Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/06/10/feature_30_years_old_the_mattel_aquarius/

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.'

By Tony Smith

Posted in Vintage, 10th June 2013 09:14 GMT

Archaeologic Once described by Creative Computing journalist David Ahl as “a machine so cheesy, they should have supplied rubber gloves to wear while using it”, the Mattel Aquarius was launched in the UK - and went on sale in the States - 30 years ago this month.

Ahl, writing up a list in September 1985 of the worst computers to date, went overboard in his criticism. The Aquarius wasn’t as bad as he made out. But, it has to be said, it was something of a toy computer from a toy company.

But why shouldn’t a toy company - Mattel - get involved in the home computer market? Dragon Data founder Mettoy was one too, and it jumped into the market because it realised that the computer was going to play a huge part in kids’ lives.

Mattel Aquarius

Mattel's Aquarius: water carrier on?
[Note: this is a post-Mattel, Radofin version, hence no 'Mattel Electronics' logo]
Source: Cbmeeks / Wikimedia

Mattel’s involvement in the emerging home computer market of the early 1980s goes back to its decision that it could not possibly allow Atari to own the market for TV-connected home games consoles.

Atari launched its ground-breaking Video Computer System (VCS) - later the Atari 2600 - in 1977 as a direct response to Fairchild’s Channel F console, which went on sale 13 months earlier. The VCS was by far the more successful of the two, and certainly more than their predecessor, the Magnavox Odyssey, launched in May 1972.

Some 250,000 VCS units were sold in 1977, but that figure more than doubled in 1978 to 550,000 units - though Atari had manufactured many, many more leading to something of a cashflow crisis, which led to the ousting of founder Nolan Busnell. Atari's sales doubled again in 1979, prompting Fairchild to throw in the towel. The Channel F was independently revived in 1980 by Ziron.

Fairchild’s downfall in the home games market made Mattel wonder whether its own decision to enter that arena was the right one, and there was a moment in 1979 when development work on its own product was put on hold. In the previous year, Mattel’s engineers had been busy working on what eventually became the Intellivision Master Component console. But with jitters past, the completed console was released in 1979 in one city - Fresno, California - to assess the demand and evaluate how to market the machine across the US. The full-scale North American rollout began in 1980, though it would be two more years before the Intellivision came to the UK.

Intelligent television

Mattel decided early on that it should pitch its product not merely as a games machine like the Atari, but as the basis for a complete, expandable home computer. When owners tired of playing games on their TV, the notion went, they could extend the Intellivision with the Keyboard Component: not simply an add-on but a full 64KB 6502-processor-powered computer in its own right complete with cassette connectivity and a bay into which the games console slotted. It was codenamed Blue Whale and developed by a team under David Chandler, who had overseen the work on the Intellivision console.

It’s not known how many Intellivision buyers chose the machine because of this promised expansion option, but the console’s sales were as strong as Mattel hoped, rising to a peak of 500,000 units shifted in both 1981 and 1982. By the time it was discontinued, in 1984, some three million Intellivision consoles had been sold.

By then, of course, the market was very different from what it had been in 1978 when Mattel first appraised the home computer and gaming arena. Four years on, it was clear the public was gaining an interest in computers rather than consoles, especially here in the UK. Mattel’s Intellivision Keyboard Component might have helped the company take advantage of this trend, but it was still a no-show. Originally promised to arrive in the spring of 1981, the unit proved harder to build to a sensible price than Mattel’s engineers had expected, repeatedly stalling the unit’s release schedule. It may well have been responsible for the Intellivision’s late arrival in the UK.

Mattel Intellivision

Mattel's Atari killer: Intellivision
Source: Evan-Amos/Wikimedia

It’s believed Mattel manufactured 4,000-odd Intellivision Keyboard Components, some of which went on sale in trial runs - too few, in any event, to prevent the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) from fining Mattel in 1982 for repeatedly failing to deliver on its Keyboard Component promises. Reliability problems with the units that made it out of the company’s factories didn’t help. Certain that getting the Keyboard Component right would cost it even more money, Mattel decided enough was enought and canned the gadget in the autumn of 1982.

