Day 865: Mattel Electronics Presents… My Favorite Childhood Distraction

originally published May 14, 2014

My mission today is to return to my childhood, albeit briefly and without overdosing on peanut butter-Cheez Whiz sandwiches. My parents raised me using an unorthodox less-is-more approach, meaning “less money spent” equals “more good”. So when I asked for an Atari 2600 I received an Intellivision. When I asked for an Apple IIe I received the Intellivision computer module which sucked more ass than a hemorrhoid vacuum (should such a thing exist; I’m not a doctor).

Actually, the Intellivision was not a cheap knock-off of the Atari at all; it was a far superior system in every way – even the weird disc control was great, provided you hadn’t played for several hours and reddened your thumb to an aching groan.

I’m going to re-visit some of my favorite games to see how they hold up. I’ve got a good 30 years of post-Mattel gaming under my Batman-brand utility belt, and I’m curious to see if those sepia-tone memories have been frosted with the cool minty icing of a distorted perspective or if those games truly were fun. Fun by my 39-year-old standards, which include all-you-can-eat shrimp and sex. It’s a much higher bar to reach.

The granddaddy of all Intellivision games is Astrosmash, the Asteroids answer whose only great in-game achievements are the sudden and illogical changes to the background color when a certain point total is achieved. Actually, this is still an oddly enjoyable game, despite the fact that it is inherently depressing.

Think about it: your little ship-dude is the last line of defense to keep your base safe from those falling asteroids, those pesky UFOs, and those insipid and unexplained twirling things. But it never ends. You keep shooting these objects, knowing that your demise (and the destruction of the base and its inhabitants) is the only inevitable conclusion. It’s a bleak philosophy.

Ah, the classic gridiron battle between Generic Orange and Generic Blue. Intellivision bought the license from the NFL, but did nothing more with it than stick the league’s logo on the front of the box. It was bad enough watching a center and nosetackle who never moved and could be run through like ghosts, but would it have overloaded the cartridge to dump a few actual team names and maybe some colors in there?

Actually yes, it would have. It took years of development before they even figured out how to arc a passed ball; stepping into the passing lane at any point was all you needed for an interception in this game. Screw this; we’ve had 25 years of mostly quality Madden games – this one does not hold up.

Triple Action was Intellivision’s multi-game cartridge, featuring a fun little tank game, a frustrating driving game and a what-the-fuck-are-these-controls-doing biplanes game. Not one of these games was playable as a single player, meaning this cartridge did little more than remind me how lonely childhood can be as an only child. Rather than relive the isolation and emotional pain this collection inflicted upon me, I opted to leave it on the shelf today.

There weren’t a lot of movie tie-ins with the Intellivision system, but dammit they released three games based on the 1982 sci-fi epic Tron. Maze-A-Tron was one I remember enjoying, despite the fact that I never really understood what the hell I was doing. There was a lot of running, a bunch of zeros and ones everywhere, and nothing that really connected me with the experience of the film. I still can’t figure this one out. But at least while pretending to be a pixelated Jeff Bridges I don’t feel quite so lonely.

Yes, I had the Intellivoice module, which brilliantly incorporated clunky robotic speech into a wide swath of only four freaking games. The one I enjoyed most was B-17 Bomber, a WWII simulation that allowed you to be pilot, navigator, gunner and bombardier aboard an Allied plane. The robot-voice told you when enemy fighters were near.

This game is still a raucous riot. Well, almost. My cartridge has had a defect that sent me into a violent rage as a child, randomly dumping me on some other screen the very moment I was set to release my payload of bombs to destroy the enemy’s factory. It was frustrating. It had me ready to Slim-Pickens my console: to leap on it, wave my nonexistent cowboy hat and ride the thing to destruction. It might be time for a more peaceful game.

1981-82 was the golden age for frog-related video games, ranging from Frogger in the arcades to Intellivision’s Frog Bog to… well, that’s it, really. Frog Bog is the peaceful tale of two amphibians, leaping from lily pad to lily pad and snarfing flies from the air. This game is like video-Quaaludes. From the first sunny leap until the game’s time runs out and forces you to sleep… wait, do the frogs sleep at the end? Maybe our little frogs are dying, and they have but three minutes to squeeze every last smidgen of joy (in this case, insect parts) from life.

Now I see it – Frog Bog is a lesson in carpe diem, a call to arms for each of us to grab hold of life and taste its ever-fleeting nectar. By playing video games. About frogs.

I can’t help but wonder how I came to own this game. As an 8-year-old kid, I’m sure I wouldn’t have looked at this box in the store and begged my parents for it. Not when there were other Tron games to be had.

When I think of all the hours I wasted playing “Snake” on my last pre-smartphone cellphone, I always connect it with my childhood love of Snafu. This game was pure Intellivision – there was nothing quite like it on any other system. Originally intended for a handheld system, Snafu allowed you to beat your friends with geometry. Unfortunately, playing as a single-player only meant that you’d be outsmarting the machine, and while it never felt like it in the 80’s, outsmarting a machine of this calibre is a hollow victory at best.

I’ll finish off with sweet, magical Utopia, the game that led us eventually to Sim-City, Civilization, and the entire God-game and real-time-strategy genres. Even as a single-player game, where the only challenge was to build up a nice island and try to maintain it after a wayward hurricane wipes out a hospital, killing thousands with a bloodless thunk, this is still a great way to pass the time.

Utopia landed in the Smithsonian Institution’s “Art of Video Games” exhibit due to its simple brilliance. Dull as it may seem to gamers who gargle with the froth of Call of Duty bloodlust, there’s a meditative elegance in gently guiding one’s fishing boat upon a school of fish-dots, slowly collecting money and not having to panic over anything other than the weather. Utopia invented the art of zen gaming.

For the most part, Intellivision holds up about as well as an early season episode of Diff’rent Strokes. It’s outdated, toiling in a genre that has since been vastly improved upon, and apart from a few clever snide remarks by Gary Coleman (or that squeaky thrill of entrapping a friend’s Snafu snake), it’s nothing special.

But it’s still fun.

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