Was there ever a system I was less interested in owning than an Intellivision Video Game System? Well, maybe that new Intellivision Amico disaster but it looks like that doesn’t count anymore, so probably not, and definitely not one where I also own no less than two compilations full of its games! And when I say full, I mean a jam-packed sixty-two games in the case of Intellivision Lives: The History of Video Gaming for the PlayStation 2 in 2004! “Relive the 80’s with Intellivision Lives. For the first time – over 60 classic Intellivision games all in one great package. Your all time favourites including: Astrosmash, Backgammon, Super Pro Wrestling, Pinball, Soccer, Sub Hunt, Tennis and many more.” Okay, you know there’s something wrong when Backgammon has second-billing in a list of all-time favourites for the machine but I’m not here to mock – I want to dig a bit deeper! Apart from it having a weird keyboard overlay and too many educational games, I genuinely remember almost nothing about the Intellivision in its heyday; the couple of friends that had anything beyond knock-off Pong and light-gun systems in the very early eighties had an Atari 2600, which is a very good place to find out a bit more!

According to the “historical information and fun facts about the games” also included in the PS2 compilation, the Intellivision Video Game System was introduced by Mattel in 1980 to compete with the Atari 2600, and actually this was pretty significant because they were the world’s biggest toy manufacturer so all those who’d dismissed video games as a fad were now forced to take notice! Within a couple of years the industry was already worth $1.5 billion but then the crash of 1983 happened, and while Atari was busy burying copies of E.T. in its aftermath, Mattel sold the rights to the Intellivision to INTV Corporation, founded by a former employee, and by 1985 it was just about the only console of note still being sold in the US, and while that wouldn’t exactly be the case for much longer, it did continue to be revised and have games released until 1990. Reading the PS2 box here could imply its sixty-two games – including three unreleased ones – represent the system’s full library, but it I think it was about double that, which still leaves it less than a quarter of the 2600’s.

As was the vogue with PS2-era compilations, you can’t just have a nice menu to select your game from. Picking a game to play has to involve a 3D tour of some giant Ancient Egyptian temple or, in this case, a wander around Hal’s Pizza, “where the 80’s never stopped!” That’s great, but what does need to stop is the dreadful music playing here – some awful, heavily-accented woman moaning about missing her Intellivision! I know I usually like to give a quick guided tour of any compilation I’m referencing but I’m not doing it this time because firstly, sixty-two games, secondly, most of them stink, and thirdly, this is the worst PS2 compilation navigation I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying something! It’s so bad there’s a full third of an instruction manual page dedicated to “getting around Hal’s Pizza!” And once you’ve got your head around moving left and right to identify an object of interest, you then need to move up to get closer or down to back away, with arrow symbols at the bottom of the screen letting you know which directions are available! The fun doesn’t stop there though, because said objects are actually categories of games, including space, arcade, gaming & strategy, sports, combat & sorcery, children’s and unreleased. In summary, to play your game of choice, you have to move around a crappy 3D pizza restaurant to locate the potentially bizarre category containing that game, then go through the list of games therein to find what you’re after, so if you fancy Horseracing, for example, you’ll need to go to gaming & strategy (not sports!) and click X, maybe? No, of course not! You need to “pay close attention to the on-screen control configuration. Many games have setup options or gameplay that require numbers to be entered. For those games, the numbers 1-9 have been mapped to the right analog stick.” And so it continues!

That actually refers to its weird, numbered controllers that are the main thing that’s always put me off the console, and while it’s far more intuitive than either me or the PS2 instruction manual might imply, and you usually got a dedicated overlay to sweeten the deal in each game box, it’s certainly an obstacle to enjoying what’s here, although as we’ll see shortly, not exclusively here! And while about 60-70% of what’s here is trash, that’s probably going to be the case with any compilation that decides to include whatever percentage of a console’s full games library this actually is! That said, there are certainly a few treasures to be found too, and while I’m being very facetious about the compilation as a whole, I won’t deny I had loads of fun trying everything and finding them! And that’s a good point to jump forwards the best part of two decades to 2021, and the Intellivision Collection 1 for Evercade, the “new retro console” with what must now be around three hundred fully licensed games on some wonderfully themed and curated cartridges. In this case, that curation means you’re not required to eat your way through sixty-two gaming pizzas to find something with your favourite ham, mushroom and pineapple topping because the lovely folks at Blaze Entertainment have stuffed their faces for you and reduced the menu to just twelve highlights!