Fortunately, it had an alternative ready to go: the Entertainment Computer System (ECS), a less sophisticated, cheaper keyboard add-on. ECS development was started in 1981 when it became apparent that the Intellivision Keyboard Component would not be ready on time, but it was also spurred by the idea that a cheaper add-on could land Intellivision sales in schools and with parents keen on teaching their kids programming skills. ECS, codenamed Lucky during its development, lacked the extra processor power and extravagant amount of RAM of its big brother. ECS came with just 2KB of RAM and had BASIC built in.

Game on

ECS was formally launched in January 1983 at the winter Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, but it came too late for Intellivision. By then the console market was already being superseded by home microcomputers. In the US, Commodore was selling hundreds of thousands of Vic-20s - some 800,000 in 1982 alone - and had begun shipping (slowly) the 64 that summer. Atari’s own 400 and 800 micros were doing well too, as was Tandy’s Color Computer, and Texas Instruments’ TI-99/4 and TI-99/4A. The Intellivision, even with the ECS alongside it and a library of 100-odd games cartridges, was going to struggle to compete. Worse, it was now being out-performed by a newer home games entrant, the Colecovision, which arrived during 1982.

At CES, Mattel showed select retailers the Intellivision III, a much more sophisticated device with six sound channels, built-in voice synthesis, “nearly infinitely programmable colours“, 320 x 192 pixel graphics and “remote battery-operated hand controllers”, all rushed in to beat the Colecovision. But the III never made it past the prototype stage even though Mattel announced publicly that this “revolutionary video game system” would ship later in 1983. A more compact, cost-reduced version of the original, called the Intellivision II, arrived instead.

Mattel Aquarius PCB layout

The Aquarius' PCB layout
Click for larger image

But Mattel decided it still needed a new, more up-to-date machine to sell to punters more eager to buy a computer than a console. It’s not clear whether it considered developing a true home computer in-house, though its experience with the Keyboard Component may have dissuaded it from doing so. Ditto the time it might take its engineers to design and produce a computer from scratch. Mattel executives now knew that a short time to market was essential.

What is certain is that Mattel approached third-party hardware companies in search of a machine that could be created quickly, which didn’t need to be compatible with the Intellivision and could be released under the Mattel brand. Among them was Hong Kong-based Radofin Electronics, which happened to have a couple of machines in the pipeline nearly ready to go and conveniently was a firm Mattel already knew well: Radofin manufactured some of the Intellivision units Mattel was still pumping out.

Codenamed Checkers, the new Mattel home computer would eventually be announced, in early 1983, as the Aquarius. Radofin’s machine, like most early 1980s home computers from Asia, was build from off-the-shelf components, in particular the well-established Zilog Z80A processor - in the Aquarius clocked at 3.5MHz and made under licence by NEC - and Microsoft Color BASIC. It would ship in the US in June 1983, and arrive in the UK the following September, Mattel said.

The home computer

The Aquarius was specced up with 8KB of ROM, a 48-key rubber calculator-style keyboard, video output via a TV modulator, plus printer and cassette ports - Mattel would offer suitably branded devices to plug into these. The machine was able to take ROM cartridges. The power brick was built into the casing. The machine would ship with a clip-on keyboard overlay for folk who preferred to enter BASIC keywords with single-key presses rather than typing them in.

Yet it was behind the curve in many respects. “The standard computer contains 4KB of memory,” wrote Chris Palmer in Personal Computing Today, “but after the operating system has taken memory for its own workings and for the screen and colour memory, you are left with 1731 bytes for your own programs.”

There was no way to program graphics, a shortcoming Mattel engineers sought to overcome by imposing a new character set on Radofin, this one with a host of glyphs from which more complex and games-friendly graphics could be formed. Running people, aircraft, stars, aliens and explosions were added.

Mattel Aquarius motherboard

Source: Jani Laatikainen

It’s said that Mattel Designer Bob Del Principe, scoffing at the Aquarius’ poor graphics capabilities, suggested the following slogan for the new computer: “Aquarius - the system for the Seventies.”

The Aquarius could display 16 colours on its 40 x 24-character text screen, but it was officially capable of only 80 x 72 pixel graphics, and it had a single audio channel. A promised "expander" unit would up that to three channels, provide an extra slot for a memory cartridge of up to 16KB in size, and add a pair of ports for the two Intellivision-style games controllers that would be bundled with it. Since the expander was designed to clip into the Aquarius’ own cartridge slot, it would also incorporate a second such slot for game ROMs rather than memory. Both slots were protected with spring-loaded doors.

