AtGames and Intellivision Productions INTELLIVISION FLASHBACK
It plays the games, and that’s good – But it misses the mark.
History is an important teacher. To understand that something was ground-breaking, even though today’s standards would find it behind the times, you have to understand the time from which it came. Take the classic film Snow White, for example – Hollywood trash-talk at the time, was that Walt Disney was off his rocker, NO ONE could produce a full-length animated feature, no one would ever care for a lead character that was DRAWN. Snow White became a modern miracle of its time, something never seen before, and today, animated films are completely accepted in the full scope of movie entertainment.
So, to understand Classic gaming, we need to take a step back. There was a time when video games could not multi-task. They could not render things in lifelike 3-D. They had very limited graphics capabilities, and tinny, beepy boopy un-lifelike sounds. The games for these machines were conceived and programmed by pioneers. Ground-breakers. People who invented an entirely new way to play a game. When the first cartridge video game consoles were introduced, the idea of having multiple games, changeable by buying a new cartridge, was actually quite amazing and magical.
Each of these systems was instantly recognizable. Atari games looked like Atari games. They sounded like Atari games. Each system was distinct. The Sega Master System. The Colecovision. You could spot an original Nintendo Entertainment System game a mile off. Even the newer Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo had differences that were easy to spot. They were a product of the components that made them, and none of those components were very standardized, and they were rarely designed expressly for the purpose of gaming.
With the newest generations, these differences are practically nil. In the ultra-realistic world of real-time 3-D rendering, the biggest division between current video game systems are their controllers, and any exclusive license that keeps a game or character off of a competitors’s system. They play the same musical score and push so many polygons, that one system’s perceived superiority is negated by a skillful programmer, and game X on the PS4 plays just like game X on the Xbox One and (depending on your graphics card) game X on your home PC.
That’s why there is a retro gaming market. That’s why there are emulators, and all the controversy that surrounds them. Things were different at the dawn of the video game industry, and people like to relive those experiences, like watching Snow White as if a full-length animated film had never been witnessed before. I won’t blow wind up your skirt and try to convince you that an ancient Atari 2600 game has more going for it than the current itineration of Final Fantasy, but I WILL say there is much fun to be had in games that have a simple structure, and there is joy in just blasting, running and jumping. Games that had ONE programmer, not an army. Games that went beyond the simple sprites that comprised them. Games that, believe it or not, broke new ground with each release, because the programmer HAD to push those little systems to the max to make them do ANYTHING. These people, like Disney’s animators, were trailblazers.
In that early era of pioneer gaming, my favorite system was the Mattel Intellivision. To me, the Intellivision had something extra. It was quirky. In fact, at first glance you might find that It’s graphics were often rather large and clunky, even by the standards of the day, but there were these guys. TV Guide had dubbed them the Blue Sky Rangers. They were the team of programmers working on Intellivision games, and they thought outside of the box. They thought maybe the Intellivision could take you on a bombing run over WW II Germany. That you could fly your spacecraft down a trench like the Death Star. That if you had a controller with a bunch of buttons, you could throw your baseball directly to the second baseman. Heck, you could throw it to the center fielder, if you really wanted to, just to tick off your little brother and avoid pitching to him.
The Intellivision was based on the idea of more. It was supposed to be a part of a larger system, an actual computer system, and the games seemed to have that in mind. Instead of catching the mad bombers mindless onslaught of bombs, like Activision’s ‘Kaboom!’ for the Atari, ‘Bomb Squad’ for the Intellivision asked you to disarm the bomb, to solder in new parts to break the circuit, to solve the final code and save the city.
Intellivision had actual focus. Where Atari invested seemingly blindly in coin-op license after coin-op license to keep the cartridges flowing, Intellivision created networks; gaming, sports, space, arcade. There was a more unified vision, more of an “in house” feel to the games. The controller was an experiment in and of itself, a directional “disk,” the precursor of the now ubiquitous “d-pad.” Four fire buttons and a numeric keypad. The possibilities were endless – and, so were the cramps in your hand – the Intellivision controller threw ergonomics to the wind. but, to be fair ALL older video game controllers had comfort at the very bottom of a rather short list (Press buttons? Check. Play game? Check. We’re done, here…).
