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Consoles that won’t die: The Intellivision in 2013

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Forget the next-generation speculation. Gaming in 2013 is all about the Intellivision.

At least it is for William Moeller, the president of Classic Game Publishers, a small company still producing games for the vintage console that logic dictates should be long dead.

With four new boxed retail releases planned this year and a Kickstarter project on the way, Moeller is preserving the memory of 1982, the heyday of “Intelligent Television,” when E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial was playing at local movie theaters, and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” blasted out of record stores.

Intellivision: Birth, death, and rebirth

Intellivision advertisementMattel Electronics launched the Intellivision console in North America in 1980. It found moderate success in the burgeoning home-entertainment market, selling 175,000 $299 systems in its first year.

Despite costing twice the price of its main rival, the Atari 2600, aggressive marketing and a solid game library helped the Intellivision reach two million homes by 1982. Acclaimed literary journalist George Plimpton helped sell the system in a TV advertising campaign that highlighted the technical superiority of Mattel’s baby.

The video game crash of 1983 hit Mattel hard. Poor quality games were rushed out, and consumer confidence in the $3 billion North American game industry was failing. Mattel sold Intellivision after ending 1983 with a $300 million loss. Games continued to trickle out until 1990, when the last official title left the production line.

Moeller was there during Intellivision’s glory days, and the console left a lasting impression. “The Intellivision was my first video game system, and although I eventually moved on to other systems and computers, none of them ever captured the excitement that Intellivision games gave me in the early ’80s.”

The rise of the Internet saw Moeller gravitating toward other Intellivision fans. He eventually found Carl Mueller Jr., who was attempting to write the world’s first Intellivision emulator, which would put classic Intellivision games on PC.

“I knew I had to help,” says Moeller, “but I had no tech skills. I enlisted  a clever friend who agreed to help me despite not being an Intellivision fan. We kept searching for every bit of technical information, programming information, and hardware information we could find and eventually built a cartridge ROM dumper [allowing extraction of programming code from a game cartridge] and hand-controller interface for the PC. This allowed Carl to finish his emulator.”

Other fans, such as Joe Zbiciak, got involved in making development kits and a cartridge circuit board. “Suddenly, we had the ability to write new games and create a [physical] product,” explains Moeller. “So, we decided to make games for our favorite system.” These games are now being released on Classic Game Publishers’ Intellivision label, Elektronite.

The Elektronite back catalog

DK_Arcade_Screen2Elekronite has already released two game cartridges for the Intellivision: Minesweeper clone Minehunter and arcade title D2K Arcade. The latter is a reworking of the arcade game D2K Jumpman Returns by Jeff Kulczycki, itself an enthusiast rebuild of the original Donkey Kong 2 arcade game.

D2K Arcade has received high praise from the retro-gaming community. While the original Intellivision port of Donkey Kong is widely regarded as the worst version of the seminal arcade game, D2K Arcade is a very different beast. Mark Bussler, presenter of YouTube gaming channel Classic Game Room, reviewed it, saying, “DK2 for the Intellivision is a lot like Donkey Kong on the Intellivision, except it doesn’t suck on the Intellivision.”

As for the licensing implications of releasing D2K Arcade, Moeller explains that “Jeff [Kulczycki] tried to get Nintendo’s blessing on the game, but they ignored him. They continue to let his game exist. Jeff did the art for our game and testing. Our game is based on two of Jumpman Returns’ levels, and we use three of our own design. None of those levels were created by Nintendo. We don’t purport to be ‘Donkey Kong’ despite what people immediately say when they see the game. There are many variations of Tetris, Moon Patrol, and Pac-Man that don’t use those names, and no one says a word or thinks they are ‘infringing’. We don’t feel we are infringing, and Nintendo has not told us we are.”

Intellivision 2 close up

The retro production process

What makes both Minehunter and D2K Arcade all the more remarkable is their presentation. On cartridge, in a gate-fold box and complete with a full-color manual, the games look like the real deal.

Releasing such authentic games hasn’t been easy. “A year ago, I would have told you it was ‘very difficult,’ because I had no idea what I was doing and had no suppliers,” says Moeller. “I knew I wanted a box made, but every printer I went to either didn’t want to talk to me because the job was too big or too small. The small printers I contacted didn’t know how to print corrugated boxes, and the big ones that did wouldn’t do such a small run. Eventually, I found a printer that treated me with respect and helped me get what I wanted.”

