Atari gets a lot of credit for pioneering the ROM cartridge based home video gaming system craze and for good reason. They were the company that bought the rights to port popular arcade games and bring them into families living rooms. All anyone really wanted back then was a means to play their arcade favorites at home and Atari gave that to them. The thing is, they weren’t the first console to include the option to insert programmable cartridges into the machine in order to provide new video gaming experiences, they were simply the most successful.
Fairchild Semiconductor was the bold company that can lay claim to the title of creating the very first ROM cartridge based home video gaming system. Released in late summer/early fall of 1976, it predates the release of the RCA Studio II, the Coleco Telstar Arcade and the Atari VCS, all released in 1977. Granted, it sold only a tiny fraction of what the VCS/2600 sold (a mere 250,000 or so units vs 30 million plus for Atari) before it’s discontinuation in 1983 but I’m guessing the vast majority of those quarter of a million units sold were prior to the dawn of the 1980s.
The original name of the Fairchild Semiconductor company’s one and only console was the Video Entertainment System, or VES, for short. The use of the VES name was relatively short lived, however, as Fairchild chose to rebrand the console as the “Channel F” after Atari released their Video Computer System (VCS) the following year since the names were too similar for Fairchild’s comfort. Channel F is what the system is most commonly referred to today in a similar manner to how the Atari VCS is most commonly referred to as the 2600 today. The VES/Channel F system came pre-programmed with hockey and tennis which could be played simply by connecting the console to a television’s VHF terminal posts using the Fairchild branded adapter that came with the system, plugging the hardwired AC adapter into a nearby outlet, turning the TV to channel 3 and powering it up using the on/off switch in the back of the console. One thing to note is the first edition of the Fairchild VES/Channel F, not only had a hardwired power supply but two hardwired controllers and an internal speaker for sound. This meant that you had to turn the volume on your television all the way down (to avoid listening to static) and the in-game sounds would come from the console itself.
The second edition of the Channel F was released sometime after the rights to the console were bought by Zircon International in 1979. Dubbed the “Channel F System II”, this version now had detachable controllers and sound that was outputted through the TV signal instead of only the console. By the time the System II was released, Atari, Intellivision and to a lesser extent, the Odyssey² had become behemoths of home video gaming and there wasn’t any more room for what appeared to be a weaker 4th console to compete.
The controllers for the Channel F are some of the most innovative and unique controllers I have ever had the pleasure of using. They essentially look like a larger (in length and diameter) joystick without a base. On top of the joystick is a triangular knob or cap that can be moved in eight directions while also serving as both a joystick and a paddle, by twisting the knob. You can also plunge the knob down into the joystick and pull it back up for additional movement options or utilized as a “fire” button, depending on the game. The idea for right handed players is that they hold the controller in their left hand in an upright position and use their right hand to manipulate the knob/cap. The downside is that the knob/cap can come apart at inopportune moments during intense gaming sessions due to it having so many moving parts inside along with non-continuously molded plastic pieces that make up the knob. The controllers can be stored inside the unit, under a lid, in the system 1 versions while they can be stored at the back of the system 2 versions. Overall, I find the Channel F controllers to be outstanding.
There were ultimately 26 numbered cartridges released for the Channel F, all developed by Fairchild, even though some were published by Zircon after the acquisition. Channel F cartridges are notable for their bright yellow color and size/shape similar to 8-track tapes. The games were labeled as a “Videocart” along with a number indicating their order of release. The number was largely printed on the cart labels along with primitive drawings that attempt to indicate what the game’s theme was. Most carts had more than one game included on them, which could be chosen using one of the four numbered buttons on the console itself. These same buttons would be used for selecting other in game options as well as finally starting the game once all settings were in order.
The version of the Channel F I have pre-dates the Channel F designation entirely. There were, as far as I know, 3 different console boxes sold in the United States. The first iteration was system 1 branded as the Video Entertainment System. This is the version I own. The second iteration is still system 1 but branded now as the Channel F. This seems to be the most common version from what I can tell.
As for the box that I own? It’s one of the most bizarre console boxes I’ve come across. It includes multiple pictures of people (and a bulldog) of all ages, races (mostly just white though) and sexes offering a variety of facial expressions from pure joy, to confusion, to anger, to astonishment, but mostly silliness. What is this trying to convey about the VES/Channel F? I’m not quite certain. It was the 1970s after all and we all know how weird that decade was.