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Mattel Electronics Aquarius

The history of home computing has experienced ups and downs, with explosive successes and equally sensational disasters.
Among the latter, proudly takes place one of the biggest flops that the history of computing knows: the Mattel Aquarius.

Initially designed and manufactured by Radofin (technology partner by Mattel – London-based – to which the U.S. giant commissioned the Intellivision production), was then purchased in bulk from the Mattel itself, that was embarrassingly late on gold rush, namely, home and personal computing.
In fact, in the early 80's, the Mattel Electronics computing division didn't exist yet. It was created out of nothing just to acquire and bring in the project started by Radofin just before the 1980.

is famous the phrase by which a programmer, internal Mattel, crushed the unfortunate computer even before it was marketed: He defined Aquarius as “the computer for the 70's”. 🙂
Suffice it to say that the Mattel Intellivision itself, born many years before Aquarius, was technologically advanced, since already equipped with an architecture at 16 bit, Hardware sprites and Multi-channel audio!

Phrase was never more fitting, and prophetic; marketing year, the 1983, Aquarius was far behind the competitors' products. It had an awkward graphic design, a poor audio section, and ram that actually did not exist, comparable to that of the Vic-20, produced precisely in the late 70s. 😀
These are the ticket system of the Mattel Aquarius: 4KB RAM, of which only 1.7 MB user available: the rest was occupied by the Microsoft Basic, appropriately scaled down to fit hardware limitations. The sound was based on a single channel, obviously super-mono; the only component in step with the times was the ubiquitous Z80, running at 3.5 MHz.
The graphics were handled in a unique way. There was a set of characters in ROM, dedicated in part to the normal alphanumeric characters (ASCII), some containing graphic symbols. Each displayed graphic element was actually a fixed character!
Programmers, with such limitations, had to be really creative to make animations, characters, backgrounds and graphics for making their games credible.

Among the many defects, there is at least a point in favor of this ugly duckling: the keyboard. Not so much for the quality (it was membrane based), as for the wits. At first glance it looked like naked; in the sense that, apart from the silk-screen on each key, there was no reference on the body around them, such as accented characters or special symbols obtained with the SHIFT or CTRL.
As for the Intellivision controllers, the keyboard could be customized with layers, special film shaped to “fit” keys, thus customizing the keyboard layout according to the running game or application. For me it is a stroke of genius and design, and makes me feel affection. 🙂

After a few weeks, through the introduction of an expansion module called Mini-Expander, then sold in bulk with computer, Aquarius was equipped with 3 channels for audio and 2 more cartdridge slots; the one dedicated to a RAM expansion (up to 32KB), the other for the normal cartridges, containing programs and video games.

Vain were the attempts to adjust the shot. in fact, after just 3 months after the launch, Mattel retraced its steps, ceding the rights and patents to Radofin and closing down the computing division.
From that moment on, the ill-fated machine was sold without the Mattel brand, while retaining the original name and logo.
It is estimated that worldwide sales were of about 8000 Mattel branded pieces. Two of these are in my hands, and the third that I have is without the Mattel logo, thus is coming from Radofin.

There is still a very active community of nostalgic geeks, that produces expansions, self-produced cartridges and new mini-games, with great enthusiasm. Few but good! 🙂

Gabriele

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