The Intellivision controller was highly innovative, if slightly unwieldy, incorporating a 12-button keypad along with four side buttons and a directional disk. Overlays came with many games, which would sit on top of the keypad to indicate game-specific controls. This overlay concept, which later appeared on the Colecovision console, proved tricky to re-create.

“The overlays were very difficult,” says Moeller. “I couldn’t understand how modern printers had no idea how to re-create a 30-year-old overlay. Eventually, my box printer found a solution, and we [now] have top-quality overlays.”

Left Turn Only, another small Intellivision publisher, provides the cartridges and shells. It notched an Intellivision release late last year with Christmas Carol vs. The Ghost of Christmas Presents. “We supply their boxes and overlays,” explains Moeller. “So, it is really two small businesses helping [each other] produce new Intellivision product.”

The finished games retail for between $65-$70, and sell via Classic Game Publisher’s online store. “Our customers love our product,” says Moeller, “but some think we charge too much. Unfortunately, at our sales numbers, we [actually] charge too little. A lot of people underestimate the cost of bringing a new game to market. I love what I do, but making games takes up far too much time to do it simply for props.

“Some people think to keep the price down that we should cut the quality, use old cartridge shells, print on cheaper paper, and not use gate-fold boxes or shrink-wrap the games. However, I believe the people who still buy Intellivision games want a quality product. They want to be transported back 32 years ago, when they opened up a new Intellivision game from the shrink-wrap and found a full color manual in a gate-fold box. Elektronite does that.”

Demand is strong enough for at least 300 copies of any new game, according to Moeller, but he wants to do even more. “Until we came along, no one ever tried to sell more than 300 copies of a new Intellivision game,” he says. “We feel there is more demand, because we have seen copies of previous new [modern release] games going for hundreds of dollars on eBay after they sell out. We probably would not have gone to the lengths that we’ve gone to if we didn’t think we could do better than 300 copies.”

Match 5 Intellivision StickerOne of Elektronite’s 2013 releases, puzzle game Match 5, is nearing final  production. Moeller explains the journey from homebrew to retail product.

“A programmer recently came to me with a mostly complete puzzle game,” says Moeller. “We looked at it, gave it a name change to Match 5, and decided on some tweaks. I hired an artist for the game who came up with the cover, overlays, sticker for the cartridge, and the word mark [logo] for the game. The software author changed the opening screen in the game to match the word mark. We have come up with a backstory to the game and box copy.

“Pretty much everything is ready to be sent to the printer, but we have to print three boxes at once, so we need to coordinate the printing with release dates. When we get the boxes, we have to glue them together, which takes a bit of skill. We program the game onto the cartridges, test the cartridges, put them in shells, apply the sticker, screw them together, fill the boxes with the cartridge, manual, and overlays and finally shrink-wrap the whole thing.”

“It is a lot of work, but we hope to eventually sell enough copies to make all the effort worthwhile,” says Moeller.

The Intellivision gamer

The current Intellivision playing community is small, but what it lacks in numbers it makes up for in passion.

Rick Reynolds doesn’t call himself a gamer, but he has at least one copy of every Intellivision game. He doesn’t play any first-person shooters, online games, or even “the big title questing kind of games.” Reynolds likes retro gaming, and his favorite retro system is Intellivision.

“I have a real sense of nostalgia for the platform,” he says. “It was my first gaming platform as a preteen. A lot of Intellivision games hold up well in terms of playing experience.  There are many Atari 2600 games that I’ll play every now and then, but they don’t hold my interest for more than a replay or two. I go back to some Intellivision games again and again.”

Rick Reynolds Intellivision Collection 3Reynolds makes a point of keeping up with modern Intellivision releases. “I’m very excited every time someone puts out a new cart for the Intellivision,” he says. “I really try to buy each one that is released.”

These recent titles’ quality is clear to Reynolds. “There are a number of more arcadey titles that came out back in the ’80s that play and look really good,” he says. “But the newest releases that are coming out are really in another league.”

