It’s funny. It really is. People talk a lot about the video game market crash of 1982 in hushed voices, as if it was a black hole in gaming culture. Teeth were gnashed, the plague spread, Gilead fell. Atari slowly faded from the minds of many, for at least the following if not more reasons:
Trying to take it far too safe with betting on the 2600 over the vastly superior 5600
Producing too many games, having vastly overestimated the hardware’s shelf life
Not footing the development budget required to remain up to current specifications
Finally the lack of quality control (see our review of atari adult games on youtube) made for a nervous customer base.
It wasn’t that there were no games, but, there were too many possibilities in the market. There was no way for the average consumer to figure out which was ultimately the best choice. As well, with the rise of the home PC, the public assumed the gaming console was a flash in the pan. In today’s article, we’re going to discuss the alternatives, why they gained traction, and why they ultimately failed. Keep in mind all of the headliners today had their fair share of market success, but could not stay in the public eye.
Magnavox Odyssey 2
Part one of this series covered the original Magnavox Odyssey in great detail, as it was the confusing grandfather of the home console world. The Odyssey 2 (originally produced in 1978), is remarkable, and forgettable, for a number of reasons all its own.
Magavox Odyssey 2 commercials
The Odyssey 2 was historically interesting for a number of reasons. First, the unit had a full built-in keyboard on it that could plug into a computer monitor, making it one of the first home computer/console hybrids. It also had a hardware expansion port, popularized with the addition of the voice synthesizer unit. It was also moderately priced at $200 USD in 1978, which I believe roughly translates to $1 billion currently, plus or minus a billion here or there given current inflation.
The downsides for the console, however, were manifold. The biggest being that the Odyssey only had 16 colours compared to Atari’s 128. While the design of the console allowed for sprites to be more fluid and expressive, it was still very limited. Secondly, the company lacked third-party support for most of its life, leading Magnavox to develop several ham-fisted ports such as Alien Invader and Invader from Hyperspace. The final nail was that the Odyssey was primarily sold as an educational tool. While this has historically been good for an initial consumer base, it rarely serves the credibility of the console. While the console cannot ultimately be considered a failure, it still balked in the shadow of the 2600. An Odyssey 3 was planned, but lawsuits caused enough delays that the Odyssey 2 became Magnavox’s swan song to the world of gaming.
The Intellivision was Mattel’s first and only foray into console gaming until the release of the Hyperscan in 2006. This lead many critics to call the Intellivision Mattel’s only foray into console gaming.
I’ll address the purple elephant in the room first. The Intellivision stands out for a number of reasons, but the thing that people remember was the controller itself. The keypad on the controller resembled a touchtone phone, over which an overlay could be inserted to designate the actions of each button in a game. There were two action buttons on either side to accommodate either left or right-handed players. There was also a disc in the center capable of registering 16-directional movement. However, the controller was an ergonomic nightmare, as it was impossible to hold it comfortably and still reach all the buttons required without constant shifting. In addition, it was nearly impossible to tell when using the directional disc whether you were going left, or left and slightly up. When your controller is already confusing, this can easily alienate your target audience.
However, the Intellivision had an awful lot going for it. Released in 1980, the Intellivision can be considered the first 16-bit home console. Despite using a 16-color pallet, the games were capable of using the entire pallet at the same time in a smooth intuitive fashion, leading to the main comparison between the Intellivision and the sales leading Atari 2600 to be based on the games’ look and feel. This sparked what was possibly the cattiest home console marketing war until the 16-bit wars of the 1990s.
Mattel Intellivision commercials
The Intellivision also had several other interesting and unique features up its sleeve. It was the first console to have downloadable content (eat that, Wii store) using cable connections. There was no way to actually store the content at the time, however, so the game was gone once the console was turned off. It also featured an on-board chipset capable of making sounds that far more closely resembled human speech than the Odyssey 2’s add-on module. As it was baked into the console, not requiring a plug-in was a major score for the console.
The Intellivision also had one of the strongest first-party production teams of the time. An interview with the department for TV Guide resulted in this development team being dubbed the Blue Sky Rangers. This one interview sparked the imagination of the consumers of the day, compared to the unnamed developers for Atari at the time. Giving a name and face to the developers made the interesting, unique, and identifiable. This began the trend of games being sold on the strength of the programming team involved.
The biggest coup most gamers of the era will remember for the Intellivision was the ECS (Entertainment Computer System) add-on. There’s a bit of back-story here. When the Intellivision first launched, it claimed that a keyboard add-on (which would turn it into a full home computer console) was coming soon. Due to technical limitations, this project was scrapped. Despite the cancellation of the add-on, multiple copies of the home console were sold primarily with the concept of using it as a home computer.
