System Overload: Aquarius

Platform: Aquarius
Manufacturer: Mattel Electronics
Year: 1983

Aquarius computer console

“This is the dawwwning of the Aaaage of Aqu…” No? Okay. (Photo: Oldcomputers.net)

The Aquarius represented Mattel’s entry into the white-hot home computer wars of the early 1980s. It sounds ridiculous today, but it’s true: Mattel, renowned creator of Barbie dolls and Hot Wheels cars, made a computer once. And in many ways it was fitting; the Aquarius’ underpowered specifications (even by 1983 standards), diminutive dimensions, and blue rubber keyboard gave many the impression that it was more of a toy than a functional computer. Poor placement, unfortunate timing, halfhearted support, and negative consumer response conspired to make the Aquarius one of the shortest-lived home computers of all time; it was on the market -at least in the U.S.- for just four months. The extraordinary brevity of the Aquarius’ shelf life has cultivated its popularly held reputation of being one of the worst home computers ever. But is it really? Let’s break it down.

Aquarius promo

“Aquarius: at least it beats a Timex/Sinclair.” (Photo: 8bit-micro.com)

BACKGROUND
The Aquarius was born in the wake of Mattel Electronics’ Keyboard Component fiasco. The Keyboard Component was to have transformed Mattel’s successful Intellivision video game console into a full-fledged computer, but due to prolonged cost-related difficulties and numerous delays, the project was cancelled before very many were ever built. By that time, Mattel was facing allegations of fraud, as well as monthly fines from the Federal Trade Commission to the tune of $10,000.

Still on the hook to deliver on what they had promised with the Keyboard Component, Mattel came up with two solutions to stop the bleeding. One was the Entertainment Computer System (ECS), which was developed – practically in secret, due to internal politics – as a low-cost but much less powerful alternative to the Keyboard Component. The other was to rebrand and distribute an existing low-cost, standalone computer. And it just so happened that Mattel’s manufacturer for Intellivision products, the Hong Kong-based Radofin Electronics, had three such systems. Mattel decided to release two of them, which would become the Aquarius and Aquarius II. Thus, the Aquarius was released in June 1983.

But the Aquarius bombed. Hard. It came out at a chaotic time for Mattel, when the company was slashing prices after seeing Intellivision sales nosedive, effecting mass layoffs after going on a hiring binge only weeks earlier, and generally feeling the effects of the Great Video Game Crash then in progress.  Furthermore, the Aquarius simply wasn’t a very capable machine, even in comparison with aging but similarly positioned “budget” or “starter” systems like the Commodore VIC-20 or TI-99/4a, and it was generally ignored by consumers. Due partly to Mattel Electronics’ mounting financial troubles and partly to glacial Aquarius sales, plans to release the Aquarius II and other software and peripherals were abruptly abandoned. By October, Mattel sold the rights to the Aquarius and all unsold stock back to Radofin, bought out of their licensing contract, and, to borrow the expression, got the hell out of Dodge. After just four brief months, the age of Aquarius had passed as quietly as it had come. The system lingered on in PAL territories for a short time before it vanished into the ether of computer history.

Aquarius box

Aquarius box. The Aquarius could be purchased individually, as well as in various packages that included different combinations of software and peripherals.                                                          (Photo: Old-computers.com)

SYSTEM DESIGN
At the core of the Aquarius was the then-ubiquitous Zilog Z80 CPU, running at a then-respectable 3.5 mHz. But the machine had only 4KB of RAM, of which just 1.7KB were available to the user. Its BASIC interpreter – which was written by none other than Microsoft – was limited and lacked several commands found in other systems’ BASIC languages (many of which, incidentally, were also written by Microsoft). It lacked composite video output and serial connectivity, had only one audio channel, and its graphical capabilities were constrained to a limited and hard-coded character set. Working on Aquarius software was considered tantamount to punishment by Mattel’s software designers, who derided the Aquarius and its inadequate specs as “the System for the Seventies.”

