Aquarius Title (from Game) Aquarius Home Computer My Aquarius Collection (2006) Page from Mattel User Guide - Special Characters Aquarius Guide To Computing Cover Aquarius Guidebook Cartoon Aquarius Box Back Aquarius Mini Expander Aquarius Data Recorder Aquarius Disk Drive Aquarius Box Boy ImageAquarius FinForm Box Image Aquarius Astrosmash Box Aquarius Astrosmash Image1 Aquarius Tron Cover Three Aquarius Game Cartridges Aquarius Utopia Cover Image Aquarius Utopia Keyboard Overlays Aquarius SNAFU Box Image Aquarius Burger Time Box Image Aquarius Night Stalkers Box Image Aquarius Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Cover Aquarius Disco Fever Cover Image Aquarius 3D Battle Zone Cover Image Aquarius Grid Bug Cover Image Aquarius Millipede Screen Aquarius Postman Pot Cover ImageAquarius N-Vaders Cover ImageAquarius Breakout Case Image Aquarius Games Pack 2 Cover

THE AGE OF AQUARIUS

They say you never forgot your first kiss, and I guess the same could be said about your first home computer. Not that I condone getting that personal with computers, but I suppose what people do in the privacy of their own home is their business.

Yes, it was the Mattel Aquarius that I first got my hands on back in the 80’s. So I thought that in honour of my first foray into computing, I should write an article all about the oft forgotten Aquarius. Of course it wasn't the greatest computer at the time and certainly never had much of a software library (at least that I could find) but it had a certain charm. I find it slightly ironic that all these years latter, after my poor machine has probably bit the dust, I now have much more of an Aquarius collection. When it comes down to it, I felt sorry for the Aquarius, it really didn't have a chance with so many popular machines vying for parents hard-earned cash. And so I present my little area in cyberspace in memory of the Aquarius, the underdog of 80's home computers in the UK.

It was Mattel's console, the Intellivision, which spawned the idea of a computer. Released in 1980, the Intellivision was Mattel's entry into the home console market, going up against the Atari VCS and CBS Colecovision. Mattel had wanted to release an expansion module that would turn the Intellivision into a home computer.

In 1982 the ill-fated 'Computer Expansion Module' was released as a limited test run in America. It was scrapped before the full rollout due to its incredibly high cost (it had originally been suggested that it would sell for $150, but had a price tag of $700!). But Mattel was not about to give up.

In 1983 they released the Intellivision II, and with it the 'Entertainment Computer System'. Although this module did better, it still never took hold. None of the additional peripherals that were promised ever saw the light of day, including memory upgrades, the data recorder, and the thermal printer. The module came with a 49-key keyboard and BASIC, but there was no way to save programs. In fact there was only one peripheral released for the ECS, and that was a synthesizer keyboard. So after two failed attempts to turn the Intellivision into a computer, Mattel decided to release a dedicated computer instead.

RETRO-ZONE.ORG - Aquarius Video (YouTube)

WELCOME TO AQUARIUS

1983 was the year that Mattel took the bold step of releasing a home computer. Of course they didn't actually design the Aquarius themselves, it was Radofin (who had manufactured much of the Intellivision components and already had three Z-80 computers in manufacture). Mattel agreed to release the first two models, which became known as the Aquarius and the Aquarius II.

The original Aquarius was released in America back in spring 1983. It was already quite limited compared to other home computers of the time and had to rely on the Mini Expander to boast it's specifications. I have listed some basic specs for reference.

Central Processing Unit
Zilog Z-80A (running at 4 Mhz)

Memory
4k RAM (with 1.7k available for basic programs)
10k ROM (8k for Microsoft Basic & 2k for character set)

Sound
1 channel tone generator

Video
6 colours.
Text mode (24 lines high by 40 characters wide).
Graphics mode (80 characters wide by 72 characters high)

Keyboard
49 ‘rubber’ keys. Uses overlays for basic commands or key assignments in games

Input/Output
Cartridge slot for games, applications, memory expansion, or mini-expander
TV Connector (RF Modulator)
Power out (moulded mains cable)
Data Recorder port – 15 pin din
Printer port – 3.5mm jack

EXPANSION

The following items were available to expand the Aquarius. They were all coloured and shaped similar to the Aquarius to give the look of an integrated system.

