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Mattel Aquarius

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The Mattel Aquarius was the first and only genuine home computer offered by Mattel Electronics. Mattel did not start by designing a computer. It instead began by looking around for a pre-made computer system it could market under its name. It discovered that one of its manufacturing partners, the Hong Kong based Radofin Electronics Far East, had already designed a three-system line of home computers. All Mattel had to do was secure the U.S. marketing rights, which it promptly did for the first two units in the line, and have Radofin handle the manufacturing.

The simplest unit, originally code-named "Checkers" and which was eventually named the Aquarius (Model #5931), did have some good things going for it. The 13.5 x 6 x 2 inch unit was equipped with the same Z-80A microprocessor used in many other home and business computers of the era; it had built-in BASIC, being a subset of full Microsoft BASIC; it had the ability to utilize cartridge-based games and other software; and, it had a color video display (16 foreground and 16 background colors, with 40 character x 24 line text). But it also featured a mere 4K of RAM (along with its 8K of ROM) with only about 1.7K free for BASIC programs, a "chicklet" keyboard with just 48 keys and a reset button, a one-voice tone generator for sound, no programmable graphics, no sprites, no game controllers, no monitor port (it attached to a TV only), a non-standard printer interface, ordinary cassette access at 600 baud, and no expansion capability except for what could be plugged into the cartridge port. Given that the unit was introduced in 1983, these features did not make it strongly competitive in the home computer market. The Mattel programmers dubbed the Aquarius as "the system for the Seventies!".

Mattel Aquarius characterset In its defense, Mattel did recognize some of the problems. Mattel added a larger character set to the original Radofin design, so that games could use character graphics. Mattel made several sizes of memory add-on cartridges. It produced a "mini-expander", which at least brought three-voice sound to the Aquarius, added two game controllers, and allowed both a memory cartridge and a program cartridge to be plugged in at the same time. And Mattel was working not only on other gizmos for the Aquarius (such as a larger expander which would allow disk drives), but also on the intended successor unit, originally code-named "Chess" and called publicly the Aquarius II (Model #4000), which would have had more memory, a full stroke keyboard, and hi-res graphics capability (character resolution of 320x196). However, the initial failure of the Aquarius was such that it was discontinued almost as soon as it hit store shelves ("One of the shortest lifespans of any computer", according to the April '85 issue of COMPUTE! magazine). Hardware development stopped within Mattel Electronics in mid-1983, and the company was shut down at the beginning of 1984. Radofin was paid to take the Aquarius marketing rights back.

As per January 1st, Radofin officially took over the Aquarius again. Radofin got the unsold stock and all marketing rights. Confident in their system, Radofin's president, Lawrence M. Scott, Jr., announced that they would continue to sell Aquarius through a new distributor, and would release Aquarius II in March of 1984 and Aquarius III in July. The "Mattel Electronics" logo was removed from the casing, the boxes and the manuals. Also all references to the Mattel name were removed from the ID label on the bottom of the machine. Aquarius computer by Mattel Electronics Aquarius computer by Radofin Aquarius by Mattel Electronics Aquarius by Radofin

Radofin Electronics manufactured the Aquarius for almost two more years, using different brand names to target local markets, like the Kronos Europea. A small amount of the Aquarius II have been manufactured, but the Aquarius III never made it.

The success of home computers in the early eighties made manufacturers eager. Mattel, famous because of its Barbie dolls, also wanted to profit from the boom in home computer business. But Mattel didn't profit at all: the company in 1983 became responsible for one of the biggest failures in de history of home computers. It wasn't strange that Mattel decided to develop home computers too. The division Mattel Electronics had achieved much success with the game console Intellivision. A special keyboard was developed, with which the Intellivision could be metamorphosed into a (sort of) home computer. But now Mattel Electronics wanted to develop a computer that could stand on its own.

Less then 20,000 Aquarius computers sold It became the Mattel Aquarius, with its characteristic blue rubber keys and water resistant appearance - Mattel didn't belie its toy-nature. The Aquarius should compete in the market segments then controlled by the Texas Instruments TI 99/4A, the ZX-81 and ZX Spectrum, the Oric and the VIC-20. But instead of that, it turned out into a terrible failure: Mattel began manufacturing the Aquarius in June 1983 and already stopped with it in October 1983! Estimations are that worldwide less then 20,000 Aquarius computers were sold, while Mattel had expected to sell 100,000. Of course, this makes the Aquarius very interesting for today's collectors. aquarius mini expander

Causes of failure The main cause for the failure of the Mattel Aquarius is most probably that it halted between two opinions. The developers had hoped to make a combination between a game console and a home computer, but in both respects it performed terribly. Hold your breath: which follows is a long list of mistakes.