Aquarius character set

Every Aquarius game’s graphics and animations are made of some combination of these characters. The possibilities are endless!…you know, within reason.

Another problem was the keyboard. As friendly as the Aquarius’ blue rubber chiclet keyboard appears, that’s how fiendish it actually is. To begin with, the keys are small and mushy-feeling, immediately rendering conventional touch typing out of the question. But more egregious is the layout, which I imagine is high in the running for “Most Bizarre Keyboard Layout of All Time” (though it doesn’t top the Commodore PET 2001 or Video Brain). For one thing, the Aquarius places the Reset key directly next to the “1” key, practically begging the user to fat-finger it at some point while pecking away at a BASIC listing and accidentally wipe out hours of work. The Reset key does have a “safety” ridge around it to mitigate this somewhat, but it’s still an easy key to hit precisely when you don’t mean to.

Aquarius keyboard

Nobody was ever going be writing any term papers or the next Great American Novel on this thing.                                     (Photo: geekvintage.com)

As if that weren’t enough, the Aquarius keyboard ditches conventional space bars and enter keys for little ordinary buttons which at first blush look like shift or control keys. This would be even worse if being able to type worth a damn were even a possibility to begin with, but fortunately it’s merely annoying.

But for all its quirks, idiosyncrasies, and questionable design philosophy, the Aquarius really only commits one unforgivable cardinal sin of hardware design, which can be summed up in four words: Hardwired. External. Power. Supply. The key offender, of course, being “hardwired.” True to its “System Of The Seventies” nickname, this “feature” seems to be a holdover from the Disco Era, when many video game systems such as the Fairchild Channel F and Bally Professional Arcade were tethered to their power bricks. The problems associated with this design should be obvious, the least of which is the inconvenience of handling and storing a system attached to a small dumbbell, and the greatest of which is how the computer becomes a deskweight if the power supply goes bad.

Aquarius power supply

WHY.                                                     (Photo: geekvintage.com)

The power supply came in at least two variations (I own Aquariuses – Aquarii? – with each type): a hardwired standard wall wart (*ugh*), and a “pigtail” unit, where one cord runs from the transformer to the computer while another runs from the transformer to the power outlet. The latter is preferable since it at least doesn’t hog precious real estate on an electrical outlet or power strip.

MEDIA
Like many home computers of the day, the Aquarius used ROM cartridges. And it has some of the strangest-looking cartridges I’ve ever seen; Aquarius cartridges are boxy, angular affairs that look more like battery packs from vintage cell phones than software cartridges as we know them. There is a reason for this, however: when inserted into the computer, the cartridge fits flush with the console’s angled top edge, creating a slim, streamlined, and slick-looking profile.

Example of an Aquarius cartridge. In addition to software, RAM expansions came in cartridge form.                                               (Photo: geekvintage.com)

Aquarius with cartridge inserted

Aquarius with cartridge inserted. Slick, right?                        (Photo: M. v. d. Steenoven)

This concession to aesthetics backfires a bit with the Mini Expander, though (more on that in a bit); the cartridges stick out like plastic stumps to make the system about as attractive as a Sega 32X setup.

The Aquarius also loads software from cassette tape. Although tape software was essentially nonexistent in the U.S. (apart from the Demo tape which came with a few of the various Aquarius packages to show off the Data Recorder, and the Terminal Emulator tape that came with the Modem), quite a few games came out on tape in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, where cassettes were a much more popular format even into the mid 1980s. These were usually interpretations of popular arcade games and standard BASIC fare, but there were original titles as well.

PERIPHERALS
On its own, the Aquarius is a pretty goofy little thing, and not well-suited to doing anything beyond running game cartridges (which is fine…that’s why we’re here, right?). But it did have a few peripherals that could be used to squeeze a little more usefulness out of it, such as the aforementioned Data Recorder and Modem, a small thermal printer, a four-color plotter (now exceedingly rare), and the Mini Expander.