Intellivision learned one of the first lessons in video game accessories: They don’t sell well. They created the Intellivoice, a plug-in adaptor that allowed compatible Intellivision games to talk. It was awesome at the time, and it was expensive. It had so little memory allocated to audio playback (because memory was ridiculously expensive), that most people didn’t realize those were recordings of real actors, not computer-generated tones (imagine taking a 320k MP3, and converting it to, like, 2k. What do you get? The basic sound of an Intellivoice game…).
Lots of bad things happened to Mattel Electronics, and, indeed, the entire video game industry, during the video game crash of the early 80’s. There was never a new generation of Intellivision. But it DID have an afterlife for many years, due to the efforts of Terry Valeski, a Mattel marketing executive, who bought the Intellivision license from Mattel, and formed INTV Corporation. He continued to use many of the original programmers to finish games in progress at the time of the big crash, create new games, and even produce a slightly redesigned version of the original Intellivision console. The Blue Sky Rangers kept the flame alive as long as possible, until INTV closed it’s doors in 1991. Later, Keith Robinson, a former programmer for Intellivision, himself, purchased the software rights in an attempt to get classic Intellivision games back into consumer’s hands via retro collections and hand-held games. The current itineration from his Intellivision Productions is what I now have in my office, the Intellivision Flashback.
Unfortunately, this review is rather late, and practically A piece of history, itself. I had pre-ordered the Flashback from the actual producer of the unit, AtGames. Almost three weeks after the release date, they still hadn’t sent it, contradicting their initial email stating they had already shipped. I had no answers from them after repeated contact attempts, although they did refund my money very quickly (an hour) after I asked. All without an apology or explanation. Not exactly people-friendly, which is not good for an electronic game company. Toys R Us was much more accommodating, but it still took another week to arrive at my house.
First, the unboxing. Everything in its place. Except overlays. My box, unfortunately, did NOT include the “included” overlays. Not a major problem, since I have my own – but who wouldn’t want new ones? From other reports, they are pretty nice, and even have a protective removable plastic covering to keep them pretty until you are ready to put them to use.
The base unit is a tiny little box shaped like an old Intellivision game unit. Did I mention tiny? It weighs about as much as a half a sheet of paper. Opening the box (don’t try this at home, kids, let us professionals break our stuff), there’s even less inside – a small board with a couple of chips, controller ports and a power input. They could have made this thing the size of a deck of cards, there is THAT much open space inside the shell!
The controllers are amazing. Exact replicas of the original controllers. This is the key thing missing from computer and console emulators of the Intellivision. The fact that these things seem to be good quality, and created the same way as the originals (yup, I opened one of these up, as well), in a toy that costs 40 bucks and still makes AtGames, Intellivision Productions and the retailer money, is an amazing feat, and makes me wonder why this hasn’t been done before – I would have gladly bought a controller for the previous modern compilations. Maybe now, Intellivision Productions can simply make more controllers for ‘folk like me with original units in need of some TLC.
The system, itself? Unfortunately, hit and miss. I wanted to love this thing, I really did – but this unit is like a movie that COULD have been great, but falls short. Don’t get me wrong, there IS fun to be had, and you certainly can use this to introduce someone to the Intellivision, or surprise someone this holiday season who may no longer have one. But there could be so much more, here – and there is so much left undone. Let’s just start at the beginning, from first power up.
While I understand that the menu system built into this game system is AtGame’s “basic” selection screen, I still have to complain about it. First off – they are mini graphic representations of: Atari Cartridges. Yes. I know, AtGames started by doing Atari compilations, it costs time to re-program, why re-invent the wheel? But it’s still annoying. Also, what is the first thing a true Intellivision player will want to do to select a game? Why, press the “enter” button, of course. That doesn’t work, here. In fact all of the keypad buttons do odd things, moving you through the menus in unexpected ways. There are two rows of games on the screen, but you must move up and down to get through them, as left and right only moves you from screen to screen – not between the rows on the screen. The included documentation does explain that certain keypad buttons do certain things, but it looks more like they just documented the trouble that the Intellivision controller had with their existing menu subroutine, and tried to pass it off as a feature.
This just furthers my opinion that AtGames is not comprised of “people” persons. The final user experience seems to not be a priority, and it starts you off on bad footing.
