Custom IC, allowing or resolutions such as 160×200 with 16 colour fixed palettes.
The original Odyssey had a number of removable circuit cards that switched between the built-in games whilst the Odyssey², each game could be a completely unique experience, with its own background graphics, foreground graphics, gameplay, scoring, and music. The potential was enormous, as an unlimited number of games could be individually purchased; a game player could purchase a library of video games tailored to his or her own interest. Unlike any other system at that time, the Odyssey² included a full alphanumeric membrane keyboard, which was to be used for educational games, selecting options, or programming (Magnavox released a cartridge called Computer Intro! with the intent of teaching simple computer programming).
It used the standard joystick design of the era; with the original console having a ‘one handed’ square silver controller, for its eight-direction stick that was manipulated with the other hand. Later releases had a similar black controller, with an 8-pointed star-shaped housing for its eight-direction joystick. In the upper corner of the joystick was a single ‘Action’ button, silver on the original controllers and red on the black controllers. The games, graphics and packaging were designed by Ron Bradford and Steve Lehner.
One of the strongest points of the system was its speech synthesis unit, which was released as an add-on for speech, music, and sound effects enhancement. The first game released was Quest for the Rings; with gameplay somewhat similar to Dungeons & Dragons, and a storyline reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings. Later, two other games were released in this series, Conquest of the World and The Great Wall Street Fortune Hunt, each with its own game board.
It was marketed with phrases such as “The Ultimate Computer Video Game System”, “Sync-Sound Action”, “True-Reality Synthesization”, “On-Screen Digital Readouts” and “a serious educational tool” on the packaging for the console and its game cartridges.
Although no third-party game appeared for the Odyssey² in the United States until Imagic’s Demon Attack in 1983; this lack of third-party support kept the number of new games very limited, but the success of the Philips Videopac G7000 overseas led to two other companies producing games for it: Parker Brothers released Popeye, Frogger, Q*bert and Super Cobra, while Imagic also released Atlantis.
In Europe, it did very well on the market. The console was most widely known as the Philips Videopac G7000, or just the Videopac, although branded variants were released in some areas of Europe under the names Philips Videopac C52, Radiola Jet 25, Schneider 7000, and Siera G7000. Philips, as Magnavox’s Dutch parent company, used their own name rather than Magnavox’s for European marketing.
- The Voice: provides speech synthesis and enhanced sound effects
- Chess Module: It did not have enough memory and computing power for a decent implementation of chess on its own, so the C7010 chess module contained a secondary CPU with its own extra memory to run the chess program
- Videopac+/Jopac-compatible only, Microsoft Basic.
This rare C7420 Home Computer Module, made available in 1983 by Philips, was a costly extension for the newer Videopac+ and Jopac consoles only. It came with a very large A4 manual, and required an optional external tape recorder to save the programs. This module was the sole valuable justification of the presence of a so-called keyboard, which was supposedly designed to look like a hybrid educational toy.
Fairchild Channel F II (1979)
In 1979 Zircon International bought the rights to the Channel F and released the re-designed (by Nick Talesfore) console as the Channel F System II to compete with Atari’s VCS. Although only 6 new games were released after the debut of the second system before its demise, several of which were developed at Fairchild before they sold it off.
The changes were in design; with the controllers removable from the base unit (instead of being wired directly into it), the storage compartment was moved to the rear of the unit, and the sound was now mixed into the TV signal.
However by this time the market was in the midst of the first video game crash, and Fairchild eventually threw in the towel and left the market. A number of licensed versions were released in Europe, including the Luxor Video Entertainment System (Sweden), Adman Grandstand (UK) and the Saba Videoplay, Nordmende Teleplay and ITT Tele-Match Processor (Germany).
