Review: Intellivision Lives! (GCN)

Relive the classics from one of gaming's pioneers.

When the Intellivision launched in 1980 it kicked off what is arguably the first console war with Atari's Video Computer System. Sure there was an earlier price war between Fairchild (the first company to mass-market a removable-cartridge-based games console) and Atari, but Mattel's approach was far more aggressive featuring a full print- and tv-ad campaign in which Intellivision games were shown side-by-side with Atari games to prove Intellivision's graphical superiority.

Whilst Mattel Electronics managed to make a profit in the first couple of years of Intellivision's life, the ad campaign and clearly superior visuals simply weren't enough to shake Atari from its dominant position. By 1980 Atari had an installed base of over 1,000,000 households in America and a price tag that was $US100 less than Intellivision's eye-watering $US299 (equivalent to the PS3 launch price in today's money and hot on the heels of a recession). Most critically Atari had locked-up the all-important arcade game licenses via their internal arcade division as well as having exclusive licenses for hit games from Namco, Williams and Taito. By the time of the video game crash of 1984, Intellivision could only boast an installed base 1/10th the size of Atari's and a catalogue of less than 100 games.

Despite the failure to dethrone Atari, Intellivision was responsible for pioneering complex strategy and war games on home consoles thanks to a controller featuring a full 12-button telephone-style keypad. The addition of a voice synthesis module brought real-time computer-generated and pre-recorded speech to home gaming (though disappointingly only a few "Intellivoice" games were released and the module only managed to sell 300,000 copies before being abandoned). Above all else the fact that video game design was still in its infancy meant the internal Intellivision software development team (unofficially known as the Blue Sky Rangers) was breaking new ground; laying the foundation for the future of gaming.

Intellivision Lives! is the brainchild of Intellivision Productions: a company formed by a couple of former Blue Sky Rangers for the express purpose of licensing the Intellivision games library to help nostalgia-crazed retro-heads who grew up with the console relive past memories, and give younger gamers a much-needed history lesson. Developed by Realtime Associates, this collection contains not only more than 60 game titles (including unreleased prototypes and demos), but also video interviews with some Blue Sky Rangers, an A/V presentation on the history of the console, bonus TV commercials featuring spokesman (and sports writer) George Plimpton and production notes and box art scans for all the games. In short it's just about as much Intellivision as any fan could ask for!

The main menu interface is a virtual pizza parlour called Hal's with the games divided into categories represented by cocktail and upright arcade cabinets. It's a bit weird since these were not only home console games, but for the most part they aren't terribly arcade-like either! There's a corner with photos of the development team where you can view the interviews and the Intellivision history feature; then a jukebox where you can play some original music about Intellivision performed in the style of 1980s pop songs. Irritatingly this music will play even after launching a game, so you're either listening to the tracks all the time or just turning them off completely (we suggest the latter).

The interface is okay, but it's a bit clunkier than it needs to be. You move around the room by pressing the control stick left and right; then up to zoom-in on the chosen category. You'll need to press up twice to view the game lists in each category: one to see the category name and then another to bring up the game list. It's minor, but it can get a bit annoying -- especially since some of the categories are so arbitrary. Sports is pretty self-explanatory; then there's Gaming and Strategy which is card and board games; then Space which is...games that take place in space? And what kind of category is Combat and Sorcery? There's a category called Arcade that seems to be a grab-bag of unrelated games and the Educational Titles section has two titles that are more like arcade titles -- probably just because the developers felt no one would bother looking at this category otherwise. When you have a collection of 60 games on offer and want to find one to play it kind of helps to have an organisational system that makes sense, but this one fails.

Once you zoom-in on your chosen category you'll see a list of titles on offer with symbols indicating whether or not a game can played by one or two players. In the early days of console gaming CPU-controlled opponents weren't that common in sports or one-on-one strategy games, so you'll find several games (especially sports titles) that can only be played against another human player. Others can be played by one player, but require both controllers because the player 2 pad was originally used to set parameters for the CPU player in a single player game. Now we're all for faithful emulation, but it would have been nice to do some programming magic to allow a single player to play a game of baseball without plugging in the player 2 Gamecube pad just because a dead console required it 20 years ago!

