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The toy of tech: The Mattel Aquarius 30 years on

'A machine so cheesy, they should have supplied rubber gloves to wear while using it.'

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Disappointing reception

The “system for the 70s” had other failings. “To say that the Aquarius possesses editing facilities is really stretching the definition to its limits. You have a delete key which can be used in immediate and program mode to delete one character at a time... If you want to edit a line which is already in the computer’s memory you’re out of luck.” The manual, revealed Palmer, suggested you simply re-type the line.

Add the £30 Expander to give the Aquarius a decent - and competitive - amount of memory and you still ended up with a computer that was £10 more costly than the 16KB Spectrum but without the Sinclair machine’s “wealth of independent peripherals and cheap software”, noted Practical Computing.

Mattel Aquarius

Cheaper: the Aquarius drops to 60 quid

“I was disappointed with the Aquarius,” Personal Computing Today’s Palmer concluded. “I cannot see it competing with the Spectrum or even the Oric as a programmer’s machine. Like the TI-99/4A it really comes into its own when being used with pre-programmed cartridges.” In short, little more than a videogames console - the Intellivision with a keyboard.

Mattel executives seem to have come to the same conclusion - and were stung by the Aquarius’ generally uncomplimentary critical reception on both sides of the Atlantic. The company was also then struggling with group losses of $156.1 million, with the computer and videogame side of the business pulling down the rest thanks to a loss of $166.7 million, all in the six months to 1 July 1983, the period covering the Aquarius’ development and US release. Mattel’s regular dividend payments were threatened.

In early July, Mattel laid off 260 of its Electronics division’s employees and then 400 more in August - together 37 per cent of the Mattel workforce. Among them was a small team working on the Intellivision IV, a gaming system based on the Motorola 68000 processor later set to make a mark in the Apple Mac, the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga. By this point, the Intellivision IV had been in the lab for more than a year.

Mattel wants out

Mattel threw out Electronics’ management, too. Division president Josh Denham was replaced by Mack Morris, who decided Electronics’ future lay in games software not the hardware they would be played on. It wasn’t the strategy to turn the business around, and Mattel Electronics as an entity didn’t survive for much longer. Mattel shut it down on 20 January 1984.

Meanwhile, the Aquarius’ $160 US release price wasn’t pulling in the punters. It was higher than either the Vic-20 or the TI-99/4A could be had for at the time. So the company quietly called it a day in October 1983. Development work on future peripherals had already stopped. Mattel handed the Aquarius - along with the branding rights and a licence to sell Mattel’s games software - back to Radofin with a view to being out of the home computer hardware business by Christmas.

“The deal we have done with Mattel means that they will bring the price down [to £59.95] and then, at some point, we will take over supplying dealers directly,” Radofin MD Alan Leboff told Popular Computing Weekly. “We hope the price drop will have a dramatic effect on sales.” Cartridge and peripheral prices were cut too.

The reduction certainly helped reverse an abrupt sales decline that began at the end of October after the Mattel pull-out news broke, and sales started to rise again through the rest of 1983. But they never lifted the Aquarius above 13th place in the Top 20 Home Micro chart of the time, a peak it reached in October 1983.

Mattel Aquarius

The Expander with modules
Source: Griffin

Still, in December 1983 Radofin bullishly announced the Aquarius II would be out in January 1984 and be followed in April by the Aquarius III, a machine it was working on in the labs when Mattel first came knocking on its door. Neither computer ever made it to market in volume, though some Aquarius IIs did find their way into consumers’ hands. Personal Computer News took a look at it in June 1984 ahead of its forecast September release - by then it was up against the likes of Amstrad.

PCN’s David Guest reckoned the new machine was much more of a programmer’s box than its predecessor had been, but the graphics remained poor - even with the extra commands included in the Extended version of Microsoft BASIC, among them the editing tools absent from the original.

The £129, 36KB machine may have made it to market - it’s listed in Your Computer’s October 1984 autumn micro round-up, as is the £50 Aquarius - but with the caution: “Limited software availability likely to be a problem.”

Longeivity too: both were absent from the list a year later. ®

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