Mattel Intellivision (1980)
Released by Mattel Electronics in 1979, the name ‘Intellivision’ is a portmanteau of “intelligent television”. In 1984 Mattel sold the Intellivision business to a former Mattel Electronics executive and investors that would become INTV Corporation. Games development started in 1978 and continued until 1990 when the Intellivision was discontinued, although in its lifetime had sold over 3 million. It retailed for $299/£199 and utilised the General Instruments CP1610 CPU (16bit) offering speeds of 1.789Mhz, alongside 1456b-7168bRAM and came with Las Vegas Poker & Blackjack and a library of ten cartridges.
The controller featured a 12-button numeric keypad (0-9, clear, and enter), Four side-located action buttons (two for left handed players, two for right handed players), top two side buttons are electronically the same, giving three distinct buttons. A directional pad, capable of detecting 16 directions of movement alongside laminated overlays that slide into place as an extra layer on the keypad to show game-specific key functions.
It was developed at Mattel in Hawthorne, California along with their Mattel Electronics (a subsidiary in 1981) line of handheld electronic games. Mattel had identified a new but expensive chipset from National Semiconductor and negotiated better pricing for a simpler design. APh Technological Consulting suggested a General Instrument chipset instead. Although the GI chipset lacked reprogrammable graphics and Mattel worked with GI to implement changes. GI published an updated chipset in their 1978.
The Mattel team, headed by David Chandler began engineering the hardware, including the famous hand controllers and by 1978, David Rolfe of APh developed the executive control software (Exec) and with a group of Caltech summer student hires, programmed the first games. Graphics were designed by artists at Mattel that included Dave James.
In its first year, Mattel sold out its initial 175,000 production run of Intellivision “Master Components”. In 1981, over 1 million Intellivision consoles had actually been sold. The Intellivision Master Component was branded and distributed by various companies before Mattel shifted manufacturing to Hong Kong, Mattel Intellivisions had been manufactured by GTE Sylvania.
Inside every Intellivision is 4K of ROM containing the Exec software. It provides two benefits: reusable code that can effectively make a 4K cartridge an 8K game, and a software framework for new programmers to develop games more easily and quickly.
Initially, all Intellivision games were programmed by the outside firm, APh Technological Consulting, with 19 cartridges produced before Christmas 1980. Once the Intellivision project became successful, software development would be brought in-house. Mattel formed its own software development group and began hiring programmers.
The original five members of that Intellivision team were Mike Minkoff, Rick Levine, John Sohl, Don Daglow, and manager Gabriel Baum. Levine and Minkoff, a long-time Mattel Toys veteran, both came over from the hand-held Mattel games engineering team. During 1981 Mattel hired programmers as fast it could and in early 1982 Mattel relocated from HQ to an unused industrial building. Office renovation began as new staff moved in and to help keep these programmers from being hired away by rival Atari (with their identity and work location was kept a closely guarded secret). In public, the programmers were referred to collectively as the Blue Sky Rangers.
Every cartridge produced by Mattel included two plastic controller “overlays” to help navigate the 12 keypad buttons (although not every game made use of the keypad).
Starting in 1982 programmers looking for credit and royalties on sales began leaving both APh and Mattel Electronics. They joined Activision, Imagic, and Atari to create Intellivision games for third party publishers. Cheshire Engineering was formed by a few senior APh programmers including David Rolfe, author of the Exec, and Tom Loughry who created one of the most popular Intellivision games Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Cheshire would then create Intellivision games for Activision in 1982; shortly followed in 1983 by Atari, Parker Brothers, Sega and Interphase.
The third party developers, not having legal access to Exec knowledge, often bypassed the Exec framework to create smooth 30 Hz and 60 Hz Intellivision games (e.g. The Dreadnaught Factor). Cheaper ROM prices also allowed for larger games as 8K, 12K, and then 16K cartridges became common. The first Mattel Electronics Intellivision game to run at 60 Hz was Masters of the Universe in 1983 and dubbed with the term “Super Graphics” on the game’s packaging and marketing.
The Intellivision base design was always that of a modular home computer. The Master Component could be purchased as a stand-alone video game system and the Keyboard Component could be added, providing the computer keyboard and tape drive. Not meant to be a hobbyist or business computer, the Intellivision home computer was meant to run pre-programmed software and bring “data flow” (Videotex) into the home.