This is more like it, and while I don’t think I ever came up with as many as twelve highlights on the PS2, the ones I did come up with are certainly represented here! I’m not going to go into detail on any of them now though, but I think it’s worth a quick tour for context now we’re here. I do also plan a deeper-dive on a couple of them at some point in the future, one way or another, which I’ll flag up when we get there! Last piece of housekeeping – taking decent (straight!) photos of my TV screen is a nightmare at the best of times, especially when it demands my phone in one hand and a controller on the go in the other, so while you might still see a few of those here, for in-game screenshots I’m mostly going to grab something in emulation. However, any gameplay described is, er, also emulation I guess but “official” emulation on the Evercade! Right, in alphabetical order… Astrosmash is a fixed shooter like Space Invaders with a touch of Asteroids as you shoot falling rocks and spinning UFOs, with a multiplier at play as you progress. It’s basic but the wild colours and increasingly wild scoring keep your interest even if there’s not much to the gameplay. The Intellivision loves its insects, and in Buzz Bombers you’re blasting bees with cans of bee repellent to turn them into honeycombs which will get eaten by a visiting hummingbird for points unless you shoot them first. It’s a spin on Centipede with some neat touches, such as the flowers that grow to restrict your movement if the bees reach the bottom. The music will drive you mad though! It’s flies you need to worry about in Frog Bog, where you’re a frog and need to eat as many as possible in three minutes! I love how this one looks, and that’s before we talk day / night cycle which also changes the environmental sound effects! For such a basic game – think Hungry Hippos – this is way ahead of its time!

I also love Night Stalker, although mostly in its Atari 2600 guise, Dark Cavern, where you’re trapped in a maze with robots and even more insects coming for you, with only short-lived gun pickups sometimes appearing to help you survive as long as you can. This is one I’ll cover again in future – it’s as close to horror as you get on here, with the most ominous art style, sound effects and music backing high-tension gameplay from the outset. Absolutely brilliant! I’d have loved the next game, Pinball, when it came out in 1983 too. It’s what it says, it’s got three screens, and while it’s basic by most standards, it’s way ahead of the Atari take on it, as well as my old favourite around then, Pinball Wizard on the VIC-20, particularly in the physics department. Princess Quest is a platformer where you’re a knight rescuing the titular princess from the Evil King living next-door if you can get past all his monsters. And ladders! It’s very fast-paced with probably the best music on the system but it’s a bit too large-scale for its own good and a bit of a mess to play as a result. We’ll obviously come back to Shark! Shark! so let’s continue here with Slap Shot Super Pro Hockey, which is single-screen four-on-four ice hockey. It’s really bare-bones but you can feel the love that went into it and I’ve always had a good time with it – which might also be down to my bare-bones appreciation of the sport!

Snafu is also four-on-four, but this time it’s snakes trying to create a maze out of themselves for their opponents to crash into. It’s what you also know as Snake or Tron and it’s nothing to look at but is loads of fun to play and really addictive! Thin Ice is about Duncan the penguin, who likes to skate on thin ice all the way around his friends on the screen to surprise them with a cold bath, but watch out for pesky bears and seals! It’s a more dynamic riff on Amidar (or later Oh Mummy) and it’s a brilliant one, full of humour and cool animations! Thunder Castle is another I plan to come back to in more depth, and it’s another maze game with another brave knight, this time powered-up by magical objects and battling his way through the constantly moving and changing layouts – not to mention fire-breathing dragons – of the enchanted forest, the wizard’s castle and the demon’s dungeon. For me the best graphics on the system right here, great music, really atmospheric and that maze-changing mechanic is so tense! Another classic! Last up is Word Rockets, and I probably won’t ever be covering this in any more detail than to say its’s a word puzzler, where you have a stock of vowels at the bottom of the screen and you need to choose the right one and fire it up at the incomplete words floating across the sky above you. It’s an interesting concept that’s well put together but do I really want a learning game (or children’s game, as the PS2 collection might say) on here? In case you’re wondering, no I don’t. I want Super Pro Wrestling instead!

