Pure Imagination: Fairchild/Zircon Channel F Cartridges
I think it’s time for us to get back on our standard track, with our regularly scheduled articles right here on RGN! Today, we bring back the Pure Imagination series, which is now scheduled to be published every Wednesday. For this weeks edition, we aren’t going to be taking a look at the box art for a specific video game title, but instead, we’re going to take a look at the box art library as a whole for one specific system. The video game world as we know it would not be where it is today, if it hadn’t been for a very specific video game console from 1976, and the game box art really shows its complete coolness in retro. So this week, let’s examine the grooviness, that was in fact, the Fairchild Channel F.
The Channel F may not be as well-known to some of the retro gamers out there, thanks to it’s incredibly short library, and when compared to other game consoles of the era, its short life span. The Channel F was released by Fairchild Semiconductor in August of 1976. It has a two very important historical firsts, that basically made the industry what it was in the past, as well as the current day. The Channel F was the first video game console that utilized programmable ROM cartridges. Before that, we had for the most part, a bunch of “Pong” style games, which only played a specific set of games, and was not expandable after production. By using cartridges, the system would be able to increase the library of titles, based on the programmers imagination at the time. Another gaming first, this was the first game console to use a microprocessor, which of course is naturally a standard today. The console would have been quite successful, since it had these firsts in the industry, however shortly after the Channel F’s release, Atari game out with a little machine called the VCS (later known as the Atari 2600), and the rest is history. 20 cartridges were released during this run, but in 1979, Zircon International bought the rights to the Channel F and released the freshly designed system called the Channel F System II. It had some changes in design, including detachable controllers, and sound through the TV as opposed to the unit using an internal speaker. Only six new cartridges were released after the release of the updated system before it was discontinued for good, most which were developed at Fairchild before they sold it to Zircon.
You can tell right away from the original box art, that a lot of time was made in the designs of the artwork, including lots of bright colors. Considering that video games as a whole were still quite new, and having interchangeable cartridges was at the time of its release an exclusive, the concept of using eye grabbing colors and pictures was essential to make the sales of the cartridges rise. The earlier artwork was created by Tom Kamifuji, with art direction by Nick Talesfore. The first 17 cartridges that were produced took pride in using a numbering system for the games. (Very much how Atari VCS games are also known by their “CX” number, but with the Channel F, the numbering system is much more dominant in its early years.) For these first seventeen games, a standardized format was used for all of the boxes. On the upper left corner, there is a huge number which indicates what the cartridge number (known as a “Videocart” number) was. They all use bright colors, as well as emulate a three-dimensional look. If you think about it for a moment, go back to when you were a young child watching Sesame Street. (Doesn’t matter which era of the show you watched.) You will probably remember when you were learning to count with the show, that they always used eye-catching and attention grabbing ways of getting you to pay attention. I feel that this is quite similar here. Very retro and groovy, just like the mid-to-late 1970s in itself!
On the upper left of the box art, we always see artists renditions of what the games contained on the cartridge were. No matter how many games were contained on the ROM, each individual game program had its own piece of artwork. The number of these range from a single game (used on Videocarts 5 and 12), all the way to four (used on Videocart 1). Just like on the number itself, these were quite colorful, and used a very simplistic palette throughout the cartridge releases. While they are very effective, and were more than likely easy to develop (unlike the elaborate paintings used for the Atari 2600 cartridges), they certainly do more than get the job done. By todays standards, you may think that they look a lot like chunks of clip-art from days past. But if you can remember how it got the job done back in the day, this is quite a similar situation. Another way of grabbing your attention is that all 17 of the boxes that use this format, also show a rainbow that takes up the bottom right corner. The rays of the rainbow got thicker starting with Videocart 10. Finally, in the lower left of the boxes, we see the names of the games that are featured, as well as the Channel F logo, and the Videocart number in a more standard font.