Expensive extensions Indeed, the Aquarius had 4K of RAM at its disposal, but in fact the consumer could only use 1,7 K. Needless to say that this amount of RAM was fairly useless. In this way, working with the word processor Fileform which Mattel sold on a cartridge, was almost impossible. Unless the user was prepared to store paragraphs again and again on tape or print them on paper. In an attempt to compensate this, Mattel Electronics sold various comparatively expensive extension options. Examples are the 4K and 16 K RAM memory expansions; cartridges which could be plugged into the Aquarius. Besides that, there was the so-called Mini Expander that could be attached to the computer. With the Mini Expander - almost taller then the tender Aquarius itself - you could use two cartridges at the same time (e.g. RAM-extension and a game). It gave the Aquarius also two extra sound channels and two Intellivision-like controllers for playing games. aquarius nightstalkerExtra costs As a consequence the consumer who thought to have bought a relatively cheap home computer and game console, was confronted afterwards with many extra costs. And paid much more than his neighbour who had bought a ZX Spectrum. Employees of Mattel Electronics later confessed that this was part of the selling strategy: selling the Aquarius itself with losses, and make profit on the extension options and games.

Basic without FOR and NEXT To avoid misunderstandings: especially because of its design, the Aquarius is one of the most popular computers in my collection. Nevertheless I'm forced to continue the list of complaints...

The Aquarius was equipped with a 'diet-version' of Microsoft Basic. If you wanted to use such common commands as FOR and NEXT, you had to buy yet another cartridge: Extended Microsoft Basic. IF you could get this cartridge: I doubt whether it ever appeared on the shelves in large numbers. I even read that Microsoft Extended Basic for the Aquarius never went beyond the prototype status, although I have the cartridge in my collection. It also wasn't a pleasure to enter large amounts of text or Basic-lines on the Aquarius keyboard. You had to hit the rubber keys harder than those of the ZX Spectrum, without repeat function. Another unique mark of the Aquarius: the tiny space key.

'System for the seventies' The Aquarius was not only disappointing as a home computer, but also as a game console. The graphical possibilities were limited, although there were several nice games among the cartridges. To help the game programmers the character set of the Aquarius was extended with some graphical jokes, such as characters imagining robots or explosions (see the thumbnail picture below).

karakterset mattel aquariusBesides that, the Mini Expander was equipped with the same sound chip (AY-3-8914) as the Intellivision. But that didn't appeal to the programmers: they almost considered it as a punishment to develop a game for the Aquarius. Programmer Bob Del Principe even invented this cynical slogan: 'Aquarius - system for the seventies!'

Specifications of the Mattel Aquarius Manufacturer Mattel Period June - October 1983, afterwards by Radofin until 1988 CPU NEC D780C; sometimes equipped with a real Z80 Frequency 3,5 MHz ROM 10 KB RAM 4 KB (in fact only 1,7 KB available) expandable with cartridges Text mode 24 lines x 40 columns Graphical mode 80 x 72 pixels Colours 16 Sound 1 channel, 2 extra with Mini Expander I/O TV, cassette, printer, cartridge Price Approx. 150 dollar 225 guilders according to the sticker on my Aquarius

Aquarius was the invention of Radofin For the manufacturing of the Aquarius, Mattel closed a deal with Radofin Electronics Far East in Hong Kong, a company that also manufactured for the Intellivision-line. Mattel decided to close the deal after it heard Radofin had three models of home computers almost ready for production. Mattel chose two of them, with the code names Checkers and Chess. After some adjustments like the extension of the character set, Checkers and Chess would be launched as Aquarius and Aquarius II. When Mattel decided already a few months later to stop with the Aquarius nightmare, it almost begged Radofin to take the whole project back. Mattel paid to be written out of the contract; Radofin got all the rights and the whole stock.

The company in Hong Kong still trusted in the success of its computers. Radofin announced the launch of the Aquarius II in March 1984 and promised an Aquarius III for July 1984. Radofin kept manufacturing the Aquarius I until 1988. And yes, the Aquarius II did appear (it was e.g. equipped with a better keyboard), but sporadic, so it is now considered by collectors as very rare.

Many prototypes

As a consequence of the bizarre history of the Aquarius computers, many extensions which were announced hardly appeared on the shelves or never became more than a prototype. An example is the Master Expansion Module. According to employees, only the cases of the module were ever manufactured. The Master Expansion Module should have contained two floppy drives and should facilitate the use of CP/M.



1983 Catalog Description | Technical Overview DEVELOPMENT HISTORY

Once the original Intellivision Keyboard Component was officially dead, Mattel Electronics felt they needed a real computer in their product line (no, the ECS didn't count). Since the new computer didn't have to interface with the Intellivision, they were free to shop for an existing system that they could simply market under their name. They found it right under their noses - Radofin Electronics Far East, a Hong Kong company that had done much of the manufacturing of the Intellivision for Mattel, had designed a Z80-based line of three computers. Mattel committed to distribute the first two of these. In-house, they were code-named Checkers and Chess; eventually they would be named Aquarius and Aquarius II.

