[RetroConsole] The F Factor: Fairchild Channel F


Fairchild Channel F Logo

It was the hot August of 1976…

Actually I don’t know if the August of 1976 was hot or cold, but this is a romanticized way to start this post dedicated to the console that started the second era in 1976, the Fairchild Channel F.

Before the name Channel F the Fairchild console was known as VES (acronym of Video Entertrainment System) but when Atari put on sale its VCS, lately better known as Atari 2600, VES became Channel F. Talking about VES, the first thing that comes to mind (at least in my mind) is NES, but Nintendo released it in 1983 so it has nothing to share with VES/Channel F.

The story in a nutshell

Fairchild Semiconductor was a company with a leading role in the production of integrated circuits and especially semiconductors which they improved inventing one of the first among the silicon based ones that made obsolete all the others on the market.

In 1975 they produced F8 8-bit microprocessor, developed by Robert Noyce and this was the core of the console released the year after, exploiting also the Alpex Computer Corporation patented invention, a technology that enabled the storage and play of games on ROM chips placed within plastic cartridges.

F8 + cartridges and finally in 1976 the Channel F, pardon, the VES was born.

Despite Channel F was the direct competitor of Atari 2600, the Fairchild console eventually forced Atari to release quickly her famous console which became, along with the Intellivision and the Magnavox Odyssey² one of the most important of the years across 70s and 80s and finally outclassed the Fairchild product.

In retrospect a move that turned against themselves

The head-to-head between Fairchild and Atari was the leitmotiv of the console world in 1976-1977 and led to the crisis of Fairchild itself; they tried to restyle the product, releasing in 1979 Channel F System II but this was only an eyewash: the heart of the console was still the same and only cosmetic improvement were made just to make it more appealing. This move proved to be late and was almost a disaster, even because the System II was released on the brink of 1983 video games crash: for this resion in the early 80s the production of the console was stopped.

Being close to bankrupcy, Fairchild F was sold to Schlumberger Ltd. that wasn’t interested in the video games and console market so the division was sold to Zircon which actually published the last 6 games for the console and released the System II licensing it to other companies in the world, such as Luxor Video Entertainment System in Sweden, Adman Grandstand in the UK, Saba Videoplay, Nordmende Teleplay and ITT Tele-Match Processor in Germany, Dumont Videoplay and Barco Challenger in Italy and Belgium.

Fairchild Channel F 2

And now, for all you nostalgic, a video commercial about Channel F, highly focused on the best frature of the console: the switchable ROM cartridges. You can jump from game to another for the exceptional price of 169.95$!

The heart

The core of the Channel F is the microprocessor F8, whic was very complex in 1976, whit a lot on I/O, more than any other integreted circuit. Being so complicated, the F8 was fabricated as a pair of chips that together formed the CPU. F8 was a success at its time and inspired the famous first Intel Chip, the 8084.

 

Fairchild F8

The brain

Channel F has been an important milestone in console history basically for three reasons: it has been the first ROM cartridge based console, the first to use a microprocessor and (last but not the least), Channel F was a the first one to generate enough AI to allow a human player to compete agains the computer. This was a huge step since before the AI was poor and were allowed only matches humas versus human.

Another important feature, that seems stupid nowadays but for the time was a great improvement, is the possibility to freeze the game: Fairchild invented the “pause” button. And once the game was frozen there was the possibility to set the speed using one of the 4 buttons on the console.

Regarding the sound, Channel F had an internal speaker, abandoned in System II in favor of the TV audio.

The hands

For sure Channel F had one of the most peculiar joysticks ever build (it’s not awful as the Atari Jaguar one but it’s quite strange).

Fairchild Channel F Joystick

It’s like a joystick without base: the player handles it as a normal joystick and with the other hand, instead of pressing buttons, moves the triangular cap that allows a 8-way directional control. It can be figured out like a common joystick used in reverse: you hold the shaft and move the base. Obviously the cap can be also pushed to “fire”.

In 1982 Zircon release a new joystick with a fire button, called Jet-Stick, compatible also with Atari VCS, Atari 400, Atari 800, Commodore PET and Commodore VIC-20.

Fairchild Channel F Jet-Stick

The eyes

Channel F graphics were quite poor, even for 1976. The resolution was more or less 128×64 with only 102×58 visible pixels and the colors palette was very simple: only three plot colors could be chosen among red, green, and blue and they turned into white when the background was set to black.