Mini-Expander
This item was essential for playing games, as it included an improved sound chip (the GI AY-3-8910, similar to one used in the Intellivision) and two 'disc' controllers (allowing for sixteen directions of movement and six buttons) that could stretch up to 8 feet away from the computer. It also had two cartridge slots to allow for a program cartridge and memory cartridge to be used together. I guess it was ironic that this upgrade made it more like it's game machine fore-father, the Intellivision.

Thermal Printer
This was a 40 column thermal printer that connected via the 3.5mm jack. It could print 80 characters per second for text and 20 lines per second for graphics.

Modem
A 300 baud modem that was never distributed widely due to the failure of the 'Aquarius Home Services' system to launch. The service was to allow access to the then popular CompuServe information database.

Data Recorder
As the Aquarius used a 15-pin DIN connection, you had to use their own tape deck to save your programs and data. Of course it looked nice as it was the same colour and design as the computer itself. There are basic Ear & Mic connectors at the back that are used for the connection to the computer and a Rem socket that wasn’t used (the recorder could not be remotely controlled and play / rec / stop had to be performed manually). Apart from the customary tape counter, there was also a red ‘record’ led and a green ‘read’ led.

There were also several items that were never released (or at least they never had widespread availability). I have listed a few of the more ‘common’ ones.

Master Expansion Module
I remember seeing this in the product catalogue that came with my original computer. It was an attempt by Mattel to make the Aquarius appear as more of a business computer. I have never seen one and assume it was never released (at least in the UK). It was a large unit that allowed for a maximum of two Disk Drives and the Drive Controller. It is not clear what sort of size or capacity the drives would have had, but apparently there was also a stand-alone floppy drive planned which would have used 2.8" disks holding 64k on each side. The module also had seven built-in peripheral boards to allow for the upgrading of memory and other options (unspecified). It would have allowed the Aquarius to run the CP/M operating system and compatible programs.

4-Colour Printer
A printer / plotter that used four colour pens (red, green, blue, and black) and could print graphics or text (at 40 or 80 column widths). Apparently this was a re-badged  model that was also used by sold by Commodore as the 1520 and Atari as the 1020.

Others
I have seen mention of a light-pen, a 32k memory cartridge, and even an interface to allow a Commodore 1541 disk-drive to be connected!!

BUT WAS IT FUN?

Now we’ve explored the hardware side of what was and what could have been, it’s time to find out if the Aquarius was any good at playing games on. You have to bear in mind that the bare bones Aquarius was actually less powerful than the Intellivision. The mini-expander brought it closer but it is a known fact that the programmers at Mattel would take being asked to write games for the Aquarius as a type of punishment.

But before we get onto the games, I should mention that Mattel had also been trying to aim the Aquarius at the sort of people that wanted to use a home computer for more serious applications. They released both FinForm (spreadsheet) and FileForm (database and word processor). But with limited storage and print capabilities, it was not really a viable option. And so there were the games....

Back in the day, when I owned my first Aquarius, I only had a couple of cartridges. They were Astrosmash and Tron Deadly Disks. I had to use the keyboard as I had no mini-expander, but that didn't stop me and I used to play those two games for ages. Looking back now, and trying to play them on an emulator, I really don't last very long (at least not on Tron, was it really that hard?). So in respect to my first experiences of Aquarius gaming, I've given a little information on these games.

ASTROSMASH

The game consisted of your ship, located at the bottom of the screen, and various objects falling down the screen. Control of the ship was left and right and it gun would shoot continuously (which was a necessity considering how much shooting was required!!). The goal was to shoot the objects as they fell, to gain points, with new levels reached as your score reached certain levels. As the levels progress there were homing missiles that moved toward your ship (with an annoying high pitched beep) and would follow you along the bottom of the screen if not destroyed. There was also spinning ships that would cause a lost life if allowed to reach the bottom of the screen. And lastly, on higher levels, you would get a large UFO firing large blocks at your poor ship (see image in the left column).

It started off simple enough but as the levels progressed and the speed increased, it got really frantic. The screen would change colour as the level changed (with some colours making it hard to see what was going on). Thankfully you were granted an extra ship for every 1,000 points scored, and these would be used up rapidly on higher levels. You would also lose points for every rock that reached the ground without being shot. I always thought the game was like a ground-based version of Asteroids, and it turns out that the game was originally designed in two versions, one being the game we see now but called Avalanche and the other called Meteor! (which was very similar to Asteroids). But at the last minute, to escape possible legal action from Atari, the current version was used (thanks to Blue Sky Rangers for that information).

