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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 Aquarius II.
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 stock.

The 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 until 1988.
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 rare.




Many prototypes

As 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.

aqmodem.gif (151754 bytes)





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 logo

Mattel Aquarius - home computer with the shortest career

mattel aquariusThe 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 computers.
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.

aquarius mini expander

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.

Expensive extensions
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 playing games.

aquarius nightstalkerExtra costs
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 games.

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 picture below).

karakterset mattel aquariusBesides 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

Manufacturer Mattel
Period June - October 1983, afterwards by Radofin until 1988 
CPU NEC D780C; sometimes equipped with a real Z80
Frequency 3,5 MHz
RAM 4 KB (in fact only 1,7 KB available)
expandable with cartridges
Text mode 24 lines x 40 columns
Graphical mode 80 x 72 pixels
Colours 16
Sound 1 channel, 2 extra with Mini Expander
I/O TV, cassette, printer, cartridge
Price Approx. 150 dollar
225 guilders according to the sticker on my Aquarius

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History of Home and Game Computers, by Erik Klooster, the Netherlands

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