Most people who connect a keyboard to their game console these days are either trying too hard in online shooters or typing obscenities at those who are not trying hard enough. Yet at one time, dimly remembered now, the console keyboard was a symbol not of rage but respectability. Tedium’s Ernie Smith looks back at the unfulfilled promise of these keyboards, which manufacturers added to pioneering consoles like the Magnavox Odyssey² (remembered for its strangely familiar, can’t-quite-place-it title K.C. Munchkin) and the Mattel Intellivision (the one with the control disc) to sell their gaming machines as real computers you could “do your taxes” on.
“With the keyboard you can learn a foreign language, develop a personal exercise program … even work out a financial plan,” the company stated in a 1980 print ad. “The Atari system does not have this expansion capability.”
The computer component had the effect of putting Mattel’s device on a higher plane than the Atari VCS in the eyes of the public, which appeared to be the company’s marketing goal. (The company also used Mid-Atlantic-accented George Plimpton to market its sports games, which is a great way of telling the public that you’re classier than your competition.)
Mattel’s marketing department wrote checks their engineers couldn’t cash. The “keyboard computer unit,” nicknamed “Blue Whale,” had to have its own processor and its own tape drive, and presumably the majestic wood paneling that ’80s gamers demanded. Everyone knew it wasn’t going to work:
In late 1981, as it was clear Mattel Electronics would miss its promised deadline to release the device, comedian and noted Intellivision fan Jay Leno played MC at the company’s Christmas party, and he had clearly been aware of the hell the company had created for itself: “You know what the three big lies are, don’t you? ‘The check is in the mail,’ ‘I’ll still respect you in the morning,’ and ‘the Keyboard will be out in the spring.’”
Facing fines from the FTC over its earlier promises, Mattel pushed out a cheaper, less ambitious keyboard called the “Basic Discovery System.” (4,000 Blue Whale units were apparently made for testing, though.) It helped teach kids how to program in BASIC, but didn’t turn your game machine into something that ran Wii Fit or Plimpton VR or whatever the hell Intellivisions were originally supposed to do.