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Atari 2600 vs. Intellivision: A Historical Comparison of Two Gaming Pioneers

The early 1980s saw fierce competition between pioneering home video game consoles as companies sought to capitalize on the nascent market. The first-mover Atari 2600 faced a tough new challenger in Mattel’s Intellivision. Though boasting impressive capabilities for its time, the Intellivision ultimately fell short of winning over consumers.

Birth of the Home Console Market

Atari’s Video Computer System (VCS), later rebranded as the Atari 2600, launched in 1977 and swiftly became a cultural phenomenon [1]. The console’s simple, inexpensive games like Combat, Air-Sea Battle and Indy 500 sparked a new interactive entertainment medium. Mattel witnessed Atari’s meteoric success and aimed to capture market share with its new Intellivision console unveiled in 1980.

Backed by an aggressive marketing campaign touting superiority, Intellivision posed a serious threat to Atari’s dominance of the fledgling home console business. However, by getting to market first, Atari had already established strong brand recognition and a sizable stable of popular game titles [2]. This early advantage proved vital in the face of new competition.

Inside the Machines: A Specs Comparison

Internally, Intellivision bested the Atari 2600’s capabilities:

CPU

  • Atari 2600: 8-bit MOS 6507 @ 1.19 MHz
  • Intellivision: 8-bit General Instrument CP1610 @ 2 MHz

Memory

  • Atari 2600: 128 bytes RAM
  • Intellivision: 1 KB RAM

Graphics

  • Atari 2600: 128 colors, 320×192 resolution
  • Intellivision: 16 colors, 160×196 resolution

Sound

  • Atari 2600: 2 channel mono
  • Intellivision: 3 channel stereo

Clearly, the newer Intellivision had greater graphical/audio muscle. Combined with clever marketing about bringing arcade-quality experiences home, many expected Intellivision to quickly unseat Atari [3]. Yet the public kept buying the cheaper, more established 2600 in greater numbers.

Quality and Quantity: Game Libraries Compared

Despite its hardware advantage, Intellivision’s smaller games catalog proved critical in the console war. By 1982, the Atari 2600’s game portfolio topped 400 titles [4] like:

  • Space Invaders
  • Pitfall!
  • River Raid
  • Kaboom!
  • Adventure

Though many games were mediocre, absolute classics like these helped drive massive 2600 sales. Players relished the variety and arcade ports unavailable elsewhere.

Conversely, just 62 Intellivision games released by 1983 [5]. Early titles focused on sports like MLB Baseball and NASL Soccer. Later came high-profile arcade conversions like Space Hawk, Tron: Deadly Discs and Beauty & the Beast. While beautiful and advanced for consoles of that era, the limited selection slowed Intellivision’s momentum. By 1983, Atari 2600’s global installed base exceeded 10 million compared to around 3 million Intellivisions [6].

Despite its smaller library, Intellivision birthed some all-time classics like Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and introduced series mainstays like BurgerTime [7]. Yet these breakout hits couldn’t match pace with Atari’s sheer market saturation and variety.

Controllers: Paddles vs. Keypads

Both consoles’ unique first-party controllers also proved either hit or miss with gamers. The Atari 2600 shipped with iconic digital joysticks and paddle controllers. The digital joystick especially resonates today as a perfect evocation of early console gaming.

By contrast, Intellivision’s complex controllers flummoxed consumers. The misleading “action” buttons merely overlaid a telephone-style numeric keypad. To play games, users inserted a cardboard overlay adding labels to the controls. Unintuitive and prone to breaking [8], these controllers often frustrated rather than enthused.

Simpler alternatives like the Intellivision Sidewinder trackball controller helped matters later on. Yet Atari’s controllers maintained mass-market appeal crucial to winning the sales race.

Lasting Influence Beyond the ’80s

The infamous 1983 game industry crash devastated Atari, Mattel’s Intellivision and other companies [9]. Yet the Atari 2600’s legacy survives via:

  • Over 30 million lifetime units sold
  • Hundreds of fan-made homebrew games
  • Active retrogaming and emulation scene
  • Re-releases like the Atari Flashback plug-&-play console

Publish goodwill also enabled Intellivision compilation re-releases on modern platforms [10]. However, Atari’s vastly wider nostalgic appeal keeps the 2600 identified as the quintessential early console experience across pop culture.

Through sheer market dominance, the Atari 2600 proved more influential despite ceding cutting-edge graphics to Intellivision back in the early 1980s battle for living room supremacy. Via re-releases and a still-vibrant homebrew scene, the 2600’s iconic catalog of early hits lives on decades later as a crucial gaming time capsule that Intellivision couldn‘t surpass.

References

[1] DeMaria, Rusel, and Johnny L. Wilson. "High Score! Expanded: The Illustrated History of Electronic Games." McGraw-Hill/Osborne Media, 2004.

[2] Consalvo, Mia. "Console video games and global corporations." New Media & Society 8.1 (2006): 117-137.

[3] Parish, Jeremy. "Defining Games: The Intellivision." 1UP.com, Ziff Davis, 15 May 2009, https://web.archive.org/web/20120227000511/http://www.1up.com/features/defining-games-intellivision.

[4] Kohler, Chris. "Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life." Courier Dover Publications, 2016.

[5] Sanchez-Crespo Dalmau, Daniel. Core Techniques and Algorithms in Game Programming. New Riders, 2003.

[6] Brandt, Richard L. "Games That Sell!." SAMS, 1984.

[7] Donovan, Tristan. "Replay: The History of Video Games." Yellow Ant, 2010.

[8] Therrien, Carl, and Alexis Blanchet. "Enter the bit wars: A study of video game marketing and platform crafting in the wake of the Atari shock (1979–1983)." Games and Culture 15.1 (2020): 73-101.

[9] DeMaria, Rusel, and Johnny L. Wilson. "High Score! Expanded: The Illustrated History of Electronic Games." McGraw-Hill/Osborne Media, 2004.

[10] Parish, Jeremy. "Revival of Intellivision reignites the console wars of the early 1980s." Ars Technica, Condé Nast., 9 Oct. 2020, https://arstechnica.com/gaming/2020/10/revival-of-intellivision-reignites-the-console-wars-of-the-early-1980s/.