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Intellivision, the mashing of the words "intelligent" and "television," hit the market as one of the Atari 2600's major competitor just a year after Atari's console offering landed on shelves. It didn't reach full market saturation until 1980, as the initial 1979 release was only in select markets and only had four games available.
The hardware was undeniably more advanced than the Atari 2600, with the ability to display higher resolution graphics and a more versatile color palette. The gamepads also showed how more advanced the system was over the "simple" Atari: these controllers featured a unique disc input system that predates the Nintendo thumb pad innovation, and offered a versatile telephone-like keypad as well as four action buttons, two on each side. Games made for the Intellivision featured specific overlays with artwork that slipped right on top of these 12 buttons to make it easy to understand which button does what.
Mattel excelled at marketing the device against Atari to show just how advanced it was, going so far as to hire author George Plimpton as the voice of Intellivision for its advertising campaign. The company also pushed for licenses in its games to strengthen the brand: the company offered MLB, NHL, NFL, and NBA licensed sports games, and even locked down the Tron franchise for a series of games in time for the potentially blockbuster film.
Though the Intellivision never managed to dethrone the Atari 2600 as the top system of its era, the console brought forth many considerable innovations: along with the advanced graphics, the system offered an add-on that brought speech to games, and it also introduced the concept of downloadable games with its ahead-of-its-time, test-marketed PlayCable that offered Intellivision games distributed over television cable.
Our Fondest Memories
"Remember when you could rent video game systems from
mom-and-pop video stores in the early eighties? I was a regular renter
of the Intellivision. It wasn't George Plimpton that convinced me,
though. It was the screenshots of Imagic (one of my favorite third-party
publishers ever) games on the Intellivision that were just not possible
on the Atari 2600. Microsurgeon? Dracula? Beauty and the Beast? These
were among the first games I picked up when I entered my collecting
phase in 1999 and went daffy over buying back my childhood."
– Levi Buchanan, Editor, IGN Retro
"Before writing about games for a living, I worked full time
as a technician at a cable TV company in Connecticut and was a game
hobbyist on the side. When the NFL went on strike in 1982, we thought
it'd be a goof to offer a "replacement" to "Monday Night Football" by
getting some local kids to play Intellivision Football on our
public-access channel and do play-by-play over it. When "MNF" came back
on after the strike ended a couple of months later, the public-access
director started getting calls asking where our "show" went, so we
started doing a sports-based video-game show as a regular thing for a
while, taking calls and demonstrating some of the new games. We had no
idea people would be so into it."
– Andy Eddy, Editor-in-Chief, TeamXbox.com