The Fairchild Channel F was released in 1976 by Fairchild Semiconductor in August and was sold at the retail price of $169.95. This was the first video game console on the market to boast programmable ROM based cartridge games and the first system to use a microprocessor which would change the industry forever. The system was originally launched under the name the Fairchild Video Entertainment System or VES for short but was renamed following Atari’s release of the VCS during 1977. A year after the console was launched the Fairchild Channel F had successfully sold a quarter of a million units taking second place only to the Atari VCS.
The console used a Fairchild F8 CPU for its processor and the electronics used in the system were designed by Jerry Lawson. Lawson worked with several others on the project including Ron Smith who was lead in the mechanical engineering of the development of video game cartridges as well as the eight degrees of freedom hand controllers, and Nick Talesfore who was in charge of the Industrial Design of hand controllers and video game cartridges from his position as manager of Industrial Design. Each of these men worked for Fairchild Semiconductor’s division Fairchild Camera and Instrument led by Wilf Corigan. Another member of the team who worked on the F8 processor that eventually left the company to start Intel was Robert Noyce. The F8 was a very advanced processor in its day and boasted a higher number of inputs and outputs than most of its competitors.
Compared to the beautiful graphics we take for granted today the F8 was fairly simple using only a single plane of graphics and one of four background colors in each line, three plot colors which were either red, green, or blue that turned into white if the background was set to black. The system produced a resolution of 128 x 64 and had about 102 x 58 visible pixels using 64 bytes of available system RAM. The F8 processor was also the first processor used that was capable of creating adequate AI to allow a player to play against the computer and not just other players. Another unique characteristic of Fairchild Channel F was that the system included a “hold” button allowing players to pause the game and modify the speed or time of a match. In the early models of the console audio was projected using an internal speaker rather than through the television although this would be modified in later releases.
The console controllers included a joystick which had no base with a main body consisting of a large hand grip with a triangular cap on the top. The top was the component of the controller which was capable of eight different directional controls. This component could be used as a joystick as well as a paddle through twisting it, and pushed down to “fire” as well as pulled up. The first model of the console included a compartment for storing the controller when moving it. The second model of the system boasted two detachable controllers as well as holders on the back to wind up the cords for storage. Later on Zircon released a special model of the controller which offered a new “action” button on the front of the joystick. Zircon also released an Atari compatible controller which did not make full use of the Fairchild’s additional controls.
The Fairchild games were referred to as “videocarts” and there were 27 of them released with the first 21 being released by Fairchild and the last 6 by Zircon. Not all the cartridges contained only one game and the videocarts were sold to the public for the price of $19.95. The videocarts were yellow in color and similar in size and texture to 8 track cartridges. The labels were made to contain brightly colored artwork and the early labels were created by Tom Kamifuji under Nick Talesfore’s direction. When released the console came with two games already built in which were both Pong clone games. In the Hockey game it was possible to modify the reflecting bar into diagonals by simply twisting the controller, and it was also capable of moving across the field. The included Tennis game however was much like the original Pong. During 1978 there was an available accessory called the “Keyboard Videocart” for use with the games K-1 Casino Poker, K-2 Space Odyssey, and K-3 Pro Football although after Zircon took over this accessory was never heard of again. Another game which disappeared after Zircon took over was advertised a single time in 1979 called Videocart-51 and title Demo 1 and was released only shortly before Zircon took control.
Market Impact of Fairchild Channel F:
This system provided the first real competition for Atari and pushed Atari into developing and releasing a newer system which began production under the codename “Stella.” The new technology of a cartridge based system also pushed Atari to release their cartridge system before the market was filled with other consoles from lesser known competitors. Also due to the decrease in revenue from Pong based systems Atari was forced to sell Warner Communications in order to gain the necessary funding to produce their Atari VCS which radically improved upon their previous graphics and sound capabilities.
Channel F System II:
During 1979 Zircon International purchased the rights for the Fairchild Channel F and released a redesigned model two in order to compete with Atari’s VCS. The Fairchild Channel F System 2 was completed by Nick Talesfore was completed at Fairchild but the system only released six new games before the death of the system. Several of the six new games were developed by Fairchild prior to the sale of the the rights to Zircon. There were several changes made to the console including controllers that were detachable from the console itself, the controller storage compartment was moved to the back of the machine to wind up the cords, and the sound was incorporated through the television rather than the previous internal speaker system. The console case also got a redesign in order to look more sleek and attractive however at this time the video game market was in the middle of its big crash and Fairchild eventually gave up on the project all together.
Like many other consoles that were discontinued the Fairchild Channel F lives on through Homebrew which still releases games including Pacman which was developed, released and distributed during 2009.
-Built in games (Hockey, Tennis)
-Videocart-1 (Tic Tac Toe, Shooting Gallery, Doodle, Quadroodle)
-Videocart-2 (Desert Fox, Shooting Gallery)
-Videocart-3 (Video Blackjack)
-Videocart-6 (Math Quiz: Addition and Subtraction)
-Videocart-7 (Math Quiz: Multiplication and Division)
-Videocart-8 (Mind Reader, Nim/Magic Numbers)
-Videocart-9 (Drag Strip)
-Videocart-10 (Maze, Cat and Mouse)
-Videocart-11 (Backgammon, Acey-Duecey)
-Videocart-13 (Robot War, Torpedo Alley)
-Videocart-14 (Sonar Search)
-Videocart-15 (Memory Match)
-Videocart-17 (Pinball Challenge)
-Videocart-20 (Video Whizball)
-Videocart-22 (Slot Machine)
-Videocart-23 (Galactic Space Wars)
-Videocart-24 (Pro Football)
-Videocart-25 (Casino Poker)
-Videocart-26 (Alien Invasion)
-Videocart-27 (Pacman: Homebrew)
-Keyboard Videocart-1 (Casino Poker)
-Keyboard Videocart-2 (Space Odyssey)
-Keyboard Videocart-3 (Pro Football)
Other Official Carts:
- The origins of Home Game Console wars, by John Hancock (losthammer.wordpress.com)
- The Top 7… Innovative game consoles that didn’t deserve to fail (gamesradar.com)
- The Evolution of Gaming Consoles [infographic] (debugdesign.com)
- DIY Homebrew Video Game Cartridges (makezine.com)
- Repair / fix retro video game cartridges that no longer work (instructables.com)
- N64 and Retro Consoles: Blowing Solves Everything (holynimbusgaming.wordpress.com)
- After 30 Years, Donkey Kong Gets A Proper Port To The Atari 2600 (kotaku.com.au)
- Clean Your Old Game Cartridges The Right Way, No Blowing Required (lifehacker.com.au)
- The Evolution of Consoles (wysley.wordpress.com)