This Keyboard Component added an 8-bit 6502 processor making the Intellivision a dual processor computer. It had 16K 10-bit shared RAM that could load and execute both Intellivision CP1610 and 6502 program code from tape; a large amount as typical cartridges of the day were 4K. The cassettes have two tracks of digital data and two tracks of analog audio completely controlled by the computer. Two tracks are read only for the software, and two tracks for user data.
A high resolution 40×24 monochrome text display could overlay regular Intellivision graphics. There was an input for a microphone and two expansion ports for peripherals and RAM expansion (supporting 8kb pages). A third pass-through cartridge port was for regular Intellivision cartridges and uses the units power supply. A 40-column thermal printer was also available as well as a telephone modem planned along with the voice synthesis and voice recognition modules.
David Rolfe (APh) wrote a control program for the Keyboard Component called PicSe (Picture Sequencer) specifically for the development of multimedia applications. This proram synchronized the graphics and analog audio while concurrently saving or loading data to tape and 3 applications using this system were released on tape (Conversational French, Jack Lalanne’s Physical Conditioning and Spelling Challenge). Five BASIC applications were also released (Family Budgeting, Geography Challenge, Crosswords I, II, and III)
There were complaints from consumers who had chosen to buy the Intellivision specifically on the promise of a “coming soon” personal-computer upgrade, eventually caught the attention of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), who started investigating Mattel Electronics for fraud and false advertising. In mid-1982 the FTC ordered Mattel to pay a monthly fine (said to be $10,000) until the promised computer upgrade was in full retail distribution. To protect themselves from the ongoing fines, the Keyboard Component was officially cancelled in August 1982 and the Entertainment Computer System (ECS) module offered up in its place. Part of Mattel’s settlement with the FTC involved offering to buy back all of the existing Keyboard Components from customers. Mattel provided a full refund but without a receipt paid $550 for the Keyboard Component, $60 for the BASIC cartridge, and $30 for each cassette software. Any customer who opted to keep theirs was required to sign a waiver with the understanding that no more software would be written for the system and absolved Mattel of any future responsibility for technical support. They were also compensated with $1000 worth of Mattel Electronics products.
While approximately four thousand Keyboard Components were manufactured, it is not clear how many of them actually found their way into the hands of Intellivision customers. Today, very few of them still exist. Many were dismantled for parts whilst others were used by Mattel programmers when it was discovered that a slightly modified Keyboard Component could be interfaced with an Intellivision development system in place of the hand-built Magus board.
The ECS also offered four player game-play with the optional addition of two extra hand controllers. Four player games were in development when Mattel Electronics closed in 1984.
The Intellivoice Voice Synthesis Module was introduce d in 1982. This was a speech synthesizer which produced speech with compatible cartridges. The Intellivoice was original in two respects: human sounding male and female voices with distinct accents, and the speech-supporting games were designed with speech being an integral part of the game-play.
Developed by General Instruments, the SP0256-012 orator chip has 2KB ROM, and is used to store the speech for numerical digits, some common words, and the phrase “Mattel Electronics presents”. Speech can also be processed from the Intellivoice’s SP650 buffer chip, stored and loaded from cartridge memory. That buffer chip has its own I/O and the Intellivoice has a 30-pin expansion port under a removable top plate. Mattel had planned to use that connector for wireless hand controllers.
The amount of speech that could be compressed into an 8K or 12K cartridge and still leave room for a game was limited. Intellivoice cartridges Space Spartans and B-17 Bomber did sell about 300,000 copies each, priced a few dollars more than regular Intellivision cartridges. However, at $79 the Intellivoice did not sell as well as Mattel expected, and Intellivoices were later offered free with the purchase of a Master Component.
There were 4 titles available that utilise the Intellivoice system: Space Spartans, B-17 Bomber, Bomb Squad and Tron: Solar Sailer.
