‘Utopia’

As the Texas Gal and I pulled boxes off shelves and out of piles in the basement the other week, we sorted our finds into three categories: Stuff we could sell at last week’s garage sale, stuff we would either keep or take to antique dealers/collectors, and stuff we could just pitch. And as we pulled and sorted, we caught glimpses of bits of our lives long gone (like the orange backpack).

And one of the boxes in the last pile we tackled brought back memories of the only video game system I’ve ever owned: Mattel’s Intellivision. Though the game console is long gone, the box held the ten games I got to go along with the console back in the early 1980s.

Intellivision b y Evan Amos

By today’s standards, it was a laughable system, but in 1980, its graphics and the wide variety of games available made it pretty remarkable. The complexity of the games was pretty cool, too. Take the NFL Football game, for instance. With the key pad on the controller – into which one slipped a plastic insert – you could call a run or pass from any of nine formations. The running plays were pretty simple, but for a pass, you had to then choose one of two receivers – there were only five players on each team – and then choose one of nine areas on the field where the pass would be thrown.

The gold disc in the controller was, in effect, the joystick. Only one player on each team would be under your control. On defense, it was, I think, a linebacker. On offense, it would be the running back or the quarterback/receiver combination. You’d control the quarterback until you hit the “pass” button, and then you’d control the receiver, moving him to the zone where the ball was thrown.

What did the other four players on each team do? Well, the other offensive players were programmed to block the defenders, and the defenders were programmed to go to wherever the ball was.

Yes, it was the gaming equivalent of the Model T, but it’s worth recalling that just five years earlier, we’d all been amazed by Pong. Given that Intellivision increased the number of moving parts and the complexity of the games, it was a great system. And as soon as I saw it in at my friend Warren’s house back in 1981 or 1982, I knew I had to have one.

It wasn’t cheap. One web site I checked this morning said the original price in 1980 was $299. I don’t remember mine being quite that expensive; I think I laid down about $200 bucks for mine (the equivalent of about $585 these days).  And of course, there was the cost of the games. The console came with a Las Vegas Poker & Blackjack cartridge, which was kind of lame. I eventually bought nine other games:

NFL Football
NHL Hockey
NASL Soccer
Skiing
Tennis
Backgammon
Space Battle
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
Utopia

I also remember playing baseball and a game called Sub Hunt at Warren’s. Since I didn’t always have someone around to play against – the Other Half was not at all interested in video games – I enjoyed most the games one could play solo: Skiing, Space Battle, Dungeons & Dragons and Utopia. (I could practice football by myself, especially the passing, in kind of a scrimmage mode, and I could play hockey and soccer solo, after a fashion, controlling the offense for one team until the defense got control of the puck or ball and then switching controllers; that was kind of lame, yes, but it gave me practice in passing and shooting.)

My favorite was probably Utopia, which was designed for either one or two players. You’d control the government of an island, investing gold bars to create farms, school, hospitals, forts and other establishments Intellivision Utopiaand sending out a fishing fleet to gain food and revenue. On a random basis, rain would cross your farms and your crops would flourish. Random hurricanes also came along, destroying your buildings and crops. Playing solo, the goal was simply to govern well and accumulate points. In a two-person game, trying to outscore your opponent, you could also invest in rebels to attack the other island. (In a solo game, hurricanes or the failure of the crops or fishing fleet could result in rebels popping up on your own island.)

I played the various games – solo and with Warren and a few other folks – for about four or five years. Then one day in early 1985, I hauled my console to a friend’s house in Columbia, Missouri, to share it with him. We plugged in the Skiing game and everything showed up on the screen except the skier. Puzzled, I switched to soccer, and everything was there except the ball. Something in the console’s innards had failed. I put the game back in its box and we watched basketball on TV.

A few years later, no wiser as to what had gone wrong with my Intellivision and aware that it was outdated, I threw the console out. I packed the game cartridges in a box, thinking someone might want them someday. And today, they sit on a table here in the EITW studios. I suppose I could try to sell them on Ebay or a similar site. Or I could just give them to Goodwill and let the folks there puzzle things out.

I found in the mp3 stacks two pieces with the title “Utopia.” One was a 2000 recording from the album Voices Of Life by the Bulgarian Women’s Choir. The other came from a self-titled 1972 album by Mother Night, a Latin funk/rock band from New York City (according to the blog Hippydjkit). Here’s the Mother Night track:

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