By Shawn Trommeshauser
(Dreaming in Digital)
The Intellivision was released in 1979 by Mattel Electronics and sold over 3 million units in its lifetime. It was an ambitious video game console and its developers tried many new things that still influence game design even today. While the much more famous Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) would later resurrect the dying game industry and bring true mainstream appeal to the hobby, there were many other consoles released before Nintendo took over the world. Among them were such notable examples such as the ColecoVision, the Atari 2600 and the Intellivision which I am focusing on. It was the system I played the most as a child.
The design of the original system screams 1970’s with its brown appliance look, glued on metal highlighting and fake wood panels. Its telephone cord wired, non-removable controllers nested directly in the top of the machine. The game cartridges plug into a slot on the right side of the console. This was replaced in 1982 by the Intellivision II, a redesign that allowed the controllers to be removed and replaced. This gave the system a compact grey shell with a more sci-fi inspired look.
The controllers were elaborate for the time. The Intellivision’s gamepads are held vertically and have a disc at the bottom that can register sixteen different directions. This design was refined by Gunpei Yokoi of Nintendo in 1982 and it is still an industry standard. Variations are still seen on nearly every modern gamepad. The controllers have two buttons on either side to allow for left or right-handed play. The twelve face buttons resemble the number pad on a telephone. The Atari 2600, Mattel’s primary competition, had joysticks with only a single button as their default controller. The most unique feature of the Intellivision controllers are the game specific plastic inserts which slide over the face buttons. These inserts were included with each game and had themed artwork to indicate the functions of the buttons.
By today’s standards, the games are quite primitive. The sounds are simple variations of tones and noise with very few instances of music. The graphics are extremely low detail and have very few colors available, limiting the complexity of characters and backgrounds. But when you’re sitting with a friend, taunting each other, and trying to blow up the other’s tank in Triple Action, You don’t care that the walls you’re hiding behind are simple black lines, or that the trees are little more than flecks of green dots on a lighter green background. Imagination is required, and that’s half the fun.
There were a total of 125 games released for the system between 1979 and 1989. Nearly every genre is represented in this catalog, and even more complex titles — concepts that were tough to code at the time — like role-playing games (RPGs) are offered. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons – Cloudy Mountain has many common features — such as a world map that you would travel on and caves to explore in search of treasure and monsters — shared with its pen and paper counterpart. Unlike most games of the era, these dungeons could scroll on the screen, a rarity then, and were even randomly generated much like Diablo, a blockbuster title from the mid 90’s.
Astrosmash is a game that plays in a similar manner to Space Invaders. The player moves along the bottom of the screen, firing upward to destroy incoming asteroids.
Utopia is one of the very first city building games ever made. The player controls an island and has to deal with food, housing, weather, pirates, as well a second player and their own island.
Snafu is a snake-type game where you would move your character around, leaving a trail behind you as you go. Somewhat similar to what would later be seen as Lightcycles in the movie Tron, the objective is to force your opponents to crash into a wall.
Speaking of Tron, this was also the era of the first games licensed from movies and there were three Tron games made for the Intellivision. Tron Deadly Discs which is an arena combat game where the player fights by throwing a disc as in the movie, Tron Maze-a-Tron, a top-down maze exploration game, and Tron – Solar Sailer where the player is travelling on a vehicle that follows beams of energy while fending off enemies. To finish a level, the player needs to input a code given at the start of the level. However the code is spoken aloud rather than being shown on screen. To hear the voice, something extra is needed.
The Intellivoice Voice Synthesis Module was the first major add-on for the system. It was a device that plugs into the cartridge slot on the console and in turn had its own slot for the games. Tron Solar Sailer, along with four other titles, were released for Intellivoice, and verbal clues were needed to complete these games. My personal favorite of these is Bomb Squad, where the player follows the verbal directions given to defuse bombs.
Two second major hardware add-ons was only for the Intellivision II and was called the System Changer. A bulky unit that plugged into the cartridge slot and enabled the Intellivision to play all Atari 2600 games, something unthinkable in today’s climate of copyright enforcement.
Many Intellivision games are still available in collections such as Intellivision Lives! for the original XBOX, Gamecube, Nintendo DS, and Playstation 2. There is also the Intellivision Flashback, an official mini console recreation with two controllers and a selection of classic games built right in. Game selection varies with different releases, but each has around 60 games to choose from. I recommend checking out these games because they laid the foundation of the industry. They may be primitive by today’s standards, but if you try them for the nostalgia or out of curiosity, you may find that primitive can still entertain.