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May 15, 2017 1:05 AM   Subscribe

When the Mattel Intellivision tried to become a real computer.
posted by Chrysostom (52 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm glad to see that the article namechecks Coleco's entry in this category - a system so bad that it ultimately brought the entire company down and was memorably referred to as the Adam Bomb.

One store manager stated that five of six sold Adams had been returned, and expected that the sixth would likely be returned after being opened on Christmas.
posted by fairmettle at 2:27 AM on May 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


Even the Atari VCS (2600) tried this - a BASIC cart allowing 11 (count 'em) lines of code.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 2:58 AM on May 15, 2017 [5 favorites]


In summary: Mr Matt Intellivision was engrossed in a game of Biplanes with his fiance, when Ken from the product development team entered the room.

Try as he might, Ken could not wrest Matt's attention away from the on-screen battle.

Matt's focus only shifted onto Ken's bearded face when Ken, in desperation, set Matt's tie alight and the flames were licking at the frames of his glasses.

"I'm going to add a keyboard to the Intellivision" said Ken.

Hearing only something about "it'll make Biplanes better", Matt readily agreed and returned to the excitement on his TV screen.

This was the beginning of the end for the console.

But Biplanes, what a game.
posted by Speculatist at 3:14 AM on May 15, 2017 [3 favorites]


There's a dragon growling in an unlit cavern I cannot see, so I will soothe myself by repeatedly counting my arrows.
posted by Construction Concern at 3:57 AM on May 15, 2017 [4 favorites]


I'd never really looked into Atari VCS's BASIC, but GallonOfAlan's comment made it intriguing. Found this overview which makes the case that the VCS's BASIC was indeed terrible, but had a fairly interesting and innovative IDE.
posted by honestcoyote at 4:20 AM on May 15, 2017 [4 favorites]


It's too bad the Adam was such a dog, it had pretty good graphics. I'd kill for hardware sprites on the Apple ][. And the Bally Astrocade had identical hardware to Gorf and Wizard of Wor, so it'd probably be fun to program too (but how many parents would be comfortable with their kids learning how to use GRASS?)

In 2017, you can program the Intellivision using IntyBasic.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 4:27 AM on May 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


> tedium.co

[slow_clap.gif]
posted by at by at 4:28 AM on May 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


BTW, Atari 2600 BASIC was developed by Warren Robinett (Adventure, Rocky's Boots, Robot Odyssey). Displaying text on the Atari was a major accomplishment; fitting a BASIC program into 128 bytes of RAM was another. It was still not fun.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 4:33 AM on May 15, 2017 [3 favorites]


I own the second-gen keyboard (the ECS). It is, as you might expect, underwhelming. Mind Strike is an interesting game concept, though.
posted by delfin at 5:15 AM on May 15, 2017


I just checked to see if my thumbs were still dented by the fire buttons on the intellivision controllers from playing astrosmash.
posted by srboisvert at 5:33 AM on May 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


Dumb question: why was this so difficult? We're the chips necessary for a full computing environment just too darn expensive at the time?
posted by leotrotsky at 5:52 AM on May 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


Second dumb question: why are game consoles still a thing?
posted by leotrotsky at 5:57 AM on May 15, 2017 [4 favorites]


We're the chips necessary for a full computing environment just too darn expensive at the time?

It would have been the memory, i/o, and other bits. The Atari 2600 used the same processor as the Apple II and C-64, but it only had enough memory for one line of video.

why are game consoles still a thing?

They're cheaper for equivalent hardware, much closer to "put in game and it works," and there's much less fiddling.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:11 AM on May 15, 2017 [7 favorites]


Having a known set of hardware for years at a time allows developers to learn how to squeeze every bit of speed possible. With Computers, you never know what hardware will be available, so you need to develop something that will run acceptably on anything.
posted by Eddie Mars at 6:18 AM on May 15, 2017 [5 favorites]


Oh, I totally remember when every game console was promising to be a computer, and none of them worked. I built a little computer from Radio Shack for almost nothing and it could be programmed to play Tic Tac Toe and make my own "Choose Your Own Adventure" games, and then I lost interest in programming altogether.
posted by xingcat at 6:29 AM on May 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


Dumb question: why was this so difficult? We're the chips necessary for a full computing environment just too darn expensive at the time?

Sort of, mostly RAM. The Atari 400 came out in 1979 with 8K of memory and was a pretty good game console to boot (it accepted carts, Atari joysticks, and had a cassette add-on) but it was still $549.95. So it could be done, just not at the price point of a video game console.