Mattel required changes to make Aquarius into a stronger game computer. An add-on unit (the Mini-Expander) was designed that included a sound chip and hand-controllers (to make it easier for programmers, the same GI AY-3-8914 sound chip used in the Intellivision was used in the Mini-Expander). In addition, the character set was enlarged: since Aquarius didn't have the capability for programmable graphics, the character set had to include animations and background pieces that would allow for building game screens. The programmers were consulted on what they felt would be needed to design screens for games that hadn't even been discussed yet. Based on their input, the Mattel Electronics graphic designers, principally Joe Ferreira, Monique Lujan-Bakerink, and Peggi Decarli, put together a character set that, in addition to the alphabet and numbers, included running men, a robot, explosions, and a variety of geometric shapes.

Even with this character set, the graphic limitations of the Aquarius were so bad that artists looked upon it as punishment when assigned to work on an Aquarius game. Designer Bob Del Principe summed up most of the artists' and programmers' feelings when he proposed a slogan for the 1983 debut: "Aquarius - System for the Seventies!"

(The Aquarius II had programmable graphics, but no game design was ever started at Mattel for that machine. There was a brief discussion of adding programmable graphics capability to the first Aquarius - dubbing it the Aquarius 1.5 - but nothing ever came of it.)

"System for the Seventies" seemed to sum up the public's opinion of the Aquarius, also. It totally bombed. It was introduced in Spring 1983 with the Mini-Expander, Printer, Data Recorder, Memory Cartridges and a handful of games. By summer, Mattel had canceled plans to release Aquarius II and additional peripherals. An announced on-line service never materialized. In fall, they literally paid Radofin to take back the Aquarius and let them out of their contract. Radofin got the unsold stock, all marketing rights, plus a "reasonably substantial" amount of cash, according to Allan Meek, secretary for Fobel International, the London-based company that owned Radofin.

Confident in their system, Radofin's president, Lawrence M. Scott, Jr., announced that they would continue to sell Aquarius through a new distributor, and would release Aquarius II in March of 1984 and Aquarius III in July. None of this happened. The next time any of the Blue Sky Rangers heard of an Aquarius was in 1985. Mike Minkoff received junk mail promising that if he'd visit some new land development way out in the boonies, he would receive a free gift: "This powerful computer system!" The picture was of an Aquarius.

Other examples of Aquarius extensions hardly or not available are a modem (also in the shape of a cartridge, see the picture from my Aquarius catalogue) and a four-colour-printer.

When the Keyboard Component project was canceled, Mattel searched in a hurry to produce a small and cheap computer. They contacted Radofin Electronics Far East, based in Hong-Kong, who was manufacturing most of the Intellivision products. Radofin had just developped a line of three Z80 based computers. Mattel decided to sell the two first under their brand. The Aquarius 1 and 2 were born.

The Mattel Aquarius used a special version of the Microsoft Basic. When used with Basic, only 1.7 KB remained available.

There were no redefinable characters, but 256 predefined chars were available: 128 ASCII (numerals, upper and lower case alphabet, punctuation, symbols) and 128 graphic patterns. That was the only "graphical" features of the Aquarius !

Unfortunately the specifications were so poor for a 1983 computer, that the Aquarius 1 litteraly bombed. Three months after its release, Mattel decided to cancel the project and to sell back the rights and stocks to Radofin.

Radofin continued to sell Aquarius 1 & 2 under its own name, but without success...

Cool addons were developped for the Aquarius, but never made it to the shelves (apparently). There were a Master Expansion Module equipped with disk-drives and expansion slots for future add-ons. It even offered the CP/M compatibility!

Another sympathetic extension was the Home Computer System Command Console which allowed the Aquarius to directly control up to 255 electric devices. But when the computer was connected to this extension, it couldn't be used for anything else!

There were also a Modem planned and Mattel even announced network services for games and programs downloads...

Surprisingly, the Far East was not that significant in terms of 8 bit micros. Hong Kong had provided a couple of TRS-80 lookalikes and Radofin had produced the Aquarius. Instead, the Far East attempted to solve the problem of every computer being different, hardware and software with their MSX computers.

Mattell Aquarius - 1983

Technically, this is a US computer . Mattell, a US company, had produced a number of excellent game consoles. However, they made a mistake with one of advertising that a keyboard and cartridge would follow to turn the console into a proper computer (arguably, many computer firms had spent years turning computers into games consoles!). A laudable intention which backfired when they appeared unable to produce the upgrade. With threats from US consumer agencies, they turned to Radofin, based in Hong Kong, to produce them a proper computer. Released in 1983, the result was one of the worst-selling computers on record. It was not too bad in theory, it came with a rubbery keyboard but it was well made with a cartridge slot to load games. The trouble was that it came with only 5K of memory and it needed 3.5K of that to run BASIC. In 1983, everyone offered 32K or better so 1.5K really was useless. It was available for only a few months before being dumped. Despite awful sales, these still come up occasionally on eBay and sell for very little despite these being very rare indeed.





Редакция от 20.07.2011 13:42