Oh yeah, before we leave the compilation as a whole, I said I’d come back to those controllers. The thing is, they had a disc for directional control and a keypad like a telephone’s, and because of everything here’s reliance on it, to a greater or lesser extent, the only solution is a virtual keypad, which you bring up by holding a shoulder button, using the D-pad for selection and pressing A to press the number. As a convenience, pressing Y will repeat the last number you pressed, but all the same, it’s a downer. Fortunately, our Shark! Shark! that we’ll get to now doesn’t have any real reliance on it apart from selecting the number of players. Actually, there’s barely any reliance on the rest of a modern controller either, with just the D-pad for moving and pretty much any face button you like for darting, but we’re darting ahead of ourselves here so let’s go back to the start and have a proper look at Shark! Shark!

Evercade cartridges always come with a lovely old-school instruction manual, so let’s see what it can tell us about the game… The year is 1982, and it was developed by Don Daglow, Andy Sells and Ji-Wen Tsao, who it also informs us was one of the first female game programmers in the history of the video game industry. Apart from that, we also know that Mattel didn’t seem to have much faith in the game doing much business, to the point that they totally dismissed it as a kid’s game and we’re reluctant to even release it. In the end it got an initial run of just 5,200 cartridges when it did actually release in 1982, which was one of the smallest across the board on the Intellivision and compares to a whopping 800,000 for Star Strike, the Star Wars trench run-inspired 3D shooter from the previous year. I’m not sure how many it sold in the end, but we do know that reviewers went crazy about it so it probably did okay!

As much as I appreciate the inclusion of an instruction booklet with my Evercade games, I’m going to jump to the official Intellivision instructions for the rest because although it can’t compete on the size of its games library, it can definitely give Atari a run for its money on wordy manuals! Let’s take a look at its blurb… “Terror reigns under the ocean surface. It’s a heavy traffic of sharks, nasty fish, seahorses, crabs, lobsters and jellyfish. They swim fast, jerk up and down, lurk behind plants, or slide under coral reefs. They have weird shapes, striking colors, tiny or big sizes, and very mean intentions. They eat or kill each other at first sight!” That translates to a single-screen eat ‘em up, where you need to swim around and catch anything that’s smaller than you to get bigger so you can eat bigger stuff and get bigger! Get caught yourself by a bigger fish or a crab or a lobster or the titular shark and you lose a life. You’ll get points for eating fish or having a successful nibble the shark’s tail, and when you get to 1,000 you’ll grow a size, which you can do five times, meaning more points for being able to eat bigger fish now. Get to size 5 and it’s not all plain sailing though, because that’s when the giant jellyfish appear, and you’re never going to get as big as them! There’s also a two-player mode, where you’re not only trying to eat other fish but each other too, and doing so is not only rewarded by bonus points but also some very sinister bloody bubbles appearing!

That reminds me, as a related aside – albeit a convenient one because there’s only so many screenshots of the same underwater view I can get away with here – I recently picked up the On The Buses board game from 1972. I’ve been after one on eBay for a few months now that needed to be complete and at the right price but not necessarily in perfect condition. I got lucky with all three though, and I’m over the moon with it despite knowing perfectly well that no one is ever going to want to play it with me! And likewise Shark! Shark! so we’re going to stick to the single player game from here onwards! Your little yellow fish starts out in the middle of the screen, which is a good place to hang out whenever you can to avoid any unpleasant surprises from the sides. Before long, other fish of various sizes will start to appear, and you need to get after the smaller ones as quick as you can, which is where that dart button is going to come in handy, as it does when you’re trying to escape anything bigger! For a while this is going to include any seahorses and the crabs and lobsters that move along the bottom of the screen, that will sometimes jump up and and attack anything smaller than them passing by and within reach. And that’s when also you want to attack them once you’re big enough because they’re only vulnerable when they’re falling.