Also note that these projects were launched right before the Big Video Game Crash of 1983, where bad decisions were in flower.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:44 AM on May 15, 2017 [3 favorites]



Second dumb question: why are game consoles still a thing?


Nice try, troll, but nobody's joining you under that bridge to play games on your PC...which, BTW, is soooo inferior to the Macintosh.
posted by sexyrobot at 6:48 AM on May 15, 2017 [4 favorites]


Woah woah. I had an Adam and it worked for 27 years. I sold it on to a collector and the thing still works as far as I know. Never erased a tape, was never buggy.

Yes my primary computer is an Apple III, why do you ask?
posted by 1adam12 at 6:49 AM on May 15, 2017 [8 favorites]


They're cheaper for equivalent hardware

Maybe for a brief and shining moment at launch. Both the PS4 and XB aren't particuarly amazing deals, and consoles are on the razor blades model.

Here, for example, is a PC build for $400 that beats out the PS4 Pro, leaving me with Steam rather than PSN game prices, no fees to play online, and the ability to actually own a general purpose computer.

That said, I still regret the apparent failure of Valve to actually sell a SteamOS console to anyone.
posted by jaduncan at 6:50 AM on May 15, 2017 [5 favorites]


Well, looking at that you'd maybe bump the GPU a *bit*. But, again, you make it back in game prices almost immediately.

If you are willing to bump the PC price to $500 on that basis, you can utterly kill the performance of the PS4P.
posted by jaduncan at 7:01 AM on May 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


I remember a review in PCW of the Coleco Adam when it came out - the reviewer (I think it was Martin Banks, who is still at it) said that the printer sounded like 'splintering bamboo'.

You know, I think he was right. (Bonus nostalgia in that clip: dot matrix shreee-shreee-shreee.)
posted by Devonian at 7:02 AM on May 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


I would love to see some intrepid retro developer weld together a couple of Inty games using the keyboard​. The potential audience, unemulated, would be around five but that's rarely stopped such coders before.
posted by delfin at 7:03 AM on May 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


The idea of a big clunky keyboard add-on that also has a tape-deck and boosts processing power is tickling my gear nerd fancy. I still love the boxy look of electronics from this era.

Second dumb question: why are game consoles still a thing?

A few reasons:

Exclusivity - I bought a PS4 almost entirely because of Bloodborne. I would be tempted to follow Miyazaki to whatever his next project is, too.

Network - A lot of people play games with friends online. That means that there's a network effect on what console you buy, so that you can play pick-up matches of Madden with friends in your league, or whatever.

Cost (both time and money) - People talk about how much cheaper a PC is, which is often true from a raw processing standpoint, but they often don't factor in time as a cost. For a lot of people (true or not) a PC represents a time sink. Also, cost really only factors if you're building yourself, and for many folks that's not appealing versus spending $400 bucks on something that's pretty much guaranteed to work to a standard.

Form Factor - With the advance of low-end computing and mobile phones, there's also no real benefit to being able to run other software on a high end PC, unless you're doing some sort of processor intensive visual design. I would assume most people at this point have a laptop as their main computing platform (if not a phone), and have very limited interest in a desktop. A gaming PC consigns you to a desk, or to having to set up some sort of streaming configuration to your TV. Most people would much rather just sit on a couch to play a game.

Normalization of Consoles - Many people simply think of games as taking place on a console platform. I've noticed that my nephew, if he plays games on the computer at all, plays webgames, or a low-poly MMO.

I guess you could really boil it down to the idea that the benefits of PC gaming are attendant on a number of other factors, which don't really mesh well with the lives of many people. The rationality of $$$ = Processing Power ignores roughly half the decisions that go into purchasing a gaming device. Steam is trying at edging into that space, but I would say that the reasons above are an explanation for why they've failed so hard.
posted by codacorolla at 7:07 AM on May 15, 2017 [6 favorites]


Also, there's still consoles because the PC gaming world could never ever like, get together and settle on a usable controller design that fucking worked at all; because for an actual consumer electronics product, a kind of stable design target and coherent results are crucial, but that is against the ethos of computer nerd culture.

There's still consoles for the same reason it was never the year of the linux desktop.
posted by fleacircus at 7:13 AM on May 15, 2017 [9 favorites]


Here, for example, is a PC build for $400 that beats out the PS4 Pro,

Those builds are never for everything you need to plug into your tv and start playing, which is what you get with a console. Start with a new controller and a new Windows license. Now you have about $250 for the actual machine. Or $350 if you're willing to limit yourself to linux games.

