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March 2014 Retro Gaming Article


March 25, 2014 Retro Gaming Blog Post:

The 1979 APF Imagination Machine wasn't a game console promising computing - it was both

APF Imagination Machine logo In the early days, manufacturers knew that computers could do all sorts of groundbreaking things AND play games. Some of these manufacturers made both game consoles and computers - others looked at their console offerings and wondered how to compete with computers.

As consumers, we didn't know as much about computers as we do today. Understanding memory, processing power, and comparing one device to another was a difficult task. Complicating matters were salesmen. Computer sales were much like today's car sales. Salesmen touted their brand at the expense of the competitor's. Facts were not driving many of the decisions. One thing customers did know was that computers had keyboards!

Everyone knew that game consoles did not have keyboards. Soon, nearly every game console had a "computer plan". COMING SOON! Most computers used televisions for displays, so it was a small leap of faith to attach a keyboard to a game console and - PRESTO - it's a computer! Hmmm.

Mattel Intellivision computer upgrade I can attach a keyboard to my toaster oven and it will make awesome toast. It will not however do any computing, gaming, etc. Programmers used a myriad of tricks to squeeze every ounce of power from early game consoles to get their games to market. The addition of a keyboard usually meant there would be a "learn to type" application or games that allowed more sophisticated options by nature of all the additional input possibilities of a full keyboard. Word-games also became more prolific. But, adding a keyboard did not increase memory or computing power.

Some of these "computer plans" did accomodate memory add-ons and interesting expansion capabilities, but game consoles weren't designed for the roles that computers were dominating. One of the limitations of early game consoles was connectivity to an external device - like a computer upgrade. Most planning accommodated joystick and cartridge inputs. Thus, we saw a lot of 3rd party joysticks on the market, but in terms of computer add-ons, the cart slot was often the only way to connect to the inner electronics.

APF Electronics, Inc. - TV Fun and the Imagination Machine

APF TV Fun - Pong clone In that murky time of consoles vs computers, the Imagination Machine was a combination of both, released by APF Electronics Inc. in 1979. As it's founders, Al and Phil Friedman gave their initials to this consumer electronics company that began with small electronics and shifted into gaming.

APF began a foray into gaming (1976) with a Pong clone called the APF TV Fun. This unit had a speaker and paddle-dials built-in and was able to play 4 games. It was the first unit of this genre to compete with Atari's home Pong offering, using General Instruments' Pong-on-a-chip. This integrated chip gave economic feasibility to competing with Atari - both were sold at Sears.

In 1978 APF released the 8-bit APF-MP1000 game console that had one included game (Rocket Patrol) and a cartridge slot. Unlike the TV fun, it's controllers were removable from the console (wired) and also had a numeric keypad. This was the first component of the upcoming Imagination Machine.

Like the TV Fun's competition with Atari's home Pong, the APF-MP1000 took on Atari's 2600 VCS. In '79 this game console connected with a dock creating the APF Imagination Machine which was a game console/computer hybrid. It provided a full size keyboard and tape drive.

Space Destroyers cart for APF Imagination Machine Oddly, only 15 official game cartridges were ever released by APF. This presumably spans the MP1000 and Imagination Machine. The cassette and floppy drive accessories gave other means for creating and sharing games, but there isn't too much mention of this outside of APF's newsletter.

Game Consoles vs Computers

It's interesting that APF went the route of merging their game console with a "computer" docking unit to later be released as a single unit - which was cancelled due to bankruptcy in '83. Atari seemed to want a delineation between game console and computer. The 5200 was essentially a scaled back 800 computer, but was released about 3 years later.

I've often wondered if Atari saw two distinct markets that wanted similar things, but wouldn't buy a single replacement. Perhaps they felt gamers didn't want the expense of a computer. Those who wanted a computer would reap the benefits of it's gaming power. It may have been a tool vs toy mentality.
APF Imagination Machine
The following game titles were released by APF: Artist and Easel, Backgammon, Baseball, Blackjack, Bowling / Micro Match, Boxing, Brickdown / Shooting Gallery, Budget Manager, Casino, Catena, Hangman / Tic-Tac-Toe / Doodle, Pinball / Dungeon Hunt / Blockout, Rocket Patrol, Space Destroyers, UFO / Sea Monster / Break it down / Rebuild / Shoot.

APF Imagination Machine II was more powerful all-in-one unit offering a similar gaming/computing hybrid. Coinciding with the gaming crash of '83, this followup to the Imagination Machine was canceled.

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