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Development of the console began in 1978, less than a year after the introduction of its main competitor, the Atari 2600. The word intellivision is a portmanteau of 'intelligent television'.
The Intellivision can be considered the first 16-bit game console, as it has a 16-bit microprocessor.
The Intellivision was also the first system to feature downloadable games. However, since there was no storage device the games vanished once the machine was turned off. In 1981, General Instrument teamed up with Mattel to roll out the PlayCable, a device that allowed the downloading of Intellivision games via cable TV.
Intellivision was the first game console to provide real-time human and robot voices in the middle of gameplay, courtesy of the IntelliVoice module. The voice chip used, the SPO256 Orator, was developed jointly by Mattel and General Instrument.
Intellivision was the first console to feature a controller with a directional pad that allowed 16 directions. The disc-shaped pad allowed players to control action without lifting the thumb and was considered by many Intellivision users to be a useful innovation.
The Intellivision was also the first game console or home computer to offer a musical synthesizer keyboard. The music synthesizer keyboard was designed as a secondary add-on for the ECS, and was intended to lead to a series of music-oriented software titles for both educational and entertainment purposes, but only one title, Melody Blaster, was ever released.
Intellivision was also the first console to have a complete built-in character font. While Odyssey² had a limited character font (uppercase alphabet, numerals, and some other characters), Intellivision's system font had complete upper- and lowercase alphabets, numerals, and almost all of the punctuation and symbols found on standard computer keyboards.
Over 3 million Intellivision units were sold and a total of 125 games were released for the console.