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 innovative design properties marked numerous firsts in the video game industry.
By 1976, the single chip 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 engineered by Gerald Jerry Lawson at Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corporation. Lawson adapted a video game prototype based on the Intel 8080 CPU from a company called Alpex to instead use Fairchild's own F8 microprocessor system. Then further developed at its well known subsidiary Fairchild Semiconductor - to this day a well known semiconductor company. 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 (made by the industrial designer Nicholas Talesfore) 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.
The controller is a ribbed grip with a triangular control knob on top that allows flexibility when gaming, not having to crouch over a box on a table, thereby more easily play their games. The console had only a few buttons to allow for accessible and easy set up and usage. The controllers were connected to the console through dedicated 8-foot wires preventing users from losing them. It also has a compartment with a protective lid to store the controllers when not in use.
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, intentionally, 8-Track sized plug-in cartridges called Videocarts, which were also designed by Talesfore. The Videocarts contained Fairchild's own type of enhanced ROM chips, Program Storage Units. This made them vastly different from the plug-in games for Magnavox’s Odyssey or Atari’s Pong game system and allowed Fairchild to be able to market their console as the programmable home console with the most choices and longest shelf life at the time. At release, the console's innovative design differences were successful and the console began outselling much of its competition. When first introduced, the Fairchild VES 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” or "Atari VCS" (Atari later retitled the console to the more well known name Atari 2600). Despite changing the console name from "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 Fairchild VES was beginning to look outdated when compared to Atari’s console. Fairchild attempted to counteract this by introducing new 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 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 the dedicated consoles obsolete, these were being sold well below their market value which in turn de-valued the entire 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, etc.) 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's "Channel F System II" aka "Channel F II" which was only briefly sold by Fairchild. It was in the shape of a scaled-down, cost reduced, slightly improved model priced at $99. It was marketed from about 1981-1984. In fact some gamers who claim to have owned a Fairchild Channel F often don't realize that there were two different looking versions. Just as Fairchild, Zircon would also license their console all throughout Europe. In Germany it was dubbed the SABA VideoPlay (pre 1978) and SABA VideoPlay 2, the Luxor Video Entertainment System (1977) and Luxor Video Entartainment Computer in Sweden, Adman Grandstand Video Entertainment Computer in Great Britain and a then few more, also in Japan.
In Sweden the original VES model case was initially used. Later on, and also for most of the other brands, the cases were redesigned. Most also had custom cartridge labels, boxes and localized instructions. Great Britain's Adman Grandstand VEC was the only one using the Channel F II casing.
The Channel F II 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 a built-in speaker. The Channel F II also had removable controllers using the same connector as the Atari - but not compatible. The Channel F II saw various levels of success, but ultimately was discontinued as a result of the “Second Video Game Crash”.
By 1978, Fairchild had released 20 different Videocarts for the Channel F, with Zircon chipping in six new titles during the following years. The games vary from single to multi-game cartridges and the various options for the games are most often selected by the 4 main buttons on the front of the console. While its library pales in comparison to that of the Atari 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: Fairchild F8 processor system, operating at 1.79 MHz (PAL v1: 2.00 MHz, v2: 1.77 MHz)
- RAM: Only 64 Bytes, 2 KiB single direction VRAM (2×128×64 bits)
- Resolution: 128×64 pixels, close to 102×58 visible depending on TV
- Colors: 4 foreground, 4 background, pixels turn white if black is used, background color is set per line.
- Audio: 500 Hz, 1 kHz, and 1.5 kHz tones (can be modulated to produce different tones)
- Input: two custom game controllers, hardwired to the console, detachable for Channel F II
- Output: RF modulated composite video signal, cord hardwired to console, detachable for Channel F II
- Power: 10VAC and 15VAC, PSU hardwired to console