A 5th title, ‘World Series Major League Baseball’, developed as part of the ECSseries, also supports the Intellivoice if both the ECS and Intellivoice are connected concurrently. Unlike the Intellivoice-specific games, however, World Series Major League Baseball is also playable without the Intellivoice module (but not without the ECS).
In August 1983 the Intellivoice system was quietly phased out.
It was initially released without a pack-in game but was later packaged with BurgerTime (US) and Lock’N’Chase (Canada) with a $150 price tag.
The controllers were now detachable, having a different feel with plastic rather than rubber side buttons, and a flat membrane keypad. Users of the original Intellivision would miss the ability to find keypad buttons by the tactile feel of the original controller bubble keypad.
One functional difference was the addition of a video input to the cartridge port; added specifically to support the System Changer. The System Changer, also released by Mattel in 1983, and allowed the lay of Atari 2600 cartridges through the Intellivision. It also had ports that were compatible with Atari joysticks. The original Intellivision requires a hardware modification in order to work with the System Changer; a service provided by Mattel. Otherwise the Intellivision II was promoted to be compatible with the original.
It was also discovered that a few Coleco Intellivision games did not work on the Intellivision II. Mattel secretly changed the Intellivision’s internal ROM program (Exec) in an attempt to lock out 3rd party titles.
Mattel began designing their next generation console in mid-1982 codenamed Decade. It was based on the 32-bit MC68000 processor and a custom designed graphics chip. Specifications called for dual display support, 240×192 resolution bitmap and 40×24 tiled graphics modes, 16 multi-coloured sprites per line with 3D rotation and shading, 16 programmable 12-bit colours, four colours per tile, 3D rotate/zoom/shading.
It was to be an upgraded but backward compatible system; based on the same CP1610 processor but with an improved graphics STIC chip producing double the resolution with more sprites and colours. The Intellivision III existed in the lab and a new EXEC was written for it but little else. It was cancelled in mid-1983 possibly due to most of the hardware people at Mattel being laid off.
The Taiwan and French offices continued a little while longer due to contract and legal obligations although on February 4, Mattel sold the Intellivision business for $20 million.
Former Mattel Senior Vice President of Marketing, Terrence Valeski, understood that although losses were huge, the demand for video games increased in 1983 and he found investors and purchased the rights to Intellivision, the games and inventory from Mattel. Forming a new company, Intellivision Inc. By the the end of 1984 Valeski bought out the other investors and changed the name to INTV Corporation. They continued to supply the large toy stores and sold games through direct mail order. At first they sold the existing inventory of games and Intellivision II systems. When the inventory of games sold out they produced more, but without the Mattel name or unnecessary licenses on the printed materials. To lower costs, the boxes, instructions, and overlays were produced at lower quality compared to Mattel.
In France, the Mattel Electronics office found investors and became Nice Ideas in April 1984. They continued to work on Intellivision, Colecovision, and other computer games. They produced World Cup Soccer and Championship Tennis, both released in 1985.
In 1985 INTV Corporation introduced the INTV System III, also branded as the Intellivision Super Pro System, using the same design as the original Intellivision model but in black and silver. That same year INTV Corp introduced two new games that were completed at Mattel but not released: Thunder Castle and World Championship Baseball.
With their early success INTV Corp decided to produce new games and in 1986 introduced Super Pro Football, an update of Mattel NFL Football. INTV Corp continued a relationship that Mattel had with Data East and produced all new titles such as Commando in 1987. Also in 1987 INTV Corp released Dig Dug, purchased from Atari where the game was completed but not released in 1984. They also got into producing next generation games with the production of Monster Truck Rally for Nintendo NES in 1991. Although the Intellivision was discontinued in 1990, INTV Corporation did publish 21 new cartridges bringing the total Intellivision library to a total of 124 cartridges plus one compilation cartridge.
Intellivision games became readily available again when Keith Robinson and Stephen Roney, both former Intellivision programmers at Mattel, obtained exclusive rights to the Intellivision and games in 1997. That year they formed Intellivision Productions and made Intellivision for PC Volume 1 available as a free download. Intellivision games could be played on a modern computer for the first time.
