In the late 1970s and early 1980,, a company that filled childhoods with fancifully designed toy cars and dubiously proportioned dolls took on what would become an iconic company of early Silicon Valley. In television commercials showcasing baseball and other games, sports commentator George Plimpton showed how Mattel's Intellivision's graphics were superior to those of the Atari VCS. Intellivision made limited inroads against the videogame juggernaut, but the graphics one-upping would heavily influence console competition for decades to come.
Forty years later, in a tech market that has seen the broad licensing of retro tech brands such as Polaroid and RCA as well as the more recent resurfacing of mobile brands Blackberry, Nokia, and Palm, the current stewards of the Atari and Intellivision brands are launching modern consoles. This time, Intellivision Entertainment, as the company is now known, can't hope to compete with either the superpowered immersive visuals or the massive marketing budgets of Sony and Microsoft.
However, as it seeks to carve out a place in the gaming space between the powerhouse processing of the most advanced consoles and the unsurpassable volume of smartphones, the reborn company is following and extending ways in which scrappy Nintendo has been able to create enduring fan loyalty and successful platforms while dodging the footsteps of elephants.
The Intellivision Amico, unveiled at a retro gamer event in Portland this weekend, faces a complex set of goals. It must be fresh and appeal to a new generation. However, it must respect not only retro gaming in general, including a family-friendly dynamic, but do so with the legacy of a console that ultimately saw limited market success. Even the Intellivision name, a clever portmanteau presaging the arrival of a computer add-on that never shipped, seems dated in an era dominated by "smart TVs." And like any new platform, it must overcome the perennial chicken-and-egg problem of attracting developer support while building volume.
But in response, the team has demonstrated fresh thinking around console gaming elements that touches everything from gameplay experience to online competition to business model that make a convincing case for a comeback.
Lighting up the Living Room
The Amico will support up to eight wireless controllers that are an updated take on the original, swapping out an LCD display for the original's system of a keypad that accepted Mylar overlays and sporting such modern features as gyroscopes, accelerometers, speakers, and microphones. And, boasting a feature absent from today's market leaders, they can be charged wirelessly on the top of the console. The front of the main console has LED lighting that can be synchronized to effects in a game. For example, if you are being chased by a police car in a game, the panel may flash red and blue like a police siren. The company will also let smartphones act as controllers.
Perhaps the most controversial element of the console's direction is to optimize almost exclusively for 2D games. The company says it has developed the world's most advanced 2D gaming chip, one that can handle a million or more sprites on the screen. As for 3D games, it maintains they introduce a level of complexity that disorient casual gamers. That's a defensible argument for first-person shooters, but less so for (primitively rendered) early arcade racing games such as Super Hang On and Out Run.
Grand Theft No-No
Citing a goal of quality over quantity and invoking the Nintendo seal of approval that the company used to ensure quality after the videogame crash that wiped out both Atari and Intellivision, Intellivision staff will greenlight all games that appear on the platform. Games must be nonviolent and include a ESRB rating of E or E10 for Everyone. In the company's announcement webcast, CEO Tommy Tallarico relays the story of recommending a Switch to a conservative family that expressed disappointment to find the bloody gameplay of Resident Evil on the screen.
Unsurprisingly, the company is aggressively bringing many of the original Intellivision's classic games to the new console with updated graphics and other twists. And in a tweak to the new Atari console, the company has also licensed games from Atari's classic library. Tallarico says the versions of games that appear on the Amico will all be exclusive, at least in some respect.
Another goal is a more personalized, meaningful series of achievements. For example, instead of being the millionth person to earn an achievement after finish a level in a game, you might win an achievement noting that you are only the 500th from your part of town to have done so.
The Amico designers have rethought the dynamics around competition between players of different skill levels and are advocating games that intelligently monitor progress to dynamically change difficulty level as one player demonstrates a clear skill advantage. Tallarico gives the example of a paddle in Pong (which, of course, will be available for the Amico) becoming smaller after the player controlling it scores three times in a row. It's a worthwhile concept, although it remains to be seen just how much handicapping can be forced before the game loses its play dynamics. The console is also expected to support ad hoc player-initiated tournaments although nothing has been announced regarding fees for online gameplay.
Games for Less Green
The original Intellivision console sold for $299 (about $916 today), a healthy premium above the price of the Atari VCS. But the Amico is expected to cost between $150 and $180. Tallarico explains the range by saying he doesn't want to rule out including something that could add to the experience. All games will be available via download and priced between $2.99 and $7.99 although it may offer pricier special edition packages for collectors and enthusiasts. Tallarico notes the success that the Wii had at $249 even though follow-on software sales were disappointing for Nintendo.
Intellivision games also will not include provisions for post-purchase downloadable content (DLC) or in-app purchase. This closes a door to what can become frustrating monetization schemes that fly in the face of a fun, retro experience and the console's overall affordability.
Alas, this console that updates the games of yesterday has quite a few tomorrows ahead of its shipping. The Amico is set to ship in October 2020 with game developer kits becoming ready next year. While that gives developers plenty of time to ready titles, it doesn't necessarily provide them an incentive to do so.
To address that issue, the new Intellivision is putting its cash where its code is, paying developers to produce promising games as an advance against future royalties. That represents a vote of confidence from aspiring company, but could add to the carnage should the effort be forced to pull the plug.
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