The games

Fairchild Channel F 4

During his life, has been released 27 games for the console. Or better 27 Videocarts, each one sometimes with more than one game and usually sold at 19.95$. Two games were already integrated in the console, Hockey and Tennis.

I would like to thank one of my favourite bloggers and followers from I Play All the Games who’s doing an incredible and huge job, classifying and reviewing all the games ever released. Almost all the Videocarts shown below has been analysed in his blog and you can find them at this link. The Videocarts are:

  • Videocart-1: Tic Tac Toe, Shooting Gallery, Doodle, Quadradoodle
  • Videocart-2: Desert Fox, Shooting Gallery
  • Videocart-3: Video Blackjack
  • Videocart-4: Spitfire
  • Videocart-5: Space War
  • Videocart-6: Math Quiz (Addition & Subtraction)
  • Videocart-7: Math Quiz (Multiplication & Division)
  • Videocart-8: Mind Reader, Nim (aka ‘Magic Numbers’)
  • Videocart-9: Drag Strip
  • Videocart-10: Maze, Cat and Mouse
  • Videocart-11: Backgammon, Acey-Duecy
  • Videocart-12: Baseball
  • Videocart-13: Torpedo Alley, Robot War
  • Videocart-14: Sonar Search
  • Videocart-15: Memory Match
  • Videocart-16: Dodge’It
  • Videocart-17: Pinball Challenge
  • Videocart-18: Hangman
  • Videocart-19: Checkers
  • Videocart-20: Video Whizball
  • Videocart-21: Bowling
  • Videocart-22: Slot Machine
  • Videocart-23: Galactic Space Wars
  • Videocart-24: Pro-Football
  • Videocart-25: Casino Royale
  • Videocart-26: Alien Invasion

The first 21 Videocarts were published by Fairchild, while the last 6 were released by Zircon for the System II.

In 1978 were publicized three Keyboard Videocarts, K-1 Casino Poker, K-2 Space Odyssey, and K-3 Pro-Football, never released even because…no keyboard was ever made for Channel F!

Most of the games had poor graphics and were realised following the PONG model. Even if some of them were high rated, as Alien Invasion and Video Whizball, the rest were considered from “below average” in comparson of the hundreds of games released (for exaple) for the VCS, to “disaster” as for the game Space War.

The legacy

As I said, Channel F had a “child” or better a younger brother, the System II, which was more or less the same thing; the two versions sold together roughly 250000 units in the late 70’s-early 80’s before being obscured from Atari VCS. However there was someone impressed by this revolutionary console and kept developing games for it. They were just some aficionados but skilled enough to produce homebrew videogames and their efforts led to the issue of other videocarts. For example in 2009 (yes, more than 30 years later!) it was published a revised version of PacMan.

One last thing: if some of you have a Channel F to sell or if you know some place where I can get a good one, please, LET ME KNOW!!!

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8 Comments Add yours

  1. Mr. Panda says:

    Again, I am amazed by your knowledge and ability to talk about retro systems. I’ve heard of the Fairchild Channel F, but knew nothing about it. Great job chronicling history with this one!

    By the way, this is off-topic, but have you seen any of my old comments in your spam filter by any chance?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. benez256 says:

      Thanks a lot for the wonderful words Mr. Panda! Actually it was a bit more difficult than I expected writing this bui it was a great challenge! At the moment I have limited internet access but as soon as I can I will check the spam filter. It happened once that I had the filter full of non-spam comments. I still wonder why…

      Liked by 1 person

    2. benez256 says:

      Finally I checked my spam filter and for some unknown reason there were some of your comments! Thanks for noticing, I just marked them as “no spam” so you should be able to see them. Sorry about it evrry comment is appreciated here! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Mr. Panda says:

        No problem. There was a problem on Akismet’s end, but I talked to them and got it resolved. Thanks for checking and digging up my old comments from the void though!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. AKKROID says:

    Really nice work on this article, I was always fascinated by the development of the home video game console and this was a great refresher on a truly pioneering machine that seems now to be something of an unsung hero. When looking at the photo of the Channel F the right-side indentation where the cart slot is reminded me of the PC Engine, maybe some inspiration there

    Liked by 1 person

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