It was followed by Volume 2 and another three games including Deep Pockets Super Pro Pool & Billiards; a game completed in 1990 but never released until this download in 1997. In 2000 the Intellipack 3 download was available with another four Intellivision games and emulators for Windows or Macintosh.
Intellivision Productions released Intellivision Lives! and Intellivision Rocks on compact disc in 1998 and 2001. These compilation CDs play the original game code through emulators for MS-DOS, Windows, and Macintosh computers. Together they have over 100 Intellivision games.
In 2005 Intellivision Productions announced that new Intellivision cartridges would be produced. “Deep Pockets and Illusions will be the first two releases in a series of new cartridges for the Intellivision.
Although Illusions was completed at Mattel’s French office in 1983 but never released. Deep Pockets Super Pro Pool & Billiards was programmed for INTV Corporation in 1990 and only released as a ROM file in 1998. However, no cartridges were produced.
Also in 1999, Activision released A Collection of Intellivision Classic Games for PlayStation. Also known as Intellivision Classics, it has 30 emulated Intellivision games as well as video interviews of some of the original programmers. All of the games were licensed from Intellivision Productions and none of the Activision or Imagic Intellivision games were included.
In 2003, Crave Entertainment released a PlayStation 2 version of Intellivision Lives! and then Xbox and GameCube version in 2004. In 2010 Virtual Play Games released Intellivision Lives! for the Nintendo DS including one never before released game, Blow Out. In 2008 Microsoft made Intellivision Lives! an available download on the Xbox Live Marketplace as an Xbox Original and playable on the Xbox 360.
Direct to TV System
In 2003, the Intellivision 25 and Intellivision 15 direct-to-TV systems were released by Techno Source Ltd. These are an all-in-one single controller design that plugs directly into a television. One includes 25 games the other ten. These Intellivision games were not emulated but rewritten for the native processor (Nintendo NES compatible) and adapted to a contemporary controller. As such they look and play differently than Intellivision. In 2005 they were updated for two-player play as the Intellivision X2 with 15 games. They were commercially very successful altogether selling about 4 million units by end of 2006.
Intellivision can be considered the first 16-bit game console, as it has a 16-bit microprocessor.
It was also the first game console to provide real-time human voices in the middle of gameplay, courtesy of the IntelliVoice module as well as the first game controller with a directional thumb pad.
Atari 5200 (1982)
Introduced by Atari in 1982 as a higher-end complementary console for the popular Atari 2600. It was compete with the Intellivision, but wound up more directly competing with the ColecoVision shortly after its release. With life sales in excess of 1 million units when it was discontinued on 21st May 1984.
It ran the MOS 6502C CPU (1.79Mhz) with 16k RAM alongside 2k ROM for system start-up and another 32k ROM for game cartridges.
It had graphics chips: ANTIC and GTIA which supported 3 custom VLSI chips and 14 modes of resolution. Sound was 4-channel via the POKEY sound chip, which also handles keyboard scanning, serial I/O, high resolution interrupt capable timers (single cycle accurate), and random number generation. Internally it is almost identical to that of Atari’s 8bit computers, although software is not directly compatible between the two systems.
The 5200’s controllers have an analog joystick and a numeric keypad along with start, pause and reset buttons. The 360-degree non-centering joystick was touted as offering more control than the eight-way joystick controller offered with the Atari 2600. The system also featured four controller ports, where nearly all other systems at the time had two.
It was developed as a second-generation games console intended to replace the 2600. However, as the system was reaching completion, the personal computer revolution was starting with the release of machines like the Commodore PET, TRS-80 and Apple II. These machines had less advanced hardware than the new Atari technology, but sold for much higher prices with associated higher profit margins. Atari’s management decided to enter this market, and the technology was repackaged into the Atari 400 and 800. The chipset used in these machines was created with the mind-set that the 2600 would likely be obsolete by the 1980 time frame.
