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Entertainment Computer System

COMPUTER ADAPTOR #4182 & KEYBOARD #4184 (Sold together as #4187)

1983 Catalog Description | Technical Overview


Midway through 1981, Richard Chang's Design & Development group began work on the Basic Discovery System (BDS). This was announced within the company as a plug-in module for the Intellivision that would introduce kids to computer programming through an inexpensive keyboard and a simplified, color-coded version of BASIC.

Only a few people knew the real purpose behind the BDS. The Federal Trade Commission was starting to look into fraud charges against Mattel for not releasing the Intellivision Keyboard Component. Key people at the top of Mattel Electronics, concerned that Dave "Papa Intellivision" Chandler's engineering group would never make the Keyboard Component cost-effective, started looking for something they could release in its place. Afraid Chandler had the political clout within Mattel, Inc. (the parent company), to kill any effort to develop an alternative to the Keyboard, they had to keep their intentions secret.

The Design & Development group was challenged to build a module for the Intellivision that would be inexpensive (under $150 retail) but would fulfill the basic original promises of the Keyboard Component: turn the Intellivision into a computer, make it possible to write programs and store them to tape, and interface with a printer.

The design for the module was worked out by Jan Chodak and principally implemented by Greg Goodknight. The simplified BASIC interpreter was mainly programmed Jay Hastroudian. As work on the module progressed, it was officially listed and discussed in memos as an additional product for the Intellivision line, never as a replacement for the Keyboard Component.

But the issue was forced when the FTC started fining Mattel monthly until the Keyboard Component was released. Finally, the Basic Discovery System was openly advanced as a possible alternative to the Keyboard. Renamed Lucky (from LUCKI: Low User-Cost Keyboard Interface), it was presented to the programmers to start developing games. A computer-style keyboard, an extra pair of hand controllers (for four-player games) or a music keyboard could be plugged into the Lucky adaptor.

(The idea of a music keyboard add-on came from within Design & Development. Musical instruments were pet projects of the group. They had already produced Synsonics Drums, and electronic guitars, basses, and brass/woodwinds were in the works. Other ECS add-ons briefly worked on in D&D: a Biofeedback Module and a Camera Module.)

In fall of 1982, at the annual meeting of Mattel's marketing people, sales staff and distributors, Lucky -- the Computer Module, the Computer Keyboard, and the Music Synthesizer -- was presented under its final name: the Entertainment Computer System (ECS). Everyone at the meeting was delighted (mainly by the low retail price) and the obvious became official: the Intellivision Keyboard Component was dead.

A pre-Christmas commercial was rushed onto the air with Mattel Electronics spokesman George Plimpton teasing the introduction of the ECS (using the inside joke "[Intellivision owners] won't believe their luck!"). Although the ECS wasn't available for Christmas 1982, the aim of the commercial was to get people to buy Intellivisions instead of Ataris or ColecoVisions with the promise (once again) that a computer add-on was just around the corner.

Officially introduced to the public at the January 1983 Consumer Electronic Show (CES) in Las Vegas, ECS hit the market later that year with a handful of games. Satisfied, the FTC dropped the monthly fine.

By the time ECS was released, however, the focus at Mattel Electronics had shifted. After the June 1983 CES in Chicago, Josh Denham and Stav Prodomou, Mattel Electronics' President and Senior Operations VP, resigned. Josh and Stav had been blamed for pushing the company too far into hardware production; hundreds of millions of dollars had been tied up in the development, beyond the original Intellivision, of the Keyboard Component, Intellivoice, Intellivision II, the System Changer, ECS, Aquarius (and peripherals), Intellivision III and the top-secret Intellivision IV. On July 12, 1983, Josh was replaced by Mack Morris, a marketing man famous for putting the blue dot on Breath Savers mints. (The gimmick or hook that set a game apart quickly became known as its "blue dot" around Mattel.) Under Mack Morris, the emphasis was put almost entirely on software (nearly everyone related to hardware development was laid off on August 4, 1983). The ECS received very little marketing push and further game development for it dropped to almost nothing.

An announced Program Expander, containing 16K of additional RAM and extra features (including expanded BASIC) in 12K of ROM, was never completed.