Aquarius Astrosmash Video Clip by MattelAquarius (YouTube)Aquarius Tron Deadly Discs Video Clip by MattelAquarius (YouTube)

TRON DEADLY DISCS

Another game that was originally released on the Intellivision. Not to be confused with the arcade game 'discs of tron', this game idea was taken from the movie itself. You control a character that moves around a grid, pursued by three warriors. You are armed with a disc which can be thrown in the direction you are travelling in an attempt to take out (de-rez) the warriors. Of course the warriors are trying to do the same thing to your characters. And then there is the small fact that the discs can bounce off the walls, which can be a help or a hindrance. The trick was to keep moving if you wanted to stay alive and only use your disc when it was sure to hit a warrior, rather than risk it flying across the screen and leaving your character vulnerable. The warriors enter the screen through doors arranged around the screen and as the 'waves' were cleared, the colour of the warriors would change. The colour change would signal an increase in speed and accuracy, I can remember getting to yellow warriors and they were seriously hard.

UTOPIA

Dubbed Civilisation 0.5, each player controlled on island and built up their resources while looking after the welfare of their people. Fishing boats could gather food but were at the mercy of being attacked by pirates and crops could be gathered on land. To look after the people, schools, hospitals, and houses had to be built. Natural disasters such as storms could strike at any moment. Their was also a military side to the game with both attack boats and soldiers used to defend as well as attack. In the two player game, players could either choose to work co-operatively or against each other.

Aquarius Utopia Video Clip by MattelAquarius (YouTube) Aquarius SNAFU Video Clip by MattelAquarius (YouTube)

SNAFU

Situation Normal - All Fouled Up. In this game you controlled a 'snake' (although it always reminded me of the light-cycles in Tron), and had to try and trap your opponents in your trail. Contact with a trail meant instant death, with the winner being the last player left alive. Unfortunately, due to the size of the trails, running out of space happened very quickly.

BURGER TIME

A good conversion of the Bally Midway arcade game. For anybody who hasn't played it (which can't be many as it was released on just about every platform possible), you control Peter Pepper as he makes four large burgers. This is achieved by walking over the ingredients, which causes them to fall down to the next level. This causes a chain reaction and bit by bit the burger is assembled at the foot of the screen. When all four burgers are completed, it's on to the next level. Naturally, there are baddies intent on making your life hard. These come in the form of a hot dog, a pickle, and a fried egg (?) that chase you around the screen. You have a limited amount of pepper to stun them with. One of the best Aquarius cartridge games available.

Aquarius Burger Time Video Clip by MattelAquarius (YouTube) Aquarius Night Stalker Video Clip by MattelAquarius (YouTube)

NIGHT STALKER

It's enough to give you nightmares. Running around a maze being chased by evil robots, giant spiders, and bats. If you manage to grab the gun (which is difficult with a robot intent in dealing out laser death if you get too close), it's time for a little payback. Oh, and there was a small fact that you only have a limited amount of shots before you have to pick up another gun. Thankfully the bats and the spider can only stun you, but one shot from the robots laser and it's goodnight Vienna. There were just two things you needed to do in this game, keep running and use your bullets carefully.

Aquarius Melody Chase Video Clip by Mattel Aquarius (YouTube)Aquarius Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Video Clip by MattelAquarius (YouTube)

Other cartridges included Melody Chase and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. As well as the cartridges, there were a few companies that produced tape games (that were thankfully cheaper). A company called Add On Electronics produced almost all the tapes. Some of these games were a little better than the initial cartridge offerings, although most did need the 16k expansion to run so they did have more memory to work with. Although I never played any of the tapes games back then (for obvious reasons), I have played some via emulation (try Virtual Aquarius if you want a decent Aquarius emulator). I've detailed a few tape games below.

N-VADERS

I guess the image gives it away, yep it's good old Space Invaders. Not a bad version and they have cleverly used the character graphics to design convincing alien invaders. A competent arcade conversion from Add On Electronics. The text on the cassette inlay refers to the characters as 'coloured weirdoes', you can't argue that they are quite strange.