Atari later decided to re-enter the games market with a design that closely matched their original 1978 specifications. In its prototype stage, the Atari 5200 was originally called the “Atari Video System X – Advanced Video Computer System”, and was codenamed “Pam” after a female employee. It is also rumoured that PAM actually stood for “Personal Arcade Machine”, as the majority of games for the system ended up being arcade conversions.
The 1983 revision of the Atari 5200 has two controller ports instead of four, and a change back to the more conventional separate power supply and standard non-autoswitching RF switch. It also has changes in the cartridge port address lines to allow for the Atari 2600 adapter released that year.
While the adapter was only made to work on the two-port version, modifications can be made to the four-port to make it line-compatible. In fact, towards the end of the four-port model’s production run, there were a limited number of consoles produced which included these modifications. These consoles can be identified by an asterisk in their serial number.
Atari also released the Pro-Line Trak-Ball controller for the system, which was used primarily for gaming titles such as Centipede and Missile Command. Although a paddle controller and an updated self-centering version of the original controller were also in development, but never made it to market.
The Atari 5200’s internal design was extensively based on that of the 400/800 home computers. Software designed for one does not run on the other, although porting the source code is not difficult as long as it does not use computer-specific features.
Besides the 5200’s lack of a computer keyboard, other differences include:
- The 400/800’s 10 KB operating system was replaced with a simpler 2 KB “monitor program”, of which 1 KB is the built-in character set.
- A number of important registers, such as those of the GTIA and POKEY chips, appear at different memory locations.
- The 5200’sanalog joysticks appear as pairs of paddles to the hardware, which required different input handling to the traditional digital joystick input on the 400/800.
Atari 1987 XE Game System is a repackaged 65XE computer with a detachable keyboard that can run home computer titles directly, unlike the 5200.
The Atari 5200 did not fare well commercially, compared to its predecessor, the Atari 2600.
While it touted superior graphics to the 2600 and Mattel’s Intellivision, the system was initially incompatible with the 2600’s expansive library of games, and some market analysts have speculated that this hurt its sales, especially since an Atari 2600 cartridge adapter had been released for the Intellivision II.
Along with the fact that many of the 5200’s games appeared simply as updated versions of 2600 titles, which failed to excite players. Although there were 69 official released games for the 5200.
At one point following the 5200’s release, Atari had planned a smaller, cost-reduced version of the Atari 5200, which would have removed the controller storage bin. Code-named the “Atari 5100” (a.k.a. “Atari 5200 Jr.”), only a few fully working prototype 5100s were made before the project was cancelled.
Released by Coleco Industries in August 1982, it offered a closer experience to more powerful arcade game systems compared to competitors such as the Atari 2600, along with the means to expand the system’s basic hardware.
The initial catalog of twelve games included Nintendo’s Donkey Kong as the pack-in cartridge, Sega’s graphically impressive Zaxxon, and some lesser known arcade titles that found a larger audience on the console, such as Lady Bug, Cosmic Avenger, and Venture. There were approx. 145 titles in total which were published as ROM cartridges for the system between 1982 and 1984, selling in excess of 2 million units in its life time. It utilised the Zilog Z80 (3.58Mhz) CPU with the TMS9928A graphics chip (16k RAM) allowing for 256×192 resolution (16 colours). It also carried 1k RAM and 8k ROM.
Coleco withdrew from the video game market in 1985 along with the discontinued ColecoVision. River West Brands currently owns the ColecoVision brand name.
In 1983 Spectravideo announced the SV-603 ColecoVision Video Game Adapter for its SV-318 computer. The company stated that the $70 product allowed users to “enjoy the entire library of exciting ColecoVision video-game cartridges”. In 1986, Bit Corporation produced a ColecoVision clone called the Dina, which was sold in the United States by Telegames as the Telegames Personal Arcade.
The main console unit consisted of a 14×8×2-inch rectangular plastic case that housed the motherboard, with a cartridge slot on the right side and connectors for the external power supply and RF jack at the rear. The controllers connect into plugs in a recessed area on the top of the unit.
