M Network


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.


Having already established the M Network line to release videogames for the Atari 2600, it was natural that Mattel would extend the line to include Colecovision after that system was introduced with great success.

Developing Colecovision games, however, was trickier. Figuring out how to program an Atari 2600 comes from examining the hardware; a Colecovision, however, like an Intellivision, contains an operating system in ROM.

At Mattel, programmer David Akers (Star Strike for the Atari 2600) did, on his own and on his own time, figure out how much of the Colecovision operating system worked. One day he just sort of said, "Look what I did," and demonstrated a simple Colecovision program. Everyone was impressed, except for the legal department; they were apoplectic.

The operating system ROM was considered by Coleco to be proprietary and top secret. When releasing a game for Colecovision (or Intellivision for that matter), you had to be able to prove you figured out what is in that ROM by yourself (a procedure known as reverse-engineering), or be open to charges of industrial espionage (as when Mattel sued Atari for $40 million for hiring away several Intellivision programmers).

The burden of proof is on the company doing the reverse-engineering, so the work has to be done under intensely controlled and documented circumstances. The lawyers were afraid that if word of Dave's experimentation got out, Mattel could be sued by Coleco. Dave was told to stop and the people who knew about his work were told to keep it secret.

But Mattel Electronics Marketing soon asked for Colecovision games. Despite the work Dave had already done, Mattel bought a how-to manual on Colecovision programming from Sound Software of Olympia, Washington. They had reverse-engineered the Colecovision themselves and were selling the information (for $50,000 we were told) to companies who didn't want to go through all the trouble of (a) deciphering the code and (b) documenting that it had been done legitimately and legally.

Armed with this squeaky-clean documentation, development of Colecovision games began in July 1983 in Mattel's Hawthorne, California and in its Nice, France offices. Only one of the Hawthorne games, Masters of the Universe: The Power of He-Man, neared completion before the division was closed, and Mattel never released a Colecovision title.

At the French office, however, which continued to work after the rest of Electronics had been shut down, three Colecovision games were completed: BurgerTime, Bump 'N' Jump and Illusions. Under their agreement with Mattel, the French office (newly named Nice Ideas) was free to shop the games to other publishers. Coleco finally released them.

Several games were on the schedule for 1984, but only have production numbers to show for it. Most of these are ports from Intellivision and some of them are ideas with no actual game attached:


FUN FACT: Manager Keith Robinson was put in charge of Colecovision development in Hawthorne. One idea he and programmer Tom Priestley had was to convert the Intellivoice games for Colecovision. Although the voice lab had been shut down, speech had already been synthesized for nine Intellivision games, released and unreleased, plus foreign versions of several of those titles.

After the commercial failure of Intellivoice, Mattel obviously wasn't going to create a voice module for Colecovision. The key to their idea was that the cost of the General Instruments speech synthesis chip had dropped to the point where it would be practical to put a synthesis chip into every cartridge. (This idea came from the M Network Atari 2600 cartridges. Mattel had originally planned on releasing an Atari expansion module with extra RAM for "big games," but the Intellivoice flop made them decide to simply add RAM chips to the big game cartridges.)

To demonstrate their idea, Keith and Tom bought a talking clock chip kit at Radio Shack. Tom cobbled together a cartridge from the parts and Keith slapped together a Colecovision program to trigger it. It worked perfectly. (The only problem with the cartridge was that a Colecovision doesn't have an audio-input pin on its cartridge port - the voice cartridge had to be plugged into the Colecovision's expansion port.)

Keith and Tom demonstrated the talking Colecovision to Vice President Gabriel Baum, who excitedly took it to Marketing. Unknown to Keith or Tom, Gabriel had just been forced to put together a list of programmers and artists to be laid off in November. Armed with the "ColecoVoice" idea, Gabriel was able to convince upper management to save about six programmers to develop the idea.

The layoff came and the programmers were saved, but no further work was done on "ColecoVoice."