FUN FACT: The ECS components sold in Europe were molded in brown plastic instead of light gray. Introduction of the Intellivision II had been delayed in Europe pending development of a STIC chip that would work better with European television standards (on European TV sets, an Intellivision image filled only about 80% of the screen), so Mattel made the European ECS brown to match the original Intellivision.


[The following information comes from the preliminary ECS User's Guide written by Keith Robinson (TRON Solar Sailer), March 25, 1983, based on documentation by David Stifel (Game Factory), input from David Warhol (Mind Strike) and a reading of the not-then-finalized ECS EXEC.]

For the game designer, the Computer Adaptor essentially adds five components to the Intellivision:

Invisible to the programmer is the SDCC (Super-Duper Custom Chip) that integrates these components and controls bus traffic. The Computer Adaptor also requires its own power supply to supplement that of the Master Component.

The sound chip is a GI AY-3-8914, the same as in the Master Component. The chip contains three separate channels of sound, each channel of which can be individually controlled for frequency and volume. There is also a noise generator on the chip, which can be added to any of the three channels. These three channels are mixed with the three in the Master Component and fed to the sound output of the TV. Musically, this means six notes can be played simultaneously.

The 12K ECS EXEC/BASIC ROM chip contains three types of information:

  1. Additional EXEC routines that the game program can call on for functions such as decoding the keyboards, reading or writing data to tape, playing music, or printing.
  2. The ECS BASIC programming language. This is a sub-subset of BASIC, with many idiosyncrasies and limitations. The different elements of a program (commands, variables, constants) are color-coded. Special commands in ECS BASIC can read the locations in plugged-in game cartridges where moving-object (sprite) graphics are (usually) defined. Nicknamed the "sucky" feature, this allows the consumer to pull moving objects from a cartridge and use them on screen with his or her own BASIC program.
  3. Graphics of musical notes to be used with the music keyboard and cartridges.

The default on reset for the ECS is to display a menu selection of game, BASIC, or music. However, the game designer can program his or her cartridge to bypass the ECS menu and go directly to the cartridge's title screen. Even if the menu screen is bypassed, the ECS features are available to the programmer. [No policy on this was defined; it was left to the individual programmer on whether or not to bypass the menu. Pre-ECS Intellivision game cartridges all allow the menu to be displayed; the ECS games Mind Strike and Scooby-Doo's Maze Chase, for example, bypass it.]

An additional 2K of 8-bit RAM is contained in the ECS. How much of it is available for use by the game program depends on how many of the ECS EXEC/BASIC routines are used. If the game does not use any of the ECS EXEC routines or BASIC, 1,984 RAM locations are available to the program. If all features are used, including BASIC which reserves a 1,535 location block for programming, only 2 locations of the system RAM are left over.

Note: Use of the ECS/BASIC features also eats up some of the Master Component's 147 8-bit scratchpad RAM locations normally available to the programmer; from 3 to 14 locations, depending on the features used.

The Computer Adaptor contains a UART (Universal Asynchronous Receive/Transmit) allowing data to be moved serially to or from a cassette recorder or to be printed under program control.

[The ECS was designed to work with standard audiocassette recorders, and in fact came with a list of current models that it was compatible with, and the same 40-column thermal printer sold both for the original Keyboard Component and the Aquarius system. At the June 1983 CES, the ECS was shown with Aquarius Data Recorders and Printers affixed with "Intellivision" nameplates; they were never actually released with those labels.]

The Computer Adaptor has two input ports (as in the Intellivision, these ports are physically the input ports of the Adaptor's sound chip). These ports can be used for:

  1. The Computer Keyboard, which uses both ports, or
  2. two additional Hand Controllers so that four- player games are possible, or
  3. the Music Synthesizer, which also uses both ports.

The ECS EXEC has routines to decode the key presses from any of these devices for use by the game programs. Note that functionally, the Music Synthesizer is just a keyboard; the "synthesizing" takes place in the Master Component and Computer Adaptor using their two sound chips under the ECS EXEC's control.


©Intellivision Productions, Inc.

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