Starting with Videocart 18, and going through Videocart 24, the box art design was changed dramatically. Instead of the Videocart number being the most dominant on the box art, the name of the actual game took over. By this time, multiple games were not typically seen on a single cartridge, so advertising the actual game instead of the number was essential at this point, especially with the growing competition from the Atari 2600. Now, the game title is shown in large, bold, white letters on the top of the box. Directly to the lower right of the name of the title on the ROM, we see the Videocart number, now in simple, colored text as opposed to the eye-popping 3D look of the games prior. What this layout provided was the rest of the box to actually show what kind of game was shown on the cartridge itself. For example, Videocart 18 shows large letters that spell out “Hangman”, along with a picture of a man hanging. Also, Videocart 21 shows a bowling ball path hitting a set of bowling pins. At the very bottom of the boxes, we see the Channel F logo, a little larger than the previous games, and more clear and centered. Bare in mind that cartridges 18 through 20 were from the original release of the console, and 21 through 24 were released during its “System II” days. Since most of the games that were released during the revival were actually previously completed games, it can be assumed that these boxes were also completed and just recycled during the new consoles availability.
Finally, we come to the final 2 officially licensed games for the system: Videocarts 25 and 26. Here we see that the box artwork again, has changed dramatically, and more than likely was made to look this way for cost effectiveness and just to “get them released” before the system was officially claimed dead. The boxes are now white instead of black, and the entire graphics package is now in a simple, single shade of black. The top of the boxes are similar to what had been done with the previous set, with the title of the game dominate on the top, and the Videocart number below and to the right of that. But instead of the fantastic artwork that had been designed for the boxes in the past, all we get now is a simulated television screen, with a screengrab of the actual game play shown. Not even in color. Now something like this would have been effective for the RCA Studio II video game console (since the console itself was black and white), but on a system that was in color, and when it was competing with the Atari 2600 still, I feel that these 2 boxes were just very much rushed into production with no quality control. At the bottom of the boxes, we don’t even see anything that resembles or indicates that these are games for the Channel F at all, but instead we see a very small and thin “Z”, which was the logo for Zircon. By the time these two games were released, I would think that they would have wanted to exclaim, “Hey! New Channel F cartridges! Right here! Hello?”
There was also a format of boxes that came later on in the lifespan of the console, during the Zircon days. It order to try to make a good investment, Zircon released most of the library of titles in order to make some filler. (This concept would happen again in the mid 1980s, when Atari relaunched the Atari 2600 again to compete with the NES and Sega Master System.) To do this as fast and as cheap as possible, Zircon took the same box style of all white, and applied a sticker on it that resembled the labels that were used on the actual cartridges. This way they could mass produce the boxes and labels and just use what they needed without any extras or leftovers. These particular boxes are very hard to come by these days, and I could kill myself for letting the one white box I had slip through my fingers. Call me crazy, but I found this picture of one of the boxes on the internet, and I know for a fact that this is the one that I used to own, thanks to the Videocart being the same and the Apex price tag.
Another box type that is sort of interesting, comes in the form of the original demonstration cartridges that were used for in-store kiosk use. Most of the time, vendors would not have gone through the trouble to actually create a box of some type for these type of cartridges since they were never going to be sold. However Fairchild did. Not nearly to the extent as the consumer products, but still created nonetheless. It was an all black box with the Channel F logo at the very top, along with the title “Democart” and a piece of clip art featuring a television set showing a screen of gameplay, as well as the two controllers that were part of the system. These cartridges are extremely difficult to find, especially with the box intact, and there was also a second Democart released that is even harder to discover!
So here’s what we’ve got. We have an electronic medium that is still incredibly brand new to the marketplace. Not only is the video game console still quite foreign to most consumers, but having the ability to add new games to the hardware that you bought was still a new concept. So Fairchild Semiconductor really had a lot of hurdles to leap at this part of their history. They had to do everything that they could to make sure that the product would be a somewhat success, and the use of fantastic colors and futuristic 3D numbers was one of the ways they tried to suck you into purchasing their product. Was it effective? If you ask me, the answer is a full-blown yes. The system was released in the middle of 1976, and by 1977, the system had sold over a quarter million units. Of course at that time, the superior Atari VCS had not come into play, and there was very little competition at this point, and the competition that they did have wasn’t up to par. But you have to give Fairchild this: If it wasn’t for the invention of the Channel F (and I tilt my hat to the late Jerry Lawson, the creator of the system), the video game industry very well may not have been as effective as it is today. Granted, Atari claims to have been working on its cartridge based system during the Channel F’s release, but who’s to say that if this console wasn’t created, that Atari would have went through with the concept? If you can get a hold of the system, you will have some fun, simple times. And of course, the funky artwork is a complete bonus indeed!