Thursday, August 14, 2014

Fairchild Channel F

The Fairchild Channel F is a game console released by Fairchild Semiconductor in November 1976 at the retail price of $169.95 (equivalent to $700 in 2014). It has the distinction of being the first programmable ROM cartridge–based video game console, and the first console to use a microprocessor. It was launched as the Video Entertainment System, or VES, but when Atari released their VCS the next year, Fairchild renamed its machine. By 1977, the Fairchild Channel F had sold 250,000 units and trailed behind the VCS.

The Channel F electronics were designed by Jerry Lawson using the Fairchild F8 CPU, the first public outing of this processor. The F8 was very complex compared to the typical integrated circuits of the day, and had more inputs and outputs than other contemporary chips. Because chip packaging was not available with enough pins, the F8 was instead fabricated as a pair of chips that had to be used together to form a complete CPU.

Lawson worked with Nick Talesfore and Ron Smith. As manager of Industrial Design, Talesfore was responsible for the design of the hand controllers, console, and video game cartridges. Smith was responsible for the mechanical engineering of the video cartridges and hand controllers. All worked for Wilf Corigan, head of Fairchild Semiconductor, a division of Fairchild Camera & Instrument. The graphics are quite basic by modern standards.

The Channel F is only able to use one plane of graphics and one of four background colors per line, only three plot colors to choose from (red, green and blue) that turned into white if the background is set to black. A resolution of 128 × 64 with approximately 102 × 58 pixels visible and help from only 64 bytes of system RAM, half the amount of the Atari 2600.

The F8 processor at the heart of the console is able to produce enough AI to allow for player versus computer matches, a first in console history. All previous machines required a human opponent. One feature unique to this console is the 'hold' button, which allowed the player to freeze the game, change the time or change the speed of the game during the course of the game. In the original unit, sound is played through an internal speaker, rather than the TV set. However, the System II passed sound to the television through the RF modulator.

The controllers are a joystick without a base; the main body is a large hand grip with a triangular "cap" on top, the top being the portion that actually moved for eight-way directional control. It could be used as both a joystick and paddle (twist), and not only pushed down to operate as a fire button but also pulled up. The model 1 unit contained a small compartment for storing the controllers when moving it. The System II featured detachable controllers and had two holders at the back to wind the cable around and to store the controller in.

Zircon later offered a special control which featured an action button on the front of the joystick. It was marketed by Zircon as "Channel F Jet-Stick" in a letter sent out to registered owners before Christmas 1982. They also released it as an Atari-compatible controller called "Video Command", first released without the extra fire button. Before that, only the downwards plunge motion was connected and acted as the fire button; the pull-up and twist actions weren't connected to anything.

Twenty-seven cartridges, termed 'Videocarts', were officially released to consumers during the ownership of Fairchild and Zircon, the first twenty-one of which were released by Fairchild. Several of these cartridges were capable of playing more than one game and were typically priced at $19.95. The Videocarts were yellow and approximately the size and overall texture of an 8 track cartridge. They usually featured colorful label artwork. The earlier artwork was created by nationally known artist Tom Kamifuji and art directed by Nick Talesfore.

The console contained two built-in games, Tennis and Hockey, which were both advanced Pong clones. In Hockey the reflecting bar could be changed to diagonals by twisting the controller, and could move all over the playing field. Tennis was much like the original Pong.

A sales brochure from 1978 listed 'Keyboard Videocarts' for sale. The three shown were K-1 Casino Poker, K-2 Space Odyssey, and K-3 Pro-Football. These were intended to use the Keyboard accessory. All further brochures, released after Zircon took over Fairchild, never listed this accessory nor anything called a Keyboard Videocart. There was one additional cartridge released numbered Videocart-51 and simply titled 'Demo 1'. This Videocart was shown in a single sales brochure released shortly after Zircon acquired the company. It was never listed for sale after this single brochure which was used for winter of 1979.

The biggest effect of the Channel F in the market was to spur Atari into improving and releasing their next-generation console which was then in development. Then codenamed "Stella," the machine was also set to utilize cartridges; after seeing the Channel F, Atari realized they needed to release it before the market was flooded with cartridge-based machines. With cash flow dwindling as sales of their existing Pong-based systems dried up, they were forced to sell to Warner Communications to gain the capital they needed. When the Atari VCS gaming system (whose name was coined as a takeoff of the VES) was released a year later, it had considerably better graphics and sound.

Ken Uston reviewed 32 games in his book Ken Uston's Guide to Buying and Beating the Home Video Games in 1982, and rated some of the Channel F's titles highly; of these, Alien Invasion and Video Whizball were considered by Uston to be "the finest adult cartridges currently available for the Fairchild Channel F System. The games on the whole, however, rated last on his survey of over 200 games for the Atari, Intellivision, Astrocade and Odyssey consoles, and contemporary games were rated "Average" with future Channel F games rated "below average".

Uston rated almost one half of the Channel F games as "high in interest" and called that "an impressive proportion" and further noted that "Some of the Channel F cartridges are timeless; no matter what technological developments occur, they will continue to be of interest." His overall conclusion was that the games "serve a limited, but useful, purpose" and that the "strength of the Channel F offering is in its excellent educational line for children.

In 1983, after Zircon announced its discontinuation of the Channel F, Video Games reviewed the console. Calling it "the system nobody knows", the magazine described its graphics and sounds as "somewhat primitive by today's standards". It described Space War as perhaps "the most antiquated game of its type still on the market", and rated the 25 games for the console with an average grade of three ("not too good") on a scale from one to ten.

The magazine stated, however, that Fairchild "managed to create some fascinating games, even by today's standards", calling Casino Royale (Video Blackjack) "the best card game, from blackjack to bridge, made for any TV-game system". It also favorably reviewed Dodge-It ("simple but great"), Robot War ("Berzerk without guns"), and Whizball ("thoroughly original ... hockey with guns"), but concluded that only those interested in nostalgia, video game collecting, or card games would purchase the Channel F in 1983.

Some time in 1979, Zircon International bought the rights to the Channel F and released the re-designed console as the Channel F System II to compete with the Atari's VCS. This re-designed System II was completed by Nick Talesfore at Fairchild. He was the same industrial designer who designed the original game console. Only six new games were released after the debut of the second system before its death, several of which were developed at Fairchild before they sold it off.

The major changes were in design, with the controllers removable from the base unit instead of being wired directly into it, the storage compartment was moved to the rear of the unit, and the sound was now mixed into the TV signal so the unit no longer needed a speaker. This version also featured a simpler and more modern-looking case design.

However, by this time the market was in the midst of the first video game crash, and Fairchild eventually threw in the towel and left the market. A number of licensed versions were released in Europe, including the Luxor Video Entertainment System in Scandinavia (Sweden), Adman Grandstand in the UK, and the Saba Videoplay, Nordmende Teleplay and ITT Tele-Match Processor, from Germany and also Dumont Videoplay and Barco Challenger from the Barco/Dumont company in Italy and Belgium.

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