Aquarius was the
invention of Radofin
For the manufacturing of the Aquarius, Mattel closed a deal with
Radofin Electronics Far East in Hong Kong, a company that also
manufactured for the Intellivision-line. Mattel decided to close the deal after it heard Radofin had three models of home computers almost
ready for production. Mattel chose two of them, with the code names
Checkers and Chess. After some adjustments like the extension of the
character set, Checkers and Chess would be launched as Aquarius and
When Mattel decided already a few months later to stop with the Aquarius
nightmare, it almost begged Radofin to take the whole project back. Mattel
paid to be written out of the contract; Radofin got all the rights and the whole
company in Hong Kong still trusted in the success of its computers.
Radofin announced the launch of the Aquarius II in March 1984 and promised
an Aquarius III for July 1984. Radofin kept manufacturing the Aquarius I
And yes, the Aquarius II did appear (it was e.g. equipped with a better
keyboard), but sporadic, so it is now considered by collectors as very
a consequence of the bizarre history of the Aquarius computers, many
extensions which were announced hardly appeared on the shelves or never
became more than a prototype. An example is the Master Expansion Module.
According to employees, only the cases of the module were ever
manufactured. The Master Expansion Module should have contained two floppy
drives and should facilitate the use of CP/M.
Other examples of Aquarius extensions
hardly or not available are a modem (also in the shape of a cartridge, see
the picture from my Aquarius catalogue) and a four-colour-printer.
Welcome to the nostalgic
history of home and game computers
Mattel Aquarius - home computer with the
success of home computers in the early eighties made manufacturers eager. Mattel,
famous because of its Barbie dolls, also wanted to profit from the boom in home computer business. But Mattel didn't profit at all: the company in 1983 became
responsible for one of the biggest failures in de history of home
It wasn't strange that Mattel decided to develop home computers too. The
division Mattel Electronics had achieved much success with the game console
Intellivision. A special keyboard was developed, with which the Intellivision
could be metamorphosed into a (sort of) home computer. But now Mattel
Electronics wanted to develop a computer that could stand on its own.
Less then 20,000 Aquarius computers sold
It became the Mattel Aquarius, with its characteristic blue
rubber keys and water resistant appearance - Mattel didn't belie its toy-nature.
The Aquarius should compete in the market segments then controlled
by the Texas Instruments TI 99/4A, the ZX-81 and ZX Spectrum, the Oric and the
VIC-20. But instead of that, it turned out into a terrible failure: Mattel began
manufacturing the Aquarius in June 1983 and already stopped with it in October
1983! Estimations are that worldwide less then 20,000 Aquarius computers were sold, while Mattel had expected to sell 100,000. Of course, this makes the
Aquarius very interesting for today's collectors.
Causes of failure
The main cause for the failure of the Mattel Aquarius is most probably
that it halted between two opinions. The developers had hoped to make a
combination between a game console and a home computer, but in both
respects it performed terribly. Hold your breath: which follows is a long
list of mistakes.
Indeed, the Aquarius had 4K of RAM at its disposal, but in fact the consumer
could only use 1,7 K. Needless to say that this amount of RAM was fairly
useless. In this way, working with the word processor Fileform which Mattel sold
on a cartridge, was almost impossible. Unless the user was prepared to store
paragraphs again and again on tape or print them on paper.
In an attempt to compensate this, Mattel Electronics sold various comparatively
expensive extension options. Examples are the 4K and 16 K RAM memory expansions;
cartridges which could be plugged into the Aquarius. Besides that, there was the
so-called Mini Expander that could be attached to the computer. With the Mini
Expander - almost taller then the tender Aquarius itself - you could use two
cartridges at the same time (e.g. RAM-extension and a game). It gave the
Aquarius also two extra sound channels and two Intellivision-like controllers for
As a consequence the consumer who thought to
have bought a relatively cheap home computer and game console, was
confronted afterwards with many extra costs. And paid much more than his
neighbour who had bought a ZX Spectrum. Employees of Mattel Electronics
later confessed that this was part of the selling strategy: selling the
Aquarius itself with losses, and make profit on the extension options and
Basic without FOR and NEXT
To avoid misunderstandings: especially because of its design,
the Aquarius is one of the most popular computers in my collection.
Nevertheless I'm forced to continue the list of complaints...
The Aquarius was equipped with a 'diet-version'
of Microsoft Basic. If you wanted to use such common commands as FOR and
NEXT, you had to buy yet another cartridge: Extended Microsoft Basic. IF
you could get this cartridge: I doubt whether it ever appeared on the
shelves in large numbers. I even read that Microsoft Extended Basic for the
Aquarius never went beyond the prototype status, although I have the
cartridge in my collection.
It also wasn't a pleasure to enter large amounts of text or Basic-lines on
the Aquarius keyboard. You had to hit the rubber keys harder than
those of the ZX Spectrum, without repeat function. Another unique mark of
the Aquarius: the tiny space key.
'System for the seventies'
The Aquarius was not only disappointing as a home computer, but also as a
game console. The graphical possibilities were limited, although there
were several nice games among the cartridges. To help the game programmers
the character set of the Aquarius was extended with some graphical jokes,
such as characters imagining robots or explosions (see the thumbnail
that, the Mini Expander was equipped with the same sound chip (AY-3-8914)
as the Intellivision. But that didn't appeal to the programmers: they
almost considered it as a punishment to develop a game for
the Aquarius. Programmer Bob Del Principe even invented this cynical
slogan: 'Aquarius - system for the seventies!'
Specifications of the Mattel Aquarius
|June - October 1983,
afterwards by Radofin until 1988
|NEC D780C; sometimes equipped
with a real Z80
|4 KB (in fact only 1,7 KB
expandable with cartridges
|24 lines x 40 columns
|80 x 72 pixels
|1 channel, 2 extra with Mini
|TV, cassette, printer,
|Approx. 150 dollar
225 guilders according to the sticker on my Aquarius
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