It’s all very sedate to start with, as you patrol this little tropical paradise, with its textured coral reef floor interspersed with plumes of seaweed changing colour as it sways in the light of the crystal clear water, with occasional bubbles making their way upwards. And all around you are the blues and pinks and yellows and oranges of different types and sizes of fish, which aren’t exactly recognisable but do have their own identities and a bit of animation. The seahorses, lobsters and crabs are a bit more recognisable, as they playfully do their own thing across what is quickly turning into a non-stop hunting ground with everything trying to eat everything else! In the background are individual bleeps of sound, sometimes forming short and sweet unintentional melodies as bubbles appear and lobsters leap and things get scoffed! And then this pleasant little ecosystem of very early eighties computer game marine life is interrupted by the terrifying, low-pitched riff on Jaws’ entrance music, and your life will never be the same again as the big black shark enters the fray! It moves fast and the slightest touch generally means an instant loss of one of your five lives but it has a weakness – get close enough and have a bite at its tail and it will be paralysed for a split-second; have enough bites and you’ll kill it! The bigger you are, the less bites it takes, but they’re all worth decent points and you’ll get a bonus life once it’s dead. Easier said that done though because just getting into position behind it without it noticing and spinning around on you is hard enough, but as soon as it’s recovered from the shock it’s going to make a quick lunge so you need to get out of there fast, of course while also avoiding any bigger fish also hanging around! There’s always another shark on the way even if you do see one off, but they can be your friend too – they’re the only things that can eat that big boss jellyfish later on!

You can just steer clear of the shark if you don’t fancy high risk snacking, but that’s also easier said than done, and it’s not like there’s no danger elsewhere because focus on that too much and you will get eaten by anything else on the prowl that’s bigger than you! You will eventually work out a cool technique for jumping either side of the shark in that split-second it’s not moving (indicated by it turning brown) and “landing” on its tail as it changes direction, although it’s not easy to pull off even when you do! Whatever your success rate with that, sooner or later you’ll be out of lives and see game over, which will greet you with a lovely little primitive chiptune ditty that has a suitably sea-shanty kind of vibe. And then you’ll start again because this thing is so much fun and addictive as hell! Okay, it’s not much to look at today, although I would argue that shark music is no less terrifying now than it was forty years ago! Fortunately for us though, games didn’t rely on looks back then because they couldn’t, so this one is all about the thoughtful all-action gameplay, which is timeless! The controls are responsive and your little fish perfectly agile, meaning there’ll never be a time when dying wasn’t your fault – forgetting you can’t eat a lobster when it’s jumping up or getting greedy with the shark biting, for example. There’s a frequent real sense of panic throughout too, knowing that one false move is going to undo all that hard work bigging-up your fish and having to start a new life with a new small one again, but get several jellyfish on the go at once later on and then you know panic!

There have been short-lived reimaginings on PlayStation 3 via PlayStation Home, and on mobile, and promises of more to come, but the original Shark! Shark! is a game from another time, and for me it was the most beautiful time. Even so, when I first discovered this over twenty years after the fact it still jumped out at me, like a lobster on a tropical seabed full of over sixty “classic” Intellivision titles! And fast-forward another twenty years and there it still is again, the big fish in a much smaller but equally enjoyable pond. Graphics and sound might age but gameplay as good as this will never get old! And you know what? I might not be Intellivision’s biggest fan in any of its forms, but I can’t wait to cover the next one, whatever it might turn out to be!