He cites D2K Arcade, the Breakout-style Stonix, horizontal shooter Space Patrol, and Christmas Carol as recent examples of homebrew games that are testing the potential of the system. “You get that as consoles age,” he says. “People learn better and better tricks for pushing the hardware further and further. I think that many of the recent releases look and play more like early Nintendo games than the Intellivision games that were coming out during the platform’s infancy.”

Rick Reynolds Intellivision Collection 4Reynolds is equally impressed by the care being taken in packaging some of these releases. “They [Elekronite] are definitely doing things right in terms of the product,” he says. “Very professional boxes, manuals, cartridges, overlays. The artwork is great as well.”

The fragile nature of vintage machines is often on the minds of collectors. “I really appreciate that [Elektronite] has made digital distributions of both D1K and D2K [available]. That serves the retro gaming community in a way that isn’t really necessary on modern consoles. Someday, all of this older hardware will fail. But having digital versions of the games to play in emulators means that I’ll be able to play these games for years to come.”

Kickstarting Defender of the Crown

Elektonite currently has four games lined up for 2013. Alongside Match 5, the label plans to release adventure game The Lost Caves of Kroz, arcade title Paddle Party, and the D2K Arcade prequel, DK Arcade.

The project stirring up most interest in the Intellivision community, though, is a remake of the seminal strategy game Defender of the Crown.

Defender of the Crown poster“Defender of the Crown was a breakthrough game on the Amiga computer,” says Moeller. “In the mid-’80s, nothing like it had ever been done before. People referred to it as an ‘interactive movie.’ The graphics were stunning, and the game was a lot of fun, too.”

Making such an ambitious title playable on the Intellivision is no easy task. “It is hard to get your mind around the idea that the game can be done on the Intellivision, but it can,” says Moeller. “The game is half complete, and what has been done is very impressive. It has to be seen to be believed!”

Sensing the benefits of a wider audience, Moeller is planning a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the game. The project needs a full-time programmer to reach completion, and Moeller realizes that Elektronite “[is] going to need a lot of support from Defender of the Crown fans and not just Intellivision fans.”

Cinemaware, the original developer of Defender of the Crown, is fully supportive of the project, and Moeller is adamant that 2013 will be the year the lengthy development process finally reaches completion. “Cinemaware has been great,” he says. “Valter Prette, our founder, has been dealing with them for half a dozen years. They know that we take this project very seriously, and are not going to make a mockery of their intellectual property.”

The future of Intellivision publishing

“It seems like we’re in an Intellivision renaissance of sorts right now,” says Rick Reynolds. “In 2012 there were carts coming out from IntelligentVision, Left Turn Only, and Elektronite.  [That's] three different gaming publishers for a 30-plus-year-old system.”

While these publishers are all working for their love of the system, Elektronite is trying to turn what has previously been a hobbyist venture into a viable business model.

“I wish them all the best, and I hope that they can make enough money to keep things moving forward,” says Reynolds. “Although it is definitely a niche market.”

Intellivision Console close up

“I believe that retro publishing is a viable business model if you can move 500 or more units,” says Moeller. “If you can’t do that, it is a viable hobby. However, selling 300 copies of a game takes more time than a hobbyist can spare.

“Basically, what I am saying is; if I can’t expand the business, I will probably cut back or get more friends to help produce games.”

Elektronite’s Defender of the Crown Kickstarter may well be a watershed moment for publishing on the Intellivision.

Might there be an untapped market that Kickstarter can reach? “I honestly don’t know,” says Reynolds. “I’d like to think that there are more people who might be interested in retro gaming if they knew more about it. But it seems like a hard sell outside of the crazies like me who really love this stuff and put time into it.”

Whatever the outcome, you can bet that Moeller won’t give up publishing any time soon. His work is driven by a love for retro gaming, and he says that Classic Game Publishers is already looking to develop for other consoles.

You can also bet that Rick Reynolds will still be playing his Intellivision classics when the next generation of gaming consoles have already been and gone.

Those hazy days of ’82 suddenly don’t seem so far off.

[Top image via The Alieness GiselaGiardino/Flickr. Intellivision advertisement image via popculturegeek/Flickr. Featured image via cyclonus5150/Flickr. Intellivision II image via andy.simmons/Flickr. Intellivision collection images via Rick Reynolds. Intellivision overlays image via Vonguard/Flickr. All other images via Elektronite]

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