When Video Game Consoles Wanted (and Failed) to Be Computers

A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail.

Of all the reasons for the video game crash of 1983, perhaps the most unappreciated might be the fact that computers were finally starting to gain a place in many households—and they could do a lot more than play games.

(Jack Tramiel knew how to price a computer.)

Game console manufacturers understood this ahead of time—in fact, they seemed to design their entire business models around the idea that the machines could eventually be upgraded to full-fledged computers, or at least into something more useful than what was seen as a toy.

But for some reason, these devices could never really seal the deal. Why was that?
Let’s consider the plight of the video game keyboard accessory.

“Odyssey² is the only popular-priced video game that comes complete with an alpha-numeric keyboard. Other games charge up to hundreds of dollars extra for optional keyboards if they have one at all. The Odyssey² keyboard lets you program mazes and grids. Type numbers and letters on the screen. It even lets you change opponents and fields of play.”

— A 1982 newspaper ad for the Magnavox Odyssey², touting its primary advantage over every other console sold during the era. The fact that the console includes a 49-key membrane keyboard doesn’t in fact make it a great computer, but it does give it a computerish sheen, notes The Odyssey² Homepage, especially thanks to a cartridge called Computer Intro, which was designed to teach the basics of programming to kids. “Of course, none of this really qualified Odyssey² as a PC, but the public was new to computing in 1978,” the enthusiast site stated. “Odyssey² certainly would have seemed like a real computer to some people back then.”

An Intellivision, shown with the infamous keyboard component. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Why Mattel banked the Intellivision’s future on a keyboard, and why that was a bad idea

Video game platforms have long been famed for their long peripheral lists, with every addition intended on taking the system to a new level.

But as any 32X owner can tell you, there’s often a limit to how great those additions can really be, especially if they aren’t cheap. Take the case of Mattel Electronics’ Intellivision, which stuck its neck out there in a big way in a battle against Atari only to hover precipitously close to false advertising claims in the process.

The problem, to put it simply, was the keyboard. The Intellivision was designed specifically as a two-component deal—the game console, or the “Master Component,” was the one that was actually in stores, while the company promised that you would someday be able to do your taxes using the Intellivision.

“With the keyboard you can learn a foreign language, develop a personal exercise program … even work out a financial plan,” the company stated in a 1980 print ad. “The Atari system does not have this expansion capability.”

The…

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