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It was an Atari world back in the late 70s and early 80s, but Mattel’s Intellivison staged a pretty good coup.

The Atari VCS (aka the 2600) was the untouchable juggernaut of the home video game world, with hundreds of titles under its championship belt, but Intellivision banked on an old truth: Make it better, and the people will buy it.

Fans of both systems may argue about their relative merits, but passions aside, the Intellivision was enough to send Atari-owners home with at least a teensy bit of graphics-and-sound envy.

When the VCS first broke out in a big way, Mattel was hesitant to challenge the new king of the hill head-on. The company decided instead to focus on hand-held games like Mattel Electronics Football. When that game and its electronic kin sold through the roof, Mattel decided to move into the video game big leagues.

Taking the name “Intellivision” (for “Intelligent Television”), the company sent its newly-designed machine out to the world in 1980.

Initial ads promised that the Intellivision would soon be the basis of a complete home computer, but for the moment, it was a pure game system. A compact, wood-grain cabinet formed the console base, and wired out from that base were a pair of unique controllers.

Instead of the standard joystick/button configuration, the Intellivision’s long and thin controllers were operated with a 16-direction golden disk, four “action keys” and a 12-key numbered keypad. Colourful overlays came with most games, placed over the keypad to show what each button did in that game.

Mattel hired a group of programmers dubbed The Blue Sky Rangers (their names were kept a secret to discourage them from joining the enemy or striking off on their own). The Rangers turned out 12 games for the system’s launch, including the Las Vegas Poker & Blackjack.

Over the course of the Intellivision’s lifespan, over 125 games were produced by The Blue Sky Rangers and by outside companies. There were, of course, the obligatory arcade conversions – Donkey Kong, Frogger, BurgerTime, Venture, Q*bert and others – but Intellivision also produced its share of original hits, including:

Astrosmash – A fast-action game of falling meteors and other space debris. One of Intellivision’s biggest hits, and a success on the Atari VCS/2600 as well.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons – Adapted from the role-playing game, this game took players on a treasure-seeking, monster-slaying quest. A sequel, Treasure of Tarmin, was also popular.

Major League Baseball – Intellivison’s first and only million-seller. A baseball adaptation that blew Atari’s out of the water – and Mattel wasn’t shy about saying so.

Night Stalker – A horror-themed maze action game, with your lone man trying to survive an onslaught of robots, spiders, and bats.

Tron Deadly Discs and Tron Maze-A-Tron – Two games based on the 1982 Disney film. The first was a deadly version of jai-alai (like the arcade’s Discs of Tron), the second a platform action game.

Space Spartans – A starbase defence game of skill and strategy, aided by the new “Intellivoice” peripheral.

The long-promised home computer add-ons failed to materialise during Intellivision’s formative years, but Mattel tried to keep the people happy with other innovations. 1982’s Intellivoice added speech to games like Space Spartans, though only games made for the Intellivoice benefited (including yet another Tron game, Tron Solar Sailer).

1983 brought the release of the redesigned Intellivision II, and with it, the Intellivision System Changer.

Plugged into the cartridge slot, the System Changer allowed Intellivision owners to play every Atari 2600 game on the market, giving the Intellivision the biggest library of any home video game system at the time.

In 1983, Mattel finally delivered its Entertainment Computer System, a series of peripherals – computer keyboard, an extra set of controllers, and even a musical keyboard – that could be connected to the Intellivision.

As it turned out, 1983 was the start of a bad time for everyone in the video game business. The Intellivision had been booming, selling millions of consoles and presenting the first real threat to the VCS/2600, but a glut of product and dwindling interest in video games was building up to a total video game market crash in 1983/84.

Mattel Electronics (the company’s video game arm) went out of business, selling the Intellivision rights to Intellivision Inc, later renamed INTV Inc.

Surprisingly, the resilient Intellivision survived the slump. INTV released a revamped INTV System III (aka the Super Pro System) in 1985, and new games continued to be produced and sold until Intellivision finally stopped production in 1990.

A group of Blue Sky Rangers eventually formed Intellivision Productions Inc, bought the rights to several classic Intellivision games, and released PC and Mac versions to the public – some for sale, others just for the joy of low-res video game glory.