I mean, I get it, right? We have a pc hooked up to our tv, I'm waiting for vega to drop to compare its price/perf and power draw to 1070s, and planning for the next build when our wheezy old E8400 upstairs, that was already half-fried by lightning once, finally kicks the bucket and the current gaming box replaces it. We do the vast majority of our gaming on that pc* But the fervor with which people sometimes attack consoles seems really weird to me.

*Will probably not apply for the month or two after I break down and get Zero Dawn.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:13 AM on May 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


Second dumb question: why are game consoles still a thing?

There are a lot of different answers for this, but I think the single biggest one is how nice it is to play a game that is designed and optimized for your exact hardware and interface. If I want to play a game on the PC, I not only have to wonder if my PC is up to running it in the first place, I also have to try and suss out whether all the positive reviews are based on the game being played on a PC much better than mine and thus may not reflect the experience I will have. When I see a good review for an XBox game, I know they are reviewing the game as I will actually play it.

What's more, while keyboard and mouse are a great UI, some games are much better with a controller. You can plug any of a thousand different controllers into a PC, yes, but when I put a game in my XBox, I know that it was designed for and playtested with the exact controller I am using.
posted by 256 at 7:18 AM on May 15, 2017 [6 favorites]


I'm happy writing off the cost of the controllers as roughly equivalent to the $9.99 PSN fee. That gives us $120 a year for that (or $100 if you pay every three months).

I have to admit I game on Linux, so the Windows licence fee doesn't apply to me. I don't hate consoles (beyond a dislike of any machine where DRM keeps me from running my own software), I just disagree that the hardware is notably cheap.
posted by jaduncan at 7:24 AM on May 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


MeFi: We're the chips necessary for a full computing environment
posted by fairmettle at 8:18 AM on May 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


My Uncle Vinny had an Intellivision back in the day. Also, he (along with me) was the only one in our NYC-metro based family to listen to the local country station, WKHK. I don't remember if he ever got the computer attachment, though. I remember Atari and Ciolecovision doing PC uprades around tghe same time and not working out so well.
posted by jonmc at 8:37 AM on May 15, 2017


Whenever I hear someone talk about Intellivision I get taken back to the SCTV Merv Griffin sketch where George Plimpton is able to out-battle George Lucas because George Plimpton's Intellivision can fire lasers in 8 directions and George Lucas can only fire his lasers in 4 directions.
posted by Rob Rockets at 9:09 AM on May 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


And the Bally Astrocade had identical hardware to Gorf and Wizard of Wor, so it'd probably be fun to program too (but how many parents would be comfortable with their kids learning how to use GRASS?)

Jamie Fenton has mentioned that the Bally Z80/Astrocade arcade hardware was programmed entirely in Forth. That would have been a much more interesting thing to let the public play with, at least from a geek point-of-view.
posted by JoeZydeco at 9:23 AM on May 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


Memory prices (wayback machine link) have a lot to do with the lack of success. It apparently took until 1985 for memory to drop below $1/kilooctet.

Of course large manufacturers could get substantial quantity discounts, but at launch in August of 1982, the Commodore 64 (with 64 kilooctets) was $595. Its predecessor the Vic-20 had launched at $295 in 1980, but it only had 5 ko of RAM.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 9:51 AM on May 15, 2017 [3 favorites]


My first computer, a ZX81, had two 2114 (4kbit) chips, and I eventually managed to save up enough to buy 8 4116 (16kbit) DRAMs at around £5 each plus a bare PCB to put them in. Memory costs were absolutely a limiting factor if you didn't have the cash - on the plus side, it was a great incentive to learn Z80.

And learn it you did; no room for the luxury of an assembler, you sat down w' pencil and paper and an opcode list and hand-generated the binary which you then got into memory with a FOR B=16384 TO 17000:INPUT A:POKE B,A: NEXT B style loop. (Only with a ZX81, there were no multistatement BASIC lines, you made your first line 1 REM XXXXX, with enough Xs to store the binary, and set the start address of the loop to the first character in the BASIC listing after the REM bytecode, which you found by subtracting the system variable that marked the start of the display file from 16509 plus a few. And you won't forget to save the damn thing before test running it, will you?)