Aquarius N-Vaders Video Clip by MattelAquarius (YouTube) Aquarius Disco Fever Video Clip by MattelAquarius (YouTube)

DISCO FEVER

You are John Revolting (what a rotten pun!), the disc jockey at the 'Spin-Inn'. Spikey Sarah, your girlfriend, who drinks a drink every 3 minutes, has decided to sit at the far end of the disco. You have to go to the bar, get her a drink, take it to her table whilst avoiding the dancers. Hmm, that sounds a little like somebody I used to know. Not a bad game, even if they do over-use the running man character (count how many there are in the video clip). And why are they all wearing the same clothes. All good fun but does get a little monotonous after a few levels.

3D BATTLE ZONE

You could be mistaken for thinking this was a conversion of the Atari classic, but no, in this game you control a gun at the bottom of the screen that moves to the left and right. You can also control the height of the gun, which determines how far the shells travel. In the background are ships, submarines, and planes. These must be shot to gain points, and of course, they fire back. This game had music that played during the game which was quite rare on the Aquarius. The tune reminds me a little of the old Sega game, Carnival.

Aquarius 3D Battle Zone Video Clip by MattelAquarius (YouTube) Aquarius D-Fender Video Clip by MattelAquarius (YouTube)

D-FENDER

Every computer and console had it's collection of arcade conversions and here we have a pretty good version of the Williams classic Defender. The characters are quite good given the limited graphics on the Aquarius. I particularly like the fact that the humanoids are actually human in this version, and not just 'pods'. This was a good conversion, although I think it would need to be played with a controller as it is quite fiddly using the keyboard (there are quite a few keys to use).

GRID BUG

The idea is simple, you're a little bug who needs to eat. So you are presented with a grid of green? strawberries, which are just waited to be gobbled up. Unfortunately, also lurking on the grid are spiders who would like nothing better than to munch on you. I'm not sure why, but the spiders are portrayed by hearts(!!). After clearing a grid, you move onto another one, but this time the spiders have brought a couple of mates with them. If you happen to back track and move over an area of the grid that had been cleared, the strawberries return (I'm not sure I want to know why). Thankfully you can move around on the lines of the grid to avoid parts that have already been cleared.

Aquarius Breakout Video Clip by MattelAquarius (YouTube) Aquarius Pac Mr Video Clip by MattelAquarius (YouTube)

In addition to the titles shown above, there were several others. Most were versions of popular arcade titles, such as Break-Out, Pac Mr, Millipede, etc.

One title that is worth mentioning (if only because of it's bizarre tape inlay text) is Postman Pot. Yes, it is obviously close to a certain Pat that also used to deliver mail. But the unfortunately named Pot then has to endure the following description of his game... In 'Happy Happy' land everybody lives in gaily coloured houses and have a lovely time all of the time, expect Postman Pot. Every morning he picks up his bag of letters and sets off to post them but on the corner of chocolate street is a big bad dog which bites him and he doesn't deliver any letters. Next day Pot goes around the back of the houses and tries to deliver his letters but three dogs chase him. Pot runs down the street, across the road and gets run over by a car... okay, now there is something wrong with that description and I think that poor old Pot has been smoking too much of the evil weed. Oh dear.

You may have noticed that there are certain characters that appear in many of the games. One of the most common being the 'running man'. This is due to the Aquarius having to use 'special characters' to make up the game 'sprites'. The running man characters were very popular, hence their appearance in many of the games shown on this page. There is an image of one of the pages of the user guide, earlier in this article, showing some of the 'special characters'.

 

THATS ALL FOLKS!

And there you have it. This article is longer that first planned but it does have a little bit of everything (and hopefully you've found some of it interesting). I haven't mentioned the Aquarius II as it never, as far as I know, got released in the UK. There really is much more to the Aquarius that I ever knew. But I have fond memories of owning the aquarius all those years ago and I'm sure there are a few of you out there that have owned one. So raise a glass with me, for a toast to Aquarius, system for the seventies..

 

THANK YOU TO..

Martin v. d. Steenoven for kindly allowing me to use the cover images from Tron Deadly Disks, Disco Fever, N-Vaders, and Postman Pot. You can visit his excellent site at www.vdsteenoven.com/aquarius/.

Rene at Silicium.org for giving permission to use the box shots of Astrosmash and Burger Time. http://silicium.org/oldskool/us/aquarius.htm. In french.

Dean (retro-zone.org) for allowing me to embed his YouTube video.

Jason (MattelAquarius) for allowing me to embed his gameplay video's. His YouTube channel can be found here.

 

Original article by Gary - December 2006 (revision 3.6.1 completed May 2014)