The console that changed home video games as we know them, the Fairchild Video Entertainment System (VES), latter known as the Fairchild Channel F, revolutionized the video game industry. Its many revolutionary design properties marked numerous firsts in the video game industry.
By 1976, the Pong and Shooting Gallery games dominating the video game market were becoming over-saturated with clones and cheap knock-off consoles. At this point, Fairchild entered the market with a new machine that attempted to differentiate itself by doing numerous new and exciting things.
The Fairchild VES was designed by Gerald Jerry Lawson and developed by Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corporation through its well known subsidiary Fairchild Semiconductor, a well known semiconductor company that continues to exist to this day. With the home video game market growing in leaps and bounds with the introduction of Pong, Fairchild was one of many electronic companies that wanted a piece of the market. Using one of their in house microprocessors, Fairchild Semiconductor set out to differentiate their console from the competition from the inside out, and in many ways they succeeded.
The VES's overall look and design of the console was a fusion of new and established ideas. The console only resembled its competition from a superficial perspective. Any person who examined the console from the inside would see that that was not the case.
Firstly, the console featured detachable controllers which was a new concept when the console was first introduced. The controller had a grip on it to allow players to more easily play their games and it had only a few buttons to allow for games to be easily accessible. The controllers were connected to the console through dedicated 8-foot wires preventing users from losing their controllers.
However, the most important aspect of the Channel F's design lay in the way users started/booted up their game. Fairchild's new console featured plug-in cartridges that contained ROM chips. This cartridge based system was vastly different from the plug-in games for Magnavox’s Odyssey or Atari’s Pong game system. This allowed Fairchild to be able to market their console as the home console with the most choices and longest shelf life. At the time of the consoles release the design differences worked and the console began outselling much of its competition. When first introduced, the Fairchild VES also retailed for $169.95; cartridges sold for $19.95 each.
Atari Takes Notice
With all of this Atari had finally decided to release their own cartridge based home console called the “Atari Video Computer System,” (Atari retitled the console to the more well known name of Atari 2600). Despite changing the name of the console from the Fairchild VES to Fairchild Channel F to differentiate the console from Atari’s, the added competition had done its damage. With the release of the Atari VCS, the Channel F was beginning to look outdated when compared to Atari’s console. Fairchild attempt to counteract this by introducing newer models of the console however this was met with mixed success.
However by starting this “console war”, Atari and Fairchild Semiconductors' war would have dire consequences for both of the companies. The release of Fairchild's system the year before and, and the subsequent release of Atari's system had set into motion what would become known as the "First Video game Crash." By making dedicated consoles all but obsolete, dedicated consoles were being sold well below their market value which in turn de-valued the video game market. With an overabundance of cheap video game consoles to choose from and the new hand held electronic gaming market (e.g. Simon, Mattel Football, ect.) emerging, Fairchild would go back to the semiconductor business and discontinued the Channel F by 1978 due to declining profits.
A Second Chance to Succeed
Having lasted only a year and 4 months, from 1976-1977, one would have thought the Channel F's story would end there. However, by 1979, a company by the name of Zircon made a curious move; they bought all the rights to the Channel F and games released for the console. Later they re-released Fairchild F, but this time in the shape of a scaled-down model that was priced at $99. This system was dubbed the Channel F System II, and it lasted from 1981-1984. In fact some gamers who claim to have owned a Fairchild Channel F often don't realize that there were two different versions. Zircon would not only license their version of the Fairchild F in the United States, but would instead licensed the console all throughout Europe and Great Britain. In Germany it was dubbed the Saba Video Play, the Luxor Video Entertainment System in Sweden, and the Grandstand in Great Britain. This re-model shared some notable differences from its original counterpart but was ultimately the same console, especially seeing how it was backwards compatible with the System I games, but updated with more advanced technology. The System II model played sounds via the user’s TV set, rather than generating sound through an internal speaker built in the console. The Channel F System II also had removable controllers. This version of the Fairchild F saw various levels of success, but ultimately was discontinued as a result of the “Second Video Game Crash.”
By 1978, Fairchild had released 23 games for the Channel F, with Zircon chipping in four new titles a couple years later. The games vary from single to multi-game cartridges, and the various options for the games are selected by the 4 main buttons on the front of the console. While its library pales in comparison to that of the 2600, it was large and comprehensive to that of the dedicated console market it had intended to attack.
It was the first microprocessor-based home system ever released, and microprocessors have remained the standard for all consoles and home computers released since. Being the first cartridge based console, the Fairchild Channel F would also establish cartridges as the go to format for console manufactures until the advent of the CD-ROM. An equally important thing to note about the release of the Fairchild is the effect it had on Atari. By posing a threat to Atari, the Fairchild Channel F would motivate Atari to innovate and develop one of the most important video game consoles the video game industry would ever witness up until that time, the Atari 2600.
- CPU chip: Fairchild F8 operating at 1.79 MHz (PAL 2.22 MHz)
- RAM: 64 bytes, 2 kB VRAM (2×128×64 bits)
- Resolution: 128 × 64 pixels, 102 × 58 pixels visible
- Colors: eight colors (either black/white or four color max. per line)
- Audio: 500 Hz, 1 kHz, and 1.5 kHz tones (can be modulated quickly to produce different tones)
- Input: two custom game controllers, hardwired to the console
- Output: RF modulated composite video signal, cord hardwired to console