The controller is similar to that of Mattel’s Intellivision— rectangular and consists of a numeric keypad and a set of side buttons. Each ColecoVision console shipped with two controllers.
All first-party cartridges and most third-party software titles feature a 12-second pause before presenting the game select screen. This delay results from an intentional loop in the console’s BIOS to enable on-screen display of the ColecoVision brand. Companies like Parker Brothers, Activision, and Micro Fun bypassed this loop, which necessitated embedding portions of the BIOS outside the delay loop, further reducing storage available to actual game programming.
Sold separately, these expansion modules expanded the hardware.
Expansion Module #1 – Atari 2600 compatibility
This allows the ColecoVision compatible with the Atari 2600 games (with some exceptions).
Functionally, this gave the ColecoVision the largest software library of any console of its day. The expansion module prompted legal action from Atari, but Atari was unable to stop sales of the module because the 2600 could be reproduced with off the shelf parts. Coleco also designed and sold the Gemini Game System, which was a clone of the 2600, but with combined joystick/paddle controllers.
Expansion Module #2 – Driving Wheel
A steering wheel and gas pedal came packaged with a port of the arcade game ‘Turbo’. The gas pedal was merely a simple on/off switch, so many gamers used the second ColecoVision controller as a gear shift for more precise speed control. Although Coleco called the driving controller an expansion module, it actually plugs into the controller port, not the Expansion Module Interface.
It was also compatible with other driving games such as Destructor, Bump ‘n Jump, Pitstop and The Dukes of Hazzard.
This was a trackball came packaged with a port of the arcade game Slither (Centipede clone). It uses a special power connector which was not compatible with Expansion Module #3 (the Adam computer), although Coleco mailed an adapter to owners of both units who complained.
It was compatible with games such as Victory, Omega Race, and Wargames and was also compatible with Atarisoft’s port of Centipede, which used a trackball for arcade play.
Super Action Controller Set
This was a set of two joysticks (each resembling a boxing glove) that came packaged with the game Super Action Baseball. Each joystick has four action buttons, a 12-button numeric keypad, and a ‘Speed Roller’. It was also compatible with the games Super Action Football, Rocky Super Action Boxing, and a port of the arcade game Front Line.
Milton Bradley Vectrex (1982)
This is a vector display-based home video game console that was developed by Western Technologies/Smith Engineering. It was licensed and distributed first by General Consumer Electronics (GCE 1982-1983), and then by Milton Bradley Company (1983-1984) after its purchase of GCE.
Released in November 1982 at a retail price of $199; as Milton Bradley took over international marketing the price dropped to $150, then reduced again to $100 shortly before the video game crash of 1983 and finally retailed at $49 after the crash. It exited the console market in early 1984.
It was also released in Japan under the name Bandai Vectrex Kousokusen and in the US under the model number of HP-3000.
It ran the Motorola MC68A09 CPU (1.6 MHz) and was unlike other non-portable video game console.
It had an integrated vector monitor which displayed vector monochrome graphics and used plastic screen overlays to simulate colour and various static graphics and decorations.
It came with 1k RAM and 8k ROM supported by the GI AY-3-8912 sound chip (3″ electrodynamic paper cone speaker).
Through a licensing deal with Cinematronics, GCE was able to produce high-quality versions of arcade games such as Space Wars and Armor Attack although it came with a build-in game, Mine Storm.
The idea was conceived by John Ross of Smith Engineering in late 1980 and he and Mike Purvis, Tom Sloper, Steve Marking had gone to Electro-Mavin, a surplus warehouse in Los Angeles. They found a 1″ cathode ray tube and considered if a small electronic game could be made of this.
A demonstration of a vector-drawing cathode ray tube display was made by connecting the deflection yoke in a standard television to the channels of a stereo amplifier fed with music program material. An axillary yoke was used to keep the raster television’s horizontal fly-back high-voltage system running. The demo led to a system originally conceived as a handheld called the Mini Arcade, but as Smith Engineering shopped the idea around to developers, it evolved into a table-top with a 9” screen.