The Federal Trade Commission took note of this, and pressed a $10,000/day fine on the company. This Mattel to scramble and produce the ECS in 1982. This allowed for re-writeable RAM to be stored for the console and, most interestingly, the first Atari 2600 emulator module.
Ultimately, the Intellivision would sell some 3 million consoles, and be the Sega Dreamcast before the Dreamcast was cool.
Turn out the lights. Flip the switch. Allow a few seconds of humming. The screen flickers, and those three notes play.
Classic Game Room – Vectrex review
The Vectrex is a very unique console. The console had its own built-in CRT monitor, measuring 11 inches high and 9 wide. This emulated the arcade cabinet design of the time. It also gave it one of its biggest selling points to parents: no more kids hogging the TV! Send the little rugrats off to their own room so daddy can enjoy his football.
The console only displays in vector graphics; instead of the standard collection of squares, the game runs entirely with dots and lines that the console constantly redraws. This gave the console a smoothness otherwise unheard of outside of the arcade, as sprites were no longer restricted to pixel by pixel movement with this type of hardware.
As the CRT was purely black and white, each game came with its own screen overlay to give the games some amount of colour, similar to the original Odyssey. Furthermore, as the system came with its own built-in speakers, it could directly manipulate digitally without storing an analog sound. The games were capable of a wide arrange of sounds that overshadowed what its contemporaries were capable of.
The console also released with a slew of popular third-party games, including Berzerk, Scramble, and Space Wars! The last feather in its hat would be the addition of a 3D overlay used for a handful of its games. Using a spinning multi-colored disc that synced with the refresh rate of the game, different colors hit the brain in such a way as to mimic a 3D experience, a major innovation of the time.
Would the console have done better if it had not released in 1982, just in time for the post-Atari gaming crash? It’s hard to tell, but with so many similarities to the Virtual Boy, it’s hard not to be cynical. At least playing the Vectrex for a half-hour didn’t lead to migraines. Either way, no official games were made for the Vectrex after 1984, though the console has a homebrew fan base that continues to produce new games to this day.
There are other failures that came and went in 1982, and are easily forgotten. Bally Astrocade and Arcadia 2001 came and went rather quietly. Yet Coleco broke ground with a technological marvel in the Colecovision, a console that almost never was.
Playvalue’s review of the Colecovision
Coleco had a hand in the gaming market for nearly a decade. They created the hugely popular Coleco Telstar, one of the best pong consoles to be created. They also created multiple handheld games. They had working prototypes for a home console. Unfortunately, the ideas they had were way too expensive to produce at the time. So, they held back until 1982.
The Colecovision itself was way ahead of the curve, using the same graphics processor the MSX would eventually use; modified versions would also appear in Sega’s Master System and Game Gear.
The Colecovision would initially launch with Nintendo’s Donkey Kong built in. This nearly scrapped the entire launch, however. Atari made a stink over the game, which was initially licensed for the 2600, and now appearing on the Colecovision. Ultimately, however, it was Universal Studios that brought Coleco to court. It would be an industrious lawyer at Nintendo that would keep every copy of Donkey Kong from getting scrapped. Seven years previously, Universal had claimed in a court case that the movie King Kong was considered public domain. This little hole was enough wiggle room to make the Kong/giant monkey connection an agreeable one.
Coleco mostly launched on the strength of Donkey Kong, and continued to gain rights to arcade games that Atari had missed. With games such as Boulder Dash, Miner 2049er, and Mr. Do, Coleco made a good name for itself in this market.
The comparisons that could be made to the Intellivision are numerous. It uses the same style remote with a number pad with overlays, and in place of the disc was a short arcade stick with a wide top. It also had a 2600 emulation adapter, continuing to irk Atari, but got away on the technicality that the adaptor was made with off the shelf components.
But the biggest comparison – and biggest flop – for Coleco was the Adam computer add-on. See, the 1983 crash came for a second reason. At the time, the new thing was the home computer, and Coleco wanted in. So, they released the add-on module of the Adam computer to be packaged with the console. However, at release, over 50% of these add-ons were defective.
Another point to remember is that Coleco made its entire name off of ports. While these were the best, most-polished arcade ports, the lack of first-party releases weakened the consoles perceived value. Coleco just had no Blue Sky Rangers. The number of Atari 2600 games that it could play greatly outshone its native library. While the publishers pushed the developers to create knock-off clones like the Odyssey attempted, the developers argued this would decrease the perceived value of the consoles. While true, it may have helped to have had some original content rather than none.
Between the failures of the Adam computer and perceived value of the console’s original titles, the Colecovision sank into obscurity in 1984.
All of the bickering, in-fighting, and lawsuits could have very easily lead to the PC overtaking the lion’s share of the video game market. However, 1983 would bring a game-changer to the market, and the stability of home video games would be unquestionable.