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Published: Saturday, 11/9/2013 - Updated: 8 months ago

Fight for gaming consoles supremacy started with Atari vs. Intellivision

BY KIRK BAIRD
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Microsoft's Xbox One, the successor to the popular Xbox 360, is set for release Nov. 22. Microsoft's Xbox One, the successor to the popular Xbox 360, is set for release Nov. 22.
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On Thursday, Sony’s PlayStation 4 arrives. One week later, Microsoft’s Xbox One debuts.

Given the escalating anticipation for these latest-greatest game systems, expect long lines and sold-out inventories. This will be followed by serious online crowing by fanboys touting the superiority of their console over the other, fueled in part by rival multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns.

Sony and Microsoft’s play for gamers’ affections and wallets is only beginning, but it’s certainly not new.

It’s just the latest battle in a decades-old war for control of the living room TV, a roughly half-decade cycle of hotly anticipated next-gen consoles to tempt consumers with better graphics, better games, and better features.

In 2006 it was the Xbox 360, PS3, and Nintendo’s Wii, and six years before that it was the Xbox, PS2, and Nintendo’s GameCube. And more than 30 years ago, it was the Atari 2600 and Mattel Intellivison, in the first great console war.

The beginning

The Atari 2600, or Video Computer System (VCS) as it was originally called, launched in October, 1977, as one of a small group of nascent game cartridge consoles that offered more than built-in Pong variations. Despite selling an estimated 30 million consoles during its decade-plus lifespan, initial consumer response to the system was disappointing — through the 1977 holidays and well into 1978.

Coin-op sensation Space Invaders changed that. Released in 1980 as the first arcade-licensed home game, Atari’s port became the biggest-selling cartridge of the year.

“Atari from the moment they first licensed Space Invaders knew that was a winning formula, and they pursued it feverishly,” said Curt Vendel, Atari historian and coauthor of Atari Inc.: Business is Fun (39.99, Syzygy Press). “[B]ut the public’s perception was ‘Hey, maybe we should go check out that Intellivision’ and it worked. Intellivision kept consistently nipping at Atari’s heels.”

Launched by toy manufacturer Mattel in 1980 under its new Mattel Electronics division, Intellivision was more technologically advanced than the VCS, and delivered far more realistic graphics when compared to Atari’s blocky characters. But the system lacked the 2600’s wealth of games, including arcade titles like Asteroids and Missile Command, which were ported from Atari’s own arcade division.

“[Mattel’s execs] wondered, ‘How are we going to compete with this?’” said Keith Robinson, one of the system’s game programmers (Tron Solar Sailer) and founder of Intellivision Productions, Inc., which now owns the trademarks and copyrights of the Intellivision system and games. “Then their idea was to come out with sports games, which really did look a lot better.”

Mattel Electronics launched an aggressive campaign touting the Intellivision’s superiority over the VCS with journalist George Plimpton as its spokesman. Using side-by-side comparisons of the game systems, Plimpton’s message was simple — better graphics equal better games — and effective: Mattel Electronics sold 850,000 Intellivisions in 1981 and 2 million consoles by 1982.

As it turned out, the paid-spokesman really did believe in the product.

“I talked with George Plimpton before he died” in 2003 Robinson said, “and he told me that lawyers gave him both systems and then he signed an affidavit that he actually did prefer the Intellivision.”

Atari, meanwhile, countered with its own head-to-head ads featuring popular 2600 arcade titles on one TV and a second blank TV to represent the popular home arcade ports that Mattel didn’t have for its Intellivision. The marketing message: “Only Atari” had the games people wanted to play.

The dueling ad campaigns “started the whole war between Atari and Intellivision” devotees, Robinson said. “People to this day still say Atari or Intellivision was better.”

Picking sides

Jason Cronin, 41, of Bedford, Mich., grew up playing Atari and remembers the taunts between the rival game console factions.

“The guys liked giving each other [grief]. ‘I’ve got Intellivision. I’ve got Atari,’ ” he said. “It came down to friends picking sides. It wasn’t bullying, just kids yelling at other. Within a week it was all over and we were friends again.”

Vendel, also an Atari kid growing up, described it as an “us versus them” mindset in one of the first fanboy wars.

“Intellivision was the enemy,” he said. “[It was] sort of the whole ’80s Cold War ... mentality back during that time.”

The ongoing debate, however, was rendered moot in August, 1982, with the arrival of Coleco’s ColecoVision and a few months later Atari’s 5200 SuperSystem.

Both game consoles offered advanced graphics a generation beyond Atari and Intellivision, as well as popular arcade-licensed titles.

“[ColecoVision] was devastating to Atari,” Vendel said. “[Atari] had spent 1981 through 1983 preparing their ‘Intellivision Killer’ console only to suddenly have another system show up with comparable features, and Coleco was extremely aggressive in its licensing, snatching up many key games from Atari and giving them a very critical adversary. Where Intellivision had been a thorn in Atari’s side, Colecovision proved to be more of a dagger.”

ColecoVision dealt an equally crushing blow to the Intellivision, a game system that could no longer tout the superiority of its graphics over all other consoles.

“The ColecoVision’s graphics were better than the Intellivision’s, even though some of those games on the ColecoVision didn’t play very well,” Robinson said. “But we hadn’t been pushing our gameplay or that our sound chip was better.”

Thinning out

Sales of ColecoVision, the 5200, and other new home consoles hurt the VCS and Intellivision. But it was the consumer video game crash of 1983-84 that hastened their demise, as what started as a disappointing earnings report by Atari on Dec. 7, 1982, caused shock waves throughout the industry, which resulted in layoffs and a mass exodus from home video games or at least a migration to computer games and software.

By January, 1984, Mattel had shuttered its video games division and sold the rights to the Intellivision and its games to a new company called INTV headed by a former Mattel Electronics marketing executive. INTV sold the Intellivision and its games through the end of the decade, until the company shut down in 1991. INTV was later sold to Robinson and his Intellivision Productions.

Atari survived until June, 1984, when Warner split it up and sold the arcade division to NAMCO and the assets of the consumer division to Jack Tramiel, founder of Commodore International best known for its Commodore VIC-20 and Commodore 64 home computers. Tramiel used the assets to start up a new Atari company, Atari Corp.

In 1986 Atari released the 7800 ProSystem — two years after its initial launch date was scrubbed because of the market crash — to compete with Nintendo and Sega, and in 1993 began selling the advanced 64-bit system Jaguar. Both consoles failed to catch on with gamers and Atari never released another new gaming system, though, under new ownership, the gaming company continued to release new and classic games for the Xbox, PS2 and its successors, as well as the PC platform.

In January, New York-based game maker Atari Inc. filed for bankruptcy as protection from its debt-plagued French parent company, Atari S.A.

Prior to that, the video game pioneer successfully released several versions of its plug-and-play Atari Flashback classic game consoles, and Intellivision Productions is launching its own plug-and-play classic console sometime next year, one designed to look like and emulate the Intellivision.

No longer rivals, Atari and Intellivision are partners in a retro-gaming craze, Robinson said, with similar nostalgic appeal to the casual (smart phones, tablets) and console gamer.

“I know [Atari founder] Nolan Bushnell. We don’t look at these games as competitors. It’s all retro and we’re all in the same boat,” he said. “It’s no longer a battle between Atari and Intellivision. The battle is casual and console.”

Contact Kirk Baird at: kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.



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