Return of the Blue Sky Rangers
From the Hermosa Beach, California, EASY READER, March 4, 1999
A once-popular series of video games joins the 80s pop culture revival.
by Robb Fulcher
What a difference a decade makes, at least when it comes to home video games.
In the 1980s, when the concept was fresh and new, the games were simple and innocent. One needed only two fingers to play the dodge-and-shoot Astrosmash or the robot-themed Night Stalker. The mock violence in the games was joyously impersonal. The graphics were plump, uncomplicated and, in retrospect, adorably clumsy.
To play the video games of today is to swirl down into the hell that is change. No amount of caffeine can fortify the normal person for the sweaty, hyperactive, carpal-tunnel playing style required to maneuver the spaceship or the bloodthirsty ninja.
And when it comes to video violence, gone is the goofy impersonality of yesteryear. Today's player wades through realistic blood and gore using angry kung fu and elaborately simulated automatic weapons fire.
Won't you tell me, where have all the good times gone?
Enter a group of vid wizards now in their late 30s and early 40s, who rode the crest of the video game wave nearly 20 years ago at Hawthorne-based Mattel Toys, makers of the Barbie doll and Hot Wheels.
The programmers, dubbed the Blue Sky Rangers by Mattel's PR people, originally met as wunderkinds populating the just-created electronics division of the company. The Rangers, most of them just out of college and blinking in the light of the real world, used their imaginations and their gamey geekdom to create a brave new $100 million-a-year world with a line of games called Intellivision.
They worked crazy hours and did crazy things, until the big home video game burnout of 1983 brought the whole thing to a crashing halt.
In time a new, specialized market emerged to replace the old one, and companies started turning out games strictly for the dedicated game buff - the angry 13-year-old boy who's run out of Ritalin.
Now a number of the Rangers, older and arguably wiser, have decided that a blast from the past is just what the video game world needs. They bought the rights to their long-defunct Intellivision games, set up a web site and began pedaling a CD-ROM with more than 50 classic games ranging from sports to strategy to outer space. In the 80s, of course, the games were played on the home television set.
Using only their web site, www.intellivisionlives.com, the Rangers have sold nearly 2,000 of the Intellivision discs at $29.95 a pop, and they are working to secure a distribution deal to get the game into stores.
The game buyers range from their 20s to early 40s, and fall largely into two categories.
"We're getting kids who played the Intellivision system when they first played video games, and now they're in college," said Keith Robinson, a Blue Sky Ranger and president of the new Intellivision Productions.
"And we're getting people closer to our own age who want to relive their youth, or to show their kids the games they played. It's the same theory as to why Mr. Potato Head and Etch-a-Sketch are big. The aging baby boomers want to share their toys with their kids," he said. "And they try to play the video games that are out today and find them too tough."
(Robinson also draws the "Making It" comic strip that appears weekly in the Easy Reader.)
Time to test drive Intellivision Lives. I grabbed a disc and slapped it into an aging, sand-infested Easy Reader PC. I punched up the delightfully primitive Astrosmash game, which promises aesthetic and cognitive simplicity. One finger on the keyboard moves the ship from side to side, and a second finger fires straight up at a field of slowly falling asteroids.
I fired and fired, hitting only air. I dodged and dodged, dashing ship after ship against lazy asteroids that should have been no threat, as Robinson stood behind me and laughed. I switched to auto-fire, with similar results.
I am a moron.
But it hardly matters, as I quickly began scoring respectably against the incredibly forgiving game.
The Blue Sky Rangers still get together, meeting just a couple of weeks ago at Jino's Pizza in Lawndale to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the time Mattel finally sent them all packing.
Mattel entered the home video market at the dawn of the 80s in an attempt to compete with Atari, which had come out with Pac-Man and Asteroids for the home market.
"At the beginning Mattel wasn't sure this video game thing was going anywhere," said Robinson, whose ties to the old days are apparent from the VIDGAMZ vanity license plate on his yellow 1965 Mustang.
"Mattel was cheap about it, they hired programmers right out of college. That's who they put all this in the hands of. We were all just kids playing around," Robinson said. "People around the world were buying stock based on what we were doing, and we didn't know what we were doing."
In 1982 the video game industry exploded, and in a couple of years Mattel Electronics became bigger than the toy division. Move over, Barbie.
"There was the euphoria of having these wonderful jobs," said Robinson, who managed a number of programmers.
"We were getting bonuses, raises, credit on the game box," said Bill Fisher, who was writing video game programs at age 22. "I knew it was abnormal. My dad was slightly awed."
Back then, game programming was seen as an exotic venture suited only to a mysterious, and perhaps even evil, wizard.
"People would say 'Wow, you write video games,' and they would look at you kind of funny," Fisher said.
"This was the best time of our lives," said graphic artist Joe King. "What could be better than being just out of school and getting paid to have fun?"
With the heady success came long hours and deadline pressure as programmers, graphic artists and game testers struggled to meet the demands of the market.
One day Mattel Vice President Gabriel Baum walked into the office to see little rubber ducks flying past his employees. Continuing down the hall, he saw Robinson, King and programmer Steve Ettinger teeing up the ducks and launching them with golf clubs. Baum kept walking, and closed his office door behind him.
Stephen Roney, vice president of Intellivision Productions and a programmer for Mattel, recalls how the rush to production affected the B-17 Bomber game.
"We had the factory all set up for duplication, and we were making changes in the game up until the last minute, and it got to the point that it had to get shipped," Roney said.
The finished game cartridges came back and Roney gave one to his father-in-law, who started playing only to be met with a frozen screen.
"He managed to hang it in 10 minutes," Roney said.
In 1983, one year after the market's peak, the whole thing went bust.
"It was a fad. Like other fads, other things came along. Late in 1981 MTV arrived, and kids started using their TVs to watch videos rather than play the games. The game Trivial Pursuit came out too, and that was a big fad. Trivial Pursuit and MTV killed us," Robinson said.
"And in 1983 so many companies had come into the market. There was 100 times the supply, and demand went up only about 10 percent. That's the financial side of why we went under," he said.
After hauling in $100 million in 1982, Mattel Electronics lost $381 million in 1983. The company dropped the entire division like ballast from an overloaded lifeboat.
"It was a terrific job and then it was going away. We made the best of it while we could," Robinson said.
"In January '84 we were all laid off. We were required to go to counseling the day they had the meeting about the layoffs. They were trying to console us, and we were laughing and partying because it was our last day," he said.
"We were joking about how we looted the place -- games, cartridges, handheld games and stuff. Although, if Mattel is reading this, I'm just kidding," Robinson said.
A company called INTV continued to sell the Intellivision line on a smaller scale until 1990, releasing just three or four new games a year. Then the old market died entirely, and the new market was left to companies catering to the hard-core gamer, that fast-moving kid who outlasted the fads.
But now Intellivision is back, and for the Rangers who created it, the blue sky's the limit. ER
©1999 Easy Reader. Reprinted by permission. Cover montage by Keith Robinson: Astrosmash and Night Stalker boxes; Space Armada game screen; 1982 photo of Blue Sky Rangers Keith Robinson, Mark Urbaniec and Mike Minkoff. 1999 Blue Sky Rangers photo by Robb Fulcher.
TO HOME PAGE