Ah, kids of today.
posted by Devonian at 10:37 AM on May 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


My parents bought an Adam for the family. I think they had to have it repaired. And then, as they would, when it became obvious the platform would fail - they bought a second for spare parts. Soon after, I invested my own money in a Commodore 64, which more than filled the void any Adam failure would leave in my life.
posted by meinvt at 10:43 AM on May 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


My first "computing device" (beyond an HP programmable calculator) was an Atari 2600. I never even dreamed of doing anything with the BASIC cartridge. It wasn't long after that I got a Timex/ZX81, and soon after a Commodore 64. I remember those long Sinclair BASIC REM lines...
posted by lhauser at 10:49 AM on May 15, 2017


This is exactly the era of home console/computing that SmileBASIC is trying to remind us of/emulate/pay homage to/whatever. The only differences are that the IDE is a lot more modern-feeling, and that you're also able to create some games that are at least reminiscent of the SNES era.

I love it - if it weren't for SmileBASIC my 3DS would be gathering dust a lot more often than it is. Believe it or not, entering text code on the 3DS isn't actually horrible.
posted by destructive cactus at 11:33 AM on May 15, 2017


So a few comments:

Dumb question: why was this so difficult? We're the chips necessary for a full computing environment just too darn expensive at the time?

Processors were expensive but memory was even more expensive. And it was pretty slow - early 80's memory wasn't really good enough to run a framebuffer, at least not for a reasonable price. The Atari 2600 doesn't have a framebuffer of any sort, which is sort of mind-melting. The C64 and Apple II had tiny little framebuffers - the C64 had like 8k of framebuffer, tops, which was a pretty huge chunk of its 64k of memory.

And the craziest thing - I just finished reading "On the Edge: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore" - Commodore owned MOS Technology. The 6502 processor use in both the original NES and the Apple II was made by Commodore. It's insane to think they they were just selling one of their key system components to their two biggest competitors.

At the time people were really not sure what the hell they were buying - the C64 was a huge hit because it was actually a fairly good gaming system by the standards of the day but it also had the promise of being some sort of academic device which made it more attractive for families to purchase for their kids.

Plus - and this is a big plus - the C64 was probably the biggest piracy scene of the 80's. Intellivision was fun, but kids don't go out and spend big $$ on new games. Whereas a box of floppies and a hole punch was cheap.

But that Commodore history book taught me something pretty key - none of those 80s computer companies had the slightest fucking clue what they were doing. Woz was a smart guy but Apple's computers were pretty behind the curve for a long time. Commodore was grossly mismanaged and undercapitalized. IBM won by being IBM - they were already huge and effectively gave away the PC architecture plus let their suppliers Microsoft and Intel sell to their competitors. But the Ataris and Intellivisions of the world succeeded in spite of their management, not because of it. These companies had less than zero idea what they were doing and what the end game was.
posted by GuyZero at 11:40 AM on May 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


Second dumb question: why are game consoles still a thing?

A good answer (but not the only answer) is piracy.
posted by GuyZero at 11:42 AM on May 15, 2017


The Atari 2600 doesn't have a framebuffer of any sort

It's true. Programming the 2600 involved manually building an image line-by-line as the electron gun scanned the screen. You had to do most (if not all) of the calculations for game logic and so on during the tiny intervals when the electron beam was going down to the next scan line or jumping back up to the top of the screen...and in fact, the main book about what developing for it was like is called Racing the Beam.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 12:21 PM on May 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


GuyZero: The 6502 processor use in both the original NES and the Apple II was made by Commodore. It's insane to think they they were just selling one of their key system components to their two biggest competitors.

Four or more of their competitors, actually. The 6502 drove the Atari 8-bit computers and the Atari 5200 (as noted here already, the 2600 used the cheaper MOS 6507), along with the BBC Micro.
posted by hanov3r at 3:19 PM on May 15, 2017


Back in the day I had three Coleco Adams, all of them Colecovisions with "expansion kit #3." After the Coleco crash it was possible to find these really cheap brand new -- around $100 each for the console and expansion kit -- and by then they'd fixed most of the reliability problems. It was just too late to save the company, but for the price that was an insanely usable computer. The slow loud printer was slow and loud because it was letter quality, at less than half the cost of the nearest alternative, in a world where many publishers were forbidding dot-matrix manuscripts. It booted to a pretty usable word processor instead of BASIC, and the high speed random access tapes worked pretty well as long as you didn't forget to eject them before powering the system down. The keyboard cable was a standard 6-conductor phone cable, and I bought a couple of long ones so we could lounge on the sofa while composing text on the TV. It was something of a letdown when we realized we needed to switch, and the Amstrad PCW9512 (a remarkable inexpensive machine in its own right) forced us to sit at the desk. But then 80 columns of sharp text, soooo.... And the cheapest daisy wheel printer we could find cost almost as much as the computer, though to be fair it was both faster and much better made than the Adam's.
posted by Bringer Tom at 3:19 PM on May 15, 2017 [5 favorites]


Second dumb question: why are game consoles still a thing?

