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Intellivision is BACK

The Blue Sky Rangers have regrouped to bring back video games from a simpler time

In the early 1980s Keith Robinson was getting paid to have fun with his friends, programming video games such as Astrosmash, Night Stalker and Sea Battle in a huge Mattel Electronics office in Hawthorne.


The 1980s Intellivision console and games are still cultural icons. Sheldon from TV’s “The Big Bang Theory,” sports a T-shirt

decorated with a game screen from Astrosmash.


Those heady days of colorful personalities and maverick creativity screeched to a halt when the industry crashed in 1983. Then, 14 years later, Robinson and other ex-Mattel programmers bought the rights to their old Intellivision games, and began re-releasing them.

Nostalgia gamers enjoyed reliving their youth, but to the surprise of some, their kids also got off on swinging virtual baseball bats and shooting virtual asteroids, playing charmingly pixelated characters against plum-colored, simply realized backgrounds.

The ex-Mattel programmers, dubbed the Blue Sky Rangers, have partnered with media companies such as Microsoft, Sony and MTV to re-launch their games on modern platforms from Windows and Mac to PlayStation, Xbox, Nintendo DS, iPhone, iPad and PS Vita.

Two years ago the Smithsonian museum chose four classic Intellivision games – Utopia, Star Strike, TRON Maze-A-Tron and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (Cloudy Mountain) – for its “Art of Video Games” exhibition.

And now Intellivision has teamed with AtGames Digital Media to produce the Intellivision Flashback, a console with 60 of those original 1980s games built-in.

“The new product is very faithful to the original,” Robinson said. “I’m happier with this than with anything we’ve ever done.”

The player plugs the console into a TV and uses hand-controllers nearly identical to the originals, while an emulator runs the original Intellivision software code to put the games on the screen.

Blue sky’s the limit

“This is a pretty spectacular day for us,” Robinson, a lifelong Manhattan Beach resident, said on Cyber Monday.

Toys “R” Us had already run out of the Flashback in many of its locations, and Robinson had been awakened in the middle of the night to restock the product on the website.

After selling 4.4 million previous Intellivision products, Robinson expects the new one to sell over 100,000 this season.

While Atari 2600 and ColecoVision vintage consoles are out as well, Robinson believes Intellivision has the advantage of being overseen by old Mattel hands.

“Of the three major game systems of the ‘80s, ours is the only one still owned by the people who were there back then, creating the games,” he said. “We care that the Intellivision Flashback is the best it can be. This is our legacy.”

“We picked out the games, we were able to oversee it,” he said. “For us, it’s a labor of love. I believe the players pick up on that.”

Original Intellivision Blue Ranger Keith Robinson at the controls of the newly reissued Intellivision television console. Photo by Brad Jacobson

Original Intellivision Blue Ranger Keith Robinson at the controls of the newly reissued Intellivision television console. Photo by Brad Jacobson

Piano players and rubber ducks

Robinson has been dashing around to pop culture and video game shows in Portland, Las Vegas, LA and Austin, dragging as many as a dozen original Intellivision designers and programmers with him, to tell fans what the old days were like.

“Today, people work at home, they work online. Although we were a computer company we were working together, 60 to 80 people on one floor. You could hear other people’s games playing, look over the cubicle and see what they were doing,” he said.

“One person would program a game, do the graphics, maybe do the music. Now the maps, backgrounds, characters are done by tons of people,” Robinson said.

“Back then, one person would spend three to five months and do everything. There’s kind of a personality behind the games because you’re looking at the product of one person,” he said.

The programmers “mastered the unique challenge of animating blocky pixels,” creating “not only an engaging game experience, but true works of art,” Robinson said.

“We had a diverse group. Women ask, ‘You had female programmers?’ Yeah,” he said.

The Blue Sky Rangers had diverse professional backgrounds. Robinson had a master’s degree and a background in television special effects, but many of his colleagues had to learn to program and design.

“At the time, Mattel was not sure how good the market would be, so they didn’t want to spend the money to hire all experienced programmers,” Robinson said.

“Andy Sells was playing in a piano bar at a Tony Roma’s in Santa Monica. He went to Control Data Institute for a few weeks to learn how to program, and he became one of our best.

“Eddie Dombrower was a choreographer. He had danced with the Joffrey Ballet. He was not strictly speaking a computer guy, but he had designed the first computer system for choreography notation. He was very good at modeling humans, modeling motion. He went on to create a groundbreaking Baseball game on Intellivision with lifelike player animation.

“Dave Warhol was a music composition major at Pomona College and was making extra money working in the college computer room. When a job notice came through for video game programmers at Mattel, he thought ‘this looks good,’ and rather than post it on the bulletin board, he kept it so no one else could see it. And he got the job.

“We had lawyers, we had an animator from Cal. We pushed Intellivision way beyond what Atari was doing and even beyond ColecoVision, which came later and had higher resolution.

“The team there had so many creative people. We were in our 20s and we’d work all day, and go down to the old Red Onion at Redondo Beach Harbor and party. We had such an intense time, such a great time.”

Robinson had an easy time getting hired on. Because of his TV contacts, he had seen some of the special effects that would go into the breathlessly awaited sci-fi movie TRON, which would hit the screen in 1982. The Mattel people heard “TRON,” which Mattel had licensed for games, and Robinson was in.

Of late, Robinson has been regaling Con panel audiences about the day Mattel Vice President Gabriel Baum walked into the office to see little rubber ducks flying past his employees. Continuing down the hall, he saw programmers Robinson, Joe King and Steve Ettinger teeing up the ducks and launching them with golf clubs. Baum kept walking, and closed his office door behind him, knowing it was best to let his team indulge in games beyond their TV screens.

Gamers for good

While the Intellivision story is about resurrection and resurgence, Robinson said the public’s enthusiasm for videogames has never waned.

In the mid-1970s, Atari put out the lumbering, tennis-like Pong as a home video game, and by the 1980s companies were tripping over each other to make video games. Robinson said a supply glut caused the industry crash of ’83, but demand remained high.

“It’s not like people decided to stop playing the games, they had to stop – we stopped making them,” Robinson said. “The games were very popular in ’83, but the money went away.”

Mattel Electronics had made $100 million in 1982, and then lost $381 million in 1983. In early 1984 Robinson and his colleagues got the ax.

When the Blue Sky Rangers reincarnated their games in the ‘90s, they knew they had a market with fans who wanted to relive their gaming youth. What was not as easy to predict was the enthusiasm of kids, who were used to faster, more sophisticated games with denser graphics and non-vintage music.

“That took me by surprise,” Robinson said. “We put out a collection for PC, and we knew there would be a nostalgia market. But kids loved it. It was an entirely different experience for them. It’s a different genre. They’re used to long, immersive games and these are a bunch of short, addictive games.”

“I was at Comikaze [the pop culture convention in LA] and kids, like 12 and under, saw we had video games and just flooded us. They just like to play games,” he said.

“I’m having a great time.”

Intellivision Flashback and other Intellivision products are available at www.IntellivisionLives.comand retailers including Toys “R” Us, Bed, Bath and Beyond, Walgreens, Walmart, Family Dollar and Dollar General.



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