As an experienced Intellivision user, the emulation itself is passable. In general, games that play well play well. The sound of every game, however, is an octave too high. Not that noticeable (or important) for the various explosions and effects, but really odd for music compositions. A non-Intellivision person will not notice, but even so, the polyphonic music that the Intellivision was known for will still sound a bit off, and lose some of its charm. I don’t understand why this has to be the case, as other emulators can pretty much ace Intellivision sound. The Intellivision emulator available in the GooglePlay store, despite not being upgraded in years, does a great job with audio on my little android gaming tablet. Intellivoice games also suffer a bit on the Flashback, as the vocals seem weak, and lost in the background of other game sounds. The video is a bit over saturated, but not problematic. These are not exactly “nail-in-the-coffin” troubles, as the Flashback games DO play.
I have a favorite game, you see. Tower of Doom: A dungeon-crawler, possibly intended to be the third installment of Mattel’s license with TSR Games’ Dungeons and Dragons property. Finished by INTV Corporation after the video game crash, you get all the cleverness that the Intellivision was known for – things that placed it above other systems of the time: A main screen where you move around the dungeon level, a second window that auto maps the level as you move through it, a sack that you can rummage through, a message line to let you know your character has been cursed or blessed, and a cool close-up to do battle with the nasty dragons that you run across.
At least, that’s what the game does on my actual Intellivision. On the Intellivision Flashback, something is wrong – you never get to fight the monsters. Something is off with collision detection, and monsters don’t even notice you. You never get to the fight screen.
You would never know anything was wrong, mind you, unless you are familiar with the game. You would just think that it stunk. The provided instructions, you see, don’t tell you how to play Tower of Doom, or any of the games, for that matter. While I realize that reprinting 60 game documents is a bit much (but not impossible, as the Lost Treasures Of Infocom collection did just that), would a quick rundown of controls and a paragraph about gameplay, instead of the advertising blurb paragraph currently there, had been that difficult? Once again, we’re not being people-friendly, here, and, while the documentation mentions making a journey to the Intellivision Productions’ website, most people will NOT do that. Intellivision games were more complex than Atari games, that was a part of their charm and uniqueness. It’s unforgivable to treat people who purchase this Flashback system no differently than the dubious ‘folk who download ROMS from dark corners of the internet for use in those legally-questionable emulators.
Speaking of the Website, here’s where Intellivision Productions drops their own ball. At the time of this writing, one month after the release of the system, only two out of four links in support of the Flashback are actually live (and the first two are relatively recent additions): the FAQ, and the links to instructions. Where was the planning in all of this – this should be a serious push: Finally, a chance to play these games in a close approximation of the actual system, the way they were meant to be played, with a real controller, and you are not ready? The initial press-release by Intellivision Productions for their partnership with AtGames was September of 2013, a full year before the release of the Flashback. How about a purchasable book, or downloadable pdf with history of the system and nicely formatted instructions? You already have all of this information on your website, why was it not reorganized and ready for this product launch? [Note (10/11/14) – As of my last check, Dec 10, all links are now active, and you can now readily find the needed info for gameplay!]
For me, this is truly the saddest part in the historical journey of this classic gaming system: It’s just not getting the help that it deserves. Myself and many other collectors, bloggers and classic gaming outlets have been excited about, even rooting for, the Intellivision Flashback. How will you bring new people to a classic system, with no history, no instructions, and poor presentation? How can you be late to your own party? How will anyone get past the deceptively simple graphics to see the gem that was the Intellivision, the rich history, the technical achievements, and that magic of that first play in the living room?
Here was the opportunity to not only make a case for the system that I and so many others loved, but to show it as something special; something that was ahead of its time, worthy of a revisit. The Intellivision Flashback could have given the Intellivision system renewed relevance in gaming history, but right now, it’s that movie that had promise, but you leave the theater lacking. In the end, I guess it’s nothing more than a toy that I bought from Toys R Us, but with a little planning and care, it didn’t have to be that way. There is still fun to be had with the Intellivision Flashback, but only if the hobbyists and fans state the case for the Intellivision ourselves. If WE explain the history and uniqueness – something that the parties involved in this product, the ones that have everything riding on this, have not done.
04/16 UPDATE: Want to see what makes me LIKE my Flashback? Check out THIS post about the Ultimate Intellivision Flashback!