Jake’s Blog: Intellivision and the Blue Sky Rangers

Jake’s Blog: Intellivision and the Blue Sky Rangers

The year 1980 was a wondrous time, both culturally and technologically. Blondie's "Call Me" was on the radio, "Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back" was in the movie theatres, and Asteroids was in the arcade. My school had a computer lab filled with Apple II computers and I spent lunch time playing and trading games with my friends in the lab. After school I would quickly finish my homework so I could go to my neighbor's house around the corner to play on his Atari VCS. Entire weekends were spent at my best friend's house next door playing his Fairchild Channel F. But the graphics and sound of both the Channel F and Atari VCS were crude when compared to the sophisticated graphics and capabilities of the Apple II I enjoyed at school. I fell in love with the Apple II and was determined to get my own.

All I Want is an Apple II

So I started a relentless campaign to persuade my parents to buy me an Apple II. I talked about how much better a student I would be with the help of the Apple II. I recited the marketing spiel about how the Apple II could help balance dad's checkbook, although as a 12-year-old boy, I really didn't know about checkbooks or why they needed to be balanced. I told my mother about how wonderful the computer would be in organizing her recipes all the while ignoring the fact that all the cooking she did came directly from her memory or the Fanny Farmer cookbook.

My pleas and prayers were for naught and I was told that we couldn't afford an Apple II with its stratospheric price tag of $1195. For quite a while I had given up all hope and moped about the house. It was a tragedy to have such wondrous dreams crushed at such a young age.

Intellivision George Plimpton

Intellivision magazine ad with George Plimpton (1981)

Then one day I saw sports writer and humorist George Plimpton on TV bestowing the virtues of a new video game console called the Intellivision made by Mattel Electronics. The side-by-side comparison with the Atari VCS was almost laughable: the Intellivision's graphics and sounds were so superior at the time, that they were not even in the same league as the VCS. But that's not all. It also had a keyboard that was “coming soon” which promised to turn the Intellivision into a full-fledged computer, not unlike the Apple II. Best of all, the Intellivision was only $300, or nearly $900 cheaper than the Apple II.

I was very excited and approached by parents: I wanted an Intellivision. I made sure to let my parents that, with the coming keyboard, is was just like an Apple II and I can learn programming. I said, “Plus, look at how much money I’m saving you!” Their response was decisively non-committal: “maybe” and “we’ll see” and “perhaps for Christmas.”
Christmas morning in 1981 finally came. My brother and I were buzzing with nervous energy around the Christmas tree and wondering what presents we were going to get.

Only One Present for Christmas

That year, my brother and I got one present. Not one present each, but one present for the both of us to share. My mother handed us the present and explained, “This was very expensive so don’t get upset that this is all you got.” My brother and I clawed and tore at the wrapping paper like savages and the printing on the box was quickly revealed: Intellivision by Mattel Electronics! It wasn’t an Apple II but I got an Intellivision! The games were amazing: Shark! Shark! Astrosmash, Burgertime, Slap Shot Hockey, Advanced Dungeons and Dragon, B-17 Bomber and many others. I amassed a nice collection of games and spent hours playing with my buddies and my brother.

A balance and symmetry settled in among my friends. Eric around the corner had an Atari VCS, Vic next door had a Fairchild Channel F, Steve across town has a Commodore VIC-20. I was known as the Intellivision guy. When we visited each other’s home, we played each other’s game console and debated extensively of the virtues and shortcomings of each. I took pride in that my Intellivision often came out on top. Or at least in my memory it did.

Jake and the Blue Sky Rangers

Me and the Blue Sky Rangers at the SoCal Retro Video Game Expo (Feb. 2016)

The Blue Sky Rangers

At the time, I didn't give it much thought about the process of making a video game. To a kid, the game cartridge just magically appeared at Toys R Us. I first learned about the Blue Sky Rangers when the Intellivision Flashback game console was released in late 2014. The Intellivision Flashback is a modern redesign of the Intellivision console but in a smaller package and with 60 games included in ROM memory which means no cartridges! The Blue Sky Rangers is the name of the group of programmers who developed the original game for the Intellivision back in 1979. The moniker was first used in a TV Guide article in 1982 as a way to keep the true identities of the programmers a secret as Mattel feared they would be lured away to other game console makers and in particular, Atari.

A couple of weekends ago I attended the SoCal Retro Video Game Expo in Los Angeles. A discussion panel featured the Blue Sky Rangers and I got to meet several of the original Intellivision programmers. I shared with them the story about how my experience as a 12-year old kid with the Intellivision planted a seed in me that grew and grew. Because eventually my best friend got an Apple IIe which we played and programmed often late into the night. I graduated to the Macintosh Classic in college then built my first IBM PC clone with Windows 3.11 soon after. I got Microsoft Certified in Windows NT after college and started a computer consulting practice installing Windows 95 networks for small businesses. 20-years later my practice has grown into a modest-sized managed services firm with 7 employees thanks to a small push from the Blue Sky Rangers and their Intellivision game console.

Intellivision commercial with George Plimpton (YouTube)

Timeline of Early Computers and Video Games

1972, August – Ralph Baer-designed Magnavox Odyssey released ($99)
1976, April – Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak start Apple Computer; Apple I debuts ($666)
1976, November – Fairchild Channel F released ($170)
1977, January – Apple Computer incorporated
1977, May – Star Wars: A New Hope released in theatres
1977, June - Apple II, 4K RAM ($1298) released
1977, September - Atari 2600/VCS ($199) released
1979, June - Apple II Plus, 48K RAM ($1195) released
1979, November - Atari ships 400 ($550), 800 ($1000)
1980, January - Intellivision ($300) released
1980, May – Start Wars – Empire Strikes Back released
1981, May – Commodore VIC-20 ($300), North America release
1982 - Intellivision II ($150) released
1982, September - Commodore 64, 64K RAM ($595) released
1983 – the Great Video Game Crash of 1983
1983, January - Apple IIe ($1298) released
1983, Spring - Intellivision lays off developers
1984 - Mattel shutters Intellivision division
1986, February – Nintendo NES, North America release
2014, Fall – Intellivsion Flashback ($40) released