Expanded Aquarius: winner of zero beauty contests.                                                (Photo: Oldcomputers.net)

The Mini Expander is interesting in that it essentially transforms the Aquarius into the computer it should have been in the first place. The “Mini” part is misleading since it’s almost as large as the computer (which itself is fairly small, so I guess it’s kinda mini), but the Expander is easily the Aquarius’ most important peripheral. It connects via the cartridge interface and adds three additional audio channels, game controller support, and two cartridge ports: one for a program or Modem, and one for a RAM expansion cartridge. The RAM cartridges came in 4K and 16K varieties and are pretty much required if you want to do anything besides play Astrosmash. Many of the third-party tape games require the 16K cartridge, but strangely, even a few cartridges – for example, FinForm – require the additional RAM to run, which in turn means they can’t be run without the Mini Expander.

CONTROLLERS
The Mini Expander was packed with two Aquarius game controllers, which makes sense since they couldn’t be used without it anyway. They clearly resemble the Intellivision’s controllers – specifically the Intellivision II’s – but they are smaller, lack side-mounted fire buttons, and have a six-button keypad in an unusual 2 x 3 layout instead of the standard 12-key pad. And although they use the same standard 9-pin connector as systems like the Atari 2600, Commodore 64, and the later Sega Genesis, the Aquarius is not compatible with any other controller. However, the Aquarius’ controllers are surprisingly sturdy, well-made, and responsive, although larger hands may find their small form a bit cramped.

Aquarius game controller

If the Intellivision controller and Tomy Tutor controller had a lovechild, you’d get the Aquarius game controller.                           (Photo: Phosphor Dot Fossils)

For Aquarius users lacking the Mini Expander (or those who simply don’t feel like using the controllers), the keyboard can also be used for game playing. In fact, Aquarius game cartridges included two sets of control overlays: one set for the game controllers’ keypads, and one set that fits over the computer keyboard (this overlay is actually two pieces). With certain games, the keyboard is actually preferable – mushy though it may be – as it can be more intuitive than the controller’s awkward keypad configuration:

Aquarius game controller overlays: Night Stalker

Case in point: Night Stalker, which requires you to move your character with the control disc while firing in different directions with these buttons…                                                                                                             (Photo: geekvintage.com)

Aquarius keyboard overlays: Night Stalker

…or you can use the keyboard, which approximates the modern ASDW/arrow key configuration, and not have to look at your controller every four seconds.                                                               (Photo: geekvintage.com)

SOFTWARE
Only about a dozen games were released in the U.S. before Mattel pulled the plug. Mattel’s Aquarius library reads like a playlist of “Intellivision’s Greatest Hits,” including such titles as Astrosmash, Utopia, Tron: Deadly Discs, and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Treasure of Tarmin. Even Burgertime made it to the Aquarius. But although they exhibit very distinct Aquariusness (check out a few gameplay videos on YouTube; you’ll see what I mean), they keep remarkable pace with their classic console counterparts. Astrosmash in particular is every bit as addicting as its more famous relative on the Intellivision, and is arguably the closest thing the Aquarius has to a killer app.

Despite a relative dearth of cartridge titles, quite a number of games came out on tape overseas. As mentioned earlier, these ranged from knockoffs of arcade hits to adaptations of common BASIC games to completely original titles. Serious Aquarius gamers would do well to track down games such as Millypede, N-Vaders, Mazantics, and Pac-Mr. (Or a therapist. *rimshot*) And by “track down,” I mean “download VirtualAquarius,” the contents of which include .WAV files for these games and more for use on the VirtualAquarius emulator, or on a real Aquarius through your device’s headphone jack. ‘Cause let’s face it: the chances of you happening across some Aquarius tapes are decidedly not good.

Note on loading cassettes: many Aquarius tape programs are two-part loads. First “CLOAD” the short BASIC loader, then “RUN” it. This will prompt you to load the machine language component.

It wasn’t all fun and games on the Aquarius. There were also a couple of productivity and programming cartridges such as FinForm, FileForm, Microsoft Extended BASIC, and LOGO. The overwhelming majority of Aquarius software, though, is games. Which is exactly the way it should be…we’re talking about a computer released by a toy company, after all!

