M Network

M NETWORK FOR ATARI 2600

After the introduction of the Atari 2600 video game console in 1977, Richard Chang in the Design & Development department of Mattel Toys thought that Mattel should have its own game system to compete.

Chang sought out experts in microprocessor programming and quickly linked up with Glenn Hightower. Hightower's company, APh Technology Consulting, helped design the system that eventually became the Intellivision console. APh was also contracted to program the first games for the system.

Within a year of Intellivision's 1980 national introduction, it became apparent to Hightower that he had made a bad deal with Mattel. While APh was contracted to sell each game to Mattel for less than $30,000, those games, retailing at over $30, had sold an average of 50,000 copies each. Sales for 1981 were projected to at least double. And APh received no royalties.

Hightower and his senior staff decided that they should try their hand at programming for the Atari 2600, either for Mattel or for a higher bidder. However, they were worried: Mattel's lawyers might try to claim any work they did on the 2600 was covered as part of their video game contract with Mattel.

To solve this, the senior programmers took a leave of absence from APh. As private contractors (paid directly by Hightower, not APh), they reverse engineered the Atari 2600, figured out how the games worked, and put together demos showing they could write their own.

Hightower was then able to go to Mattel and say, semi-truthfully, that he knew of an outside group that had expertise on the Atari 2600. If Mattel was interested, APh could purchase their development tools and start producing Atari 2600 games.

Mattel bit. Since Hightower would have to pay this "outside group" (represented at negotiations by a friend Hightower paid to front the group), he was able to get hefty fees for each game, plus royalties. The contract eventually was worth millions to APh - far more than Intellivision was.

The decision by Mattel to produce Atari cartridges was controversial within the company. One faction argued that it would help sell the competing game console. On a more aesthetic level, they also felt that it would add credibility to an inferior system.

At a meeting announcing the project (code named "Irata" - "Atari" spelled backwards) to the Intellivision programmers, Director Mike Minkoff nodded, saying, "That's errata, all right."

But the winning faction looked realistically at the numbers: there were then about 10 million Atari consoles in homes compared to about 2 million Intellivisions. It simply made sense to sell games for 12 million machines rather than just 2 million.

The games were introduced in 1982 under the tradename "M Network" (M for Mattel). All of the games were Atari 2600 versions of already released Intellivision cartridges. In recognition, though, of the concern that the simpler Atari versions might reflect badly on the Intellivision originals, the names of the games were changed.

Thus, for the original games (the 1982 releases except TRON Deadly Discs), Astrosmash became "Astroblast," Armor Battle became "Armor Ambush," NFL Football became "Super Challenge Football," etc. Only Lock 'N' Chase, an arcade title licensed from Data East USA, kept the same name.

The original APh games sold well, averaging around 200,000 cartridges each. As with Intellivision, programmers were hired by Mattel Electronics to start producing Atari games in-house. That group, headed by Manager Ron Surratt, included programmers David AkersSteve CrandallEric Del Sesto, Jeff Ratcliff, Mike Sanders, Stephen Tatsumi, Jane Terjung, and Jossef Wagner. Sound effects for the games were produced by Patricia Lewis Du Long.

Ironically, after worries that the Atari versions would reflect badly on the Intellivision originals, at least one magazine reviewer wrote that the Atari versions of the games were usually better than the Intellivision ones.

The Design & Development department started working on enhancing the Atari console to allow for more complex games. They came up with a "Super Charger" module that plugged into the Atari 2600. The module added 2K of RAM to the console plus addressing circuitry that allowed game cartridges four times larger than previously released.

The first cartridge for the Super Charger was to be an Atari version of BurgerTime. While the game was still in development, however, sales results were coming in for the Intellivoice speech module. The figures were disappointing - there were now nearly 3 million Intellivisions in homes, but fewer than 350,000 Intellivoices had sold.

Marketing tests showed that the public just didn't like buying add-on modules. As a result, the Super Charger was cancelled. Instead, for BurgerTime and other "super" games, the extra RAM and addressing circuitry planned for the Charger would be stuffed into each cartridge. Although more expensive, it was calculated that far more cartridges could be sold.

People may not like buying add-on modules, but they like free stuff. So in March 1983 Mattel Electronics started offering a free TRON joystick to consumers who purchased both of the M Network Atari 2600 TRON cartridges: TRON Deadly Discs and Adventures of TRON. A special pack was available in stores with the joystick and two games, or people who had bought the games separately could send in proof-of-purchase to receive their joystick by mail. The Atari 2600 joystick was only available through the promotional offer. Molded in translucent blue plastic, it was modeled after the joystick on the Bally/Midway TRON arcade game. It had a red firing trigger, a suction cup base to anchor it to a tabletop, and a retractable cord that wound into the base. The promotion continued through May and was reportedly quite successful.

A major marketing change was made mid-1983. The new Mattel Electronics management team tried reshaping the company from a hardware manufacturer to a software provider. Rather than advertising the Intellivision system and the M Network product line, Mattel started pushing the individual games. For the first time, packaging for Intellivision and Atari versions of a game were to be nearly identical. The previous strategy of giving the Atari versions different names was dropped, as was the "M Network" designation. (Actually only two games - Bump 'N' Jump and Masters of the Universe - were released with the new packaging before Mattel Electronics closed.)

But the new focus of the company wasn't able to save Mattel Electronics from the industry-wide crash. Mattel closed its software division in January 1984, leaving a number of Atari games, in various stages of development, unreleased.

Following is a list of all M Network Atari 2600 titles. Those marked UNRELEASED were complete or at the final debugging stage; games canceled before a fully playable version was complete are marked UNFINISHED.

Unlike Intellivision games, Atari 2600 games need to have their programs modified to work on PAL (European) televisions. Many of the M Network games were also released in PAL versions. PAL versions carry the same four-digit product number as their NTSC (American) counterparts.