Intellivision was the first video game system to offer downloadable games via a Mattel owned cable TV station called PlayCable. However, since the Intellivision console contained no hard drive to save games, the downloaded games were lost once the power to the console was shut off.

Classic Home Toys Installment #8: Intellivision…intelligent television…or was it?

James Russo

Classic Home Toys Installment #8:
Intellivisionintelligent televisionor was it?

by James Russo

Intellivision was the first video game system to offer downloadable games via a Mattel owned cable TV station called PlayCable. However, since the Intellivision console contained no hard drive to save games, the downloaded games were lost once the power to the console was shut off.


In the late 1970's, Mattel Corporation had cornered the hugely profitable toy market in North America and many countries overseas. Toys such as GI Joe and Barbie figures were some of the world's top selling toys and Mattel had even entered the handheld videogame market with a number of handheld game devices such as Football.

Nothing could prepare the North America toy manufacturers for the tremendous competition they received in the late 1970's from a then fairly new videogame manufacturer, named Atari, and a simple, home video game console that played easy to master games on cartridges.

With the tremendous success of the Atari 2600 game system, every game and toy CEO in America was creating electronics divisions and saying to subordinates, "make me one of those" (meaning Atari). Mattel was no different. In 1979, Mattel Electronics, a newly splintered division of Mattel formed to handle the development of electronic games, introduced the Mattel Intellivision console in Fresno, California.

Atari had now had their 2600 console on the market since 1978 and was thoroughly entrenched in the video game market. However, Mattel's programmers benefited from improvements in game design and graphics which had not been present when the 2600 console was designed. Mattel followed closely in Atari's footsteps and even went as far as to copy Atari marketing strategies.

One big plus for the once struggling Atari game console was when Sears, one of the most renowned department stores in America, licensed the console as the Sears Video Console, and began selling the console in their department stores and through mail order catalogues. Sears even hired some of Atari's programmers to design several new games which would play on the Atari system, but could only be purchased from Sears department stores.

Mattel licensed their Intellivision game console through Sears as well as calling the console the Sears Super Video Arcade. Mattel licensed Radio Shack to sell the unit as the Radio Shack Tandyvision and also licensed the console to Sylvania as the GTE-Sylvania Intellivsion. The console sold over two million units by the close of 1982. Intellivision truly seemed Mattel's "intelligent television".

One of the earliest drawbacks to encounter many stand alone home video game consoles, especially the earlier consoles such as the Atari 2600 and Intellivision, was an inability to expand on the built-in, hard coded memory chips buried in the consoles mother boards. Both Atari and Intellivision now had to compete with a new kid on the block ---the early PC Commodore 64.

Unlike the stand alone game consoles of the late 1970s, the Commodore 64, introduced at the opening of the new 1980's decade, featured a separate cassette deck which could load highly sophisticated games and even educational software onto the Commodore computer. The Commodore 64 also jettisoned clumsy and bulky hand-held controllers for a typewriter-style keyboard.

It was not long before both Atari and Mattel were promising keyboard and tape drives which could plug into the consoles. Atari showed off photographs of a keyboard in many computer gaming magazines, but the 2600 did not last long enough for the keyboard to make its introduction. A separate video game designer, Aracadia games, did release in the mid-1980's complex games which were sold on audio cassettes which could be loaded into the 2600 via a tape deck.

Mattel's keyboard was promised, but delivery of the device was slow and Mattel ended up paying a hefty fine to Federal Trade Commission for failing to deliver the component on time. Early versions which were sold through mail order proved faulty and many were returned to Mattel.

When video game sales began to slip in 1983, Mattel tried several concepts many of which proved unsuccessful, but which set new standards in the design of video games. Intellivision was the first video game system to offer downloadable games via a Mattel owned cable TV station called PlayCable. However, since the Intellivision console contained no hard drive to save games, the downloaded games were lost once the power to the console was shut off.

One of the most innovative attempts to keep Intellivision on top was the idea of an interactive video game played by a user on a TV set from home and viewable by other viewers on their TV sets. New York based television station WPIX-TV ran TV-PIXX in which children viewers who had sent in their names and telephone numbers were called to play one of Intellivision games. The child would say the word "PIXX" to perform game related actions.

Like so many game systems, Intellivision vanished from the videogame landscape. However, many companies have resurrected the Intellivision games and have licensed them to be reproduced on CD-ROMS to be played on home computers or to played on other stand alone game systems such as X-box and Playstation.

Related links:

www.wikipedia.org ( excellent article about the system)


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