COLLECTIBILITY
As you might expect, the Aquarius is fairly rare today. And yet, it isn’t; although the chances of finding one at your favorite thrift shop are thin, there are numerous Aquarius systems on eBay at pretty much any given time. Apart from its small but loyal cult following, there doesn’t seem to be much interest in these systems, and there are enough of them out there that they can still be had for a fairly reasonable price. Most of the best games are relatively common, but can be expensive individually ($20-30), especially if they’re complete with the box, manual, both overlay sets, and box insert. If you just want a taste of the Aquarius, chances are you could get a small lot with a few games for under $100, and that will probably include all the games you’re likely to ever want to play. But if you’re more adventurous and want get into late releases (ex: Burgertime) and cartridges that came out after Radofin took over (ex: Space Speller), expect to fork out $50 apiece and up.

There are some other things in the Aquariverse that collectors will want to take note of, as well. Perhaps the most prominent of these is the fabled Aquarius II. The Aquarius II was released by Radofin in PAL-Land after Mattel bugged out of the computer market, but as far as anyone can tell, it was even less successful than the first Aquarius.

Aquarius II system from Radofin

I guess people were happy with their superior computers. Their loss.                                                   (Photo: Old-Computers.com…duh)

Functionally, it’s essentially the same system as the standard Aquarius except that it has an improved keyboard and Microsoft Extended BASIC (otherwise available in cartridge form, although this itself is incredibly rare). Good luck finding an Aquarius II outside of Europe…or inside of Europe…or anywhere, basically.

NEW DEVELOPMENTS AND OTHER COOL STUFF
We’ve established that the Aquarius was staggeringly short-lived, obscure, and not altogether useful or popular. But that hasn’t prevented a cult following from springing up around the system, or new things being done with it. One such thing, which I would be remiss if I did not grant even a passing mention, is the Aquaricart, a menu-based multicart released by Aquarius authority Jay Snellen in 2011. It includes every cartridge release, electronic instructions for them (so you don’t necessarily need the manuals and overlays anymore), prototypes, and more…on one handy-dandy cartridge. In the immortal words of Duke Nukem: “Groovy.

Unpaid product placement.

The only Aquarius cartridge you’ll ever need.                                                             (Photo: M. v. d. Steenoven)

Another thing is this:

Yeah.

CONCLUSION
The Aquarius is like a weird cousin of the Intellivision; its games are ugly ports of Intellivision games, its controllers are like shrunken Intellivision controllers with fewer buttons, and the system itself was borne of the Intellivision’s failed Keyboard Component project. The only reason it was even released was to get the FTC off Mattel’s back, and despite the optimism displayed in Aquarius catalogs (which are basically lists of vaporware and cancelled projects), it’s likely that Mattel never truly intended to support it in any meaningful way.

Even from a technical standpoint, it’s a weird system. The keyboard, the proprietary printer connection, the shape of the cartridges, the hardcoded character graphics, the proprietary cassette connection, the controllers, the fact that there is some cartridge-based software which requires extra RAM…everything about the Aquarius is just weird. It’s also a funny system in that you usually expect what-we-now-call-PC versions of games to be superior to console versions, and the Aquarius ports of Intellivision games are actually worse.

Still, there’s lot to like about the Aquarius. The games, while clearly inhibited by the computer’s sizable limitations, are nonetheless highly playable, and none stand out as being particularly bad. Ugly and a little clunky? Perhaps, but on the contrary, they’re generally pretty good. It’s like the Aquarius was spiting itself or something. Furthermore, its relatively small library and oddball status make it a fun system to collect for. It’s not going to be your go-to retro computer, and there’s nothing the Aquarius can do that isn’t done better by an Intellivision or ZX Spectrum, but for collectors and gamers looking for something a bit off the beaten path, the Aquarius fits the bill.

(c) 2014 Jeffery Koss