The main strength of Intellivision is the more strategy-oriented games like Space Spartans or WWII aerial combat simulator B-17 Bomber, which take advantage of the fact that the Intellivision boasted enough buttons to make an Xbox 360 blush. You have the 12 keypad buttons: 0-9, "Clear" and "Enter;" then 3 action buttons (the actual controller had four, but two had a duplicate function) and a control disc capable of indicating 16 (!) directions. Even today that is a lot of buttons to deal with, and it's not helped by the fact that a lot of the game designers back then were new to video games and thought that mapping a different function to every button on the keypad was a good idea (a problem that still persists to the present day). There were originally overlays to insert into the controller so you didn't have to memorise buttons, but in lieu of this a couple of solutions have been implemented to make these games playable with the modest 8-button, dual-analogue-stick, d-pad-enabled interface available on the Gamecube.

All games have the ability to display a virtual Intellivision controller -- complete with insert card -- by holding Z and pressing the B button. Players highlight the button they want on the virtual keypad with the d-pad or control stick and then press A to activate it. The Z button can also be used as a function key so that pressing L (normally keypad "0") will be the same as the "Clear" button on the keypad and R will be the same as the "Enter" button. Additionally most of the games support holding the C-stick in different directions and pressing R to replicate pressing the 1-9 buttons on the keypad. These solutions are passable, but not without problems.

The virtual controller takes up a full 3rd of the screen -- which is only displayed with a 4:3 aspect ratio -- so you cannot play a game with it displayed all the time. For some reason the image is of the entire controller, including irrelevant bits like the title part of the insert card and the control disc. It's nice for nostalgia buffs, but you find images of the controller on the internet, so this is a massive waste of limited screen real-estate. If the game supported widescreen displays (it was released only a few years ago, so that was certainly possible) or the pop-up display was made smaller you could have left it up all the time and dedicated the C-stick to navigating it. At the very least it would have been nice to allow players to re-map the controls as they see fit; instead you need to memorise the game controls and what the developers thought made a good Gamecube layout, supplementing with virtual keypad presses as needed.

For many games you will absolutely have to read the instructions (thankfully included and accessible via the in-game pause menu) because many of them have different game modes selected with keypad presses and several have complicated controls -- one of the main complaints about the Intellivision when it was released. If you take the time to read the instructions and learn how to play them you will definitely find some worthwhile games here. Old-time sports gamers will enjoy 8-bit renderings of American football, ice hockey and basketball, but odds are if you're playing Intellivision Lives! on a Wii you probably won't want to deal with most of the sports titles when you have Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort available. Your time will be better spent with original titles like Night Stalker, Shark Shark!, Space Battle, B-17 Bomber, Hover Force, Thunder Castle, Space Spartans, Frog Bog and others.

This collection is lacking some brilliant 3rd party games from Imagic and the excellent AD&D games (sans license-infringing names), though these and some Activision games can be found in the PC/Mac collection Intellivision Rocks thanks to a quid pro quo licensing deal. Unfortunately gamers in PAL territories will have to make do with PS2 or PC/Mac versions of Intellivision Lives! since no European publishers elected to pick it up for the Gamecube. As of this writing a DS version is being shopped around for publication in 2010; we can only hope that Intellivision Productions will seek to put out a re-release for the Wii including all the available Intellivision games and a fresh interface in the future.

Conclusion

Despite a clunky menu and inflexible control layouts, it cannot be denied that Intellivision Lives! does what it says on the tin: present a nice slice of classic gaming goodness for hard-core retro gamers. There's a massive library of classic Intellivision games on offer, many of which will provide a quality gaming experience even by today's standards. If you're a fan of the original system, like old 8-bit console games or just want to experience some vintage video gaming for the first time, it's well worth tracking this one down. Long live Intellivision!