“Other peripherals will follow in 1984 - floppy disc drive, modem and a Master Expansion Module giving Extended Microsoft Basic,” wrote Popular Computing Weekly at the time. The Master Module - or Maxi-Expander, as it became known later - would allow the Aquarius’ RAM to rise to 52KB.

Age of Aquarius

“Software for the Aquarius is aimed at home management, education and entertainment,” the paper added. “Initially, Logo will be available on ROM, home finance, file handling packages, and the best of the games titles presently on the Intellivision, will appear.”

Mattel’s newly formed Mattel Electronics (UK) subsidiary would have £5m to spend promoting the micro, the British wing’s incoming chief, Mike Lunch, claimed at a formal bash in June 1983. Lunch had previously worked for Texas Instruments, launching the TI-99/4 here and updating it for the UK market. In the light of Sinclair’s recent Spectrum price cuts - the 16KB Spectrum, a machine with four times as much memory as the Aquarius, was now yours for £99.95 - Lunch cut the cost of the Aquarius to £89.95.

Mattel Aquarius

“Quite simply, the Aquarius will be the lowest-cost full colour home computer on the market,” pledged Lunch in Popular’s 9 June 1983 issue. “We’re very serious about the product - otherwise we wouldn’t have chosen the £89.85 price point.” In the UK at least, Mattel was prepared to fight its competitors aggressively, and staff were happy to tell hacks that the company would shift 100,000 of the machines through retail deals with the likes of WHSmith and Boots.

Novelly, Lunch promised an add-on to link the Aquarius to home automation systems using the X-10 protocol. He signalled that Mattel would release the Expander in the UK at launch and follow it up with the Master Expander in due course. The X-10 adaptor would arrive in early 1984. But this was just the start: “The Aquarius is the first of a family of home computers from Mattel where the emphasis will be on upwards compatibility with future-generation products,” he said.

The Aquarius II was formally unveiled by Mattel a week later, at the summer CES held in Chicago; Radofin’s second machine, codenamed Chess, would feature a typewriter-style keyboard in place of Checkers’ rubber keys, plus 20KB of memory, expandable to 64KB, and a more complete, “Extended” version of Microsoft BASIC. It would also provide hi-res graphics at a 320 x 196 resolution. It would go on sale in the US the following winter. Mattel also showed off the Maxi-Expander and “CP/M compatible” disk drives.

A 1981 computer in 1983

For now, though, the focus was on the Aquarius. Following the release of the machine in the States in June 1983 - it had had a short test run in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and Atlanta in April - the first units actually began appearing in the UK in July and reviews began to appear soon after. Personal Computing Today’s Chris Palmer was impressed by the Aquarius’ build quality, as was Your Computer regular Don Wilson.

Like Personal Computer News reviewer Richard King, the other two were not keen on the computer’s rubber keys. “The pressure required to make contact is quite high,” wrote King. “This, combined with the wobbliness of the keys, means that if you are typing quite fast you can depress a key and fail to make contact... The keys have an odd feel, as though they are balanced on top of something rather like little balls.”

Palmer, meanwhile, reserved his strongest criticism for the Aquarius’ implementation of BASIC. “The most glaring omission is [the] total lack of a command to let you clear the screen,” he wrote. “You have to resort to printing CHR$(11). On a machine with a rubber keyboard the last thing you want is to cause more typing than is necessary.”

Mattel Aquarius

Promoting the Aquarius
Click for a larger imager

Accessing the screen was generally more tricky than expected: “POKEing is something that the Aquarius owner is going to have to do a lot of if he wants colourful programs. This is because the Aquarius has no commands to manipulate colour on the screen... The screen on the Aquarius is serviced by two areas of memory. One of these contains the information for which character is to be displayed at a particular position, the other contains the information relating to the colour of that character.”

Placing a character on the screen involved POKEing the character code to the character grid memory, then using a formula to convert the desired foreground and background colour values into a single, decimal value which had to be POKEd into the correct place in the colour memory. Repeat for as many characters as you have in the string you want to show. Graphics were limited to three commands - PSET, PRESET and POINT - and you still had to POKE in the colour values.

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. ®