If you've ever seen the inside of an .ini file, you know the answer

On a console you just push the power button
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 3:45 PM on May 15, 2017 [3 favorites]


I wrote my first program, a character-set man walking across the screen, in the opcode language that was "Computer Intro" on the Odyssey².

I'm surprised the article didn't mention the successor to the Intellivision & keyboard, the Aquarius. It achieved a higher level of viability with a 300 baud modem and a thermal printer.
posted by pashdown at 3:52 PM on May 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


The ZX81's video is a thing of wonder also. You've got a machine with 1K of RAM, which has to be able to cope with an interesting amount of BASIC and generate a 32x24 character screen, each character of which is an 8x8 pixel matrix. It managed by a set of exquisite hacks, basically fooling the processor into executing each line of characters (but forcing a NOP onto the processor's data bus during instruction fetch) to load the character code into the video logic, which did the look-up into the ROM character map to load its pixel shift register, until it hit the end-of-line character which was also the Z80 HALT opcode. Along the way, it used the processor's autoincrementing R register (and even Z80 programmers may not know the chip has an R register, which was intended to generate DRAM refresh bus cycles when the processor wasn't doing a fetch) to index into the appropriate character map. which itself was pointed to by the I register (an interrupt vector register, also not normally used in this way). The whole thing was marshalled by judicious use of NMIs tied to the appropriate TV display generation frequencies.

I simplify madly and inexactly. But the end result was a display buffer that with a clear screen was just 24 HALT instructions, and that automatically expanded as characters were placed on it. The processor got to see and run actual instructions during line and frame flyback (slow mode, or as marketing put it 'compute and display'), or all the time when it wasn't waiting for input (fast mode, when the screen went away to leave a grey raster).

Some very clever work went into those cheap 8-bit machines, and many quarts were drained out of pint pots.
posted by Devonian at 4:04 PM on May 15, 2017 [3 favorites]


Second dumb question: why are game consoles still a thing?

"Why doesn't everyone build their own car?"
posted by DoctorFedora at 4:28 PM on May 15, 2017


If you forswear prepurchases forever and give your old nintendos to sickly orphans, I will tell you the mystical secret of how to play games on a computer.

(it's a usb port)
(just buy like an xbox 360 controller that plugs into usb)
(dont even worry about the games they just appear on your hard drive like tribbles)
posted by knuckle tattoos at 6:56 PM on May 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


I've mentioned this before, but:
My friend had a Coleco Adam. You would load games via its cassette tape drive. The first time I saw it, he popped in the Buck Rogers - Planet of Zoom cassette.
"Now do we play?" I asked him.
"No." he said, "Now we go have lunch while it loads."
posted by blueberry at 11:12 PM on May 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


@blueberry

Tape loading was by far the most common approach in Europe for the 8-bit computers - disk drives for the C64 and Ataris were prohibitively expensive for a lot of people.

The C64 also had a notoriously slow tape drive, and waiting 30 minutes for *every* game to load was the way things were until somebody invented fastloaders.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 1:16 AM on May 16, 2017


The most amusing thing about C64 tape fastloaders (or turboloaders) wasn't that they were faster than ordinary tape loading, it was that they were faster than the C64's disk drive.
posted by Devonian at 4:39 AM on May 16, 2017 [3 favorites]


(it's a usb port)
(just buy like an xbox 360 controller that plugs into usb)
(dont even worry about the games they just appear on your hard drive like tribbles)


(wait, does my graphics card run this?)
(Do I need a new driver?)
(Or is that memory, do I need memory?)
(Can this run on my tv well?)
(Shit, I can't stretch that cable to my couch)
(What do you mean the driver creates lag on my controller?)
(I'm in an office chair using a mouse all day, now I have to do it again?)
(Wait, how many keys?)
(Should I buy one of those overlays?)
(Fuck this, I'm going to go play Battlefield on my xbox)
posted by lumpenprole at 7:46 AM on May 16, 2017 [2 favorites]


(what's an xbox, is that this)
(oh no i plugged my vcr into my belly button somehow)
(long live the new flesh)
posted by knuckle tattoos at 10:16 AM on May 16, 2017 [4 favorites]


Somebody should make a video game about trying to play games on PC

Like first you have to go to the internet on a quest to find the right .dll

But then your controller is wonky, but you heard a rumor from a troll that another player made a custom driver that fixes it, so you have to quest through internet forums
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 1:06 PM on May 16, 2017 [2 favorites]


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