It was unveiled on 7th June 1982 at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago and released to the public in November. The launch sales were strong enough that Milton Bradley bought out General Consumer Electronics in early 1983.
Milton Bradley’s greater resources allowed the Vectrex to be released in parts of Europe within a few months of the buyout, and through a co-branding agreement with Bandai, in Japan as well. However, the Video game crash of 1983 turned Milton Bradley’s support of the Vectrex into a costly mistake. In May 1984, Milton Bradley merged with Hasbro, and the Vectrex was discontinued a few months after. Over its lifetime, it had cost Milton Bradley tens of millions of dollars.
Prior to its discontinuation, a successor console with a colour screen had been planned and even revive the Vectrex as a hand held. Although the arrival of Nintendo’s Game Boy put an end to those plans. In the mid-1990s, Jay Smith (head of Smith Engineering) finally released the Vectrex product line into the public domain.
The computer and vector generator were designed by Gerry Karr. The computer runs the game’s computer code, watches the user’s inputs, runs the sound generator, and controls the vector generator to make the screen drawings. The vector generator is an all-analog design using two integrators: X and Y.
The cathode ray tube is a Samsung model 240RB40 monochrome unit measuring 9 × 11 inches, displaying a picture of 240 mm diagonal; it is an off-the-shelf picture tube manufactured for small black/white television sets. The brightness of the CRT is controlled using a circular knob on the back of the display. A vector CRT display such as the one in the Vectrex does not require a special tube, and differs from standard raster-based television sets only in the control circuits.
Early units have a very audible “buzzing” from the built-in speaker that reacts to the graphics generated on screen. This is due to improper production grounding of signal lines of the low-level audio circuitry, and was eventually resolved in later production models. A “ground loop” had been created by a grounding strap added in production to meet U.S. Federal Communications Commission signal radiation requirements, although this idiosyncrasy has become a familiar characteristic of the machine.
This turns the 2D black-and-white images drawn by the Vectrex into a colour 3D experience. It does this by spinning a disk in front of the viewer’s eyes. The disk is black for 180 degrees and then has 60 degree wedges of transparent red, green, and blue filters. The user looks through this to the Vectrex screen, which synchronizes the rotation of the disk to the software frame rate as it draws 6 screens: with the right eye covered: the left eye red image, then green, and then the blue image is drawn… and then, while the left eye is covered by the black 180 degree sector: the right eye red, green, and then the blue image is drawn. Only one eye will see the Vectrex screen and its 3 associated images (or colours) at any one time while the other will be blocked by the 180 degree mask.
The 3-D imager was invented by John Ross and uses the same 3D effect is in fact possible with raster or film-projection images, and the shutter glasses used in some 3D cinemas and virtual reality theme park rides work on the same principle.
This allows the user to “draw”, to create images and to indicate, on the screen. It has a photo-detector that can see the bright spot of the vector-drawing display monitor when it goes by under the light pen’s position where it is being held to the screen. The photo-detector feeds internal pulse-catching circuits that tell the Vectrex and its software of the event. The prototype was made in the plastic casework of a Marks-A-Lot felt-tipped marker pen. The Vectrex draws a spider-web-like search-pattern to track the pen’s location. The software changes the pattern size as the pen changes motions and velocity in an attempt keep a continuous lock on the pen’s position. The Vectrex light pen was also invented by John Ross.
The game built into the Vectrex, Mine Storm, would crash at level 13. However, on some machines the game would continue until the highest level, in which more mines were laid than would hatch. Consumers who complained to the company about the crash at the 13th level received a replacement cartridge in the mail. Titled MineStorm II, it was the fixed version of the Vectrex’s built in game. However, very few wrote to the company about it due to the difficulty in reaching level 13, making MineStorm II one of the rarest cartridges for the Vectrex system.
To Be Continued…