I was only 1 years old when Fairchild Semiconductor released the Channel F in North America and I hadn’t yet set foot into my Kindergarten classroom for the first time before the system was already dead. Fairchild may have been the first ROM cartridge console but Atari ended up crushing it in terms of sales shortly after the VCS was released. I had already talked about the obvious reasons why Atari won this particular battle (in short, arcade ports!) in my initial Console of the Month post so I wanted to spend take time in this particular post writing about my experience with my Channel F console and the games I own, which is now 16 out of the 26 total official carts released.
Off the bat, my first impression of the Channel F is that I think Fairchild did several cool things with the design of the system itself. Like seemingly everything created in the 1970s, woodgrain was used as an aesthetic choice for the sides along with a black cover/top. This would help the Channel F fit in with the décor of other family electronics of that era whether it be cassette/8-track players/record playing stereos or television sets. The hidden compartment for hiding controllers when not in use was a nice idea and intended to keep the sleek design that I’m sure many parents preferred for their family room. I also like the large, easy to press buttons on the front of the console more so than the switches that Atari introduced with their VCS. Fairchild’s choice to route game sounds through the console itself and not the RF connection means that you must turn the volume of the TV all the way down to play games to avoid a horrible static sound coming from the TV when the console is turned on. Since the console doesn’t have a volume knob, your only option to play the Channel F quietly is to hope that the game you want to play has the option to mute the sound. Not an ideal set up for late night gaming.
When I did some research on the Channel F for this month’s posts, I ran across a number of divisive opinions on the controllers. Some really seem to like the versatility of the controllers, the ergonomic advantages and overall design. Others deride them and consider them a horrible idea which haven’t been replicated by any other console manufacturer for a good reason. Personally, I fall on the side of thinking the controllers are a-ok but only if they are in good, working condition. One of the detriments of the Channel F’s initial design is that the controllers are hard wired into the console. This was corrected with the Channel F II, but the hardwired models seem to be more prevalent. Obviously this makes repairing or replacing damaged or broken controllers quite the difficult task for anyone not adept at electronic repair. Both of the controllers on my Channel F model 1 have cracks around the top knob, which means they can sometimes come apart during gameplay. I will be trying to repair them and fingers crossed that I’m successful or else I may have to invest in a model 2 Channel F.
Unfortunately, the Channel F suffers from a small library of games that never really took advantage of the more advanced gameplay and interesting arcade-like games that were to come out later on the Atari VCS, Odyssey 2 and Intellivision. By comparison to those rival consoles, the Channel F library is quite bland. Imagine if the only games available for the Atari VCS were its launch library and the subsequent titles that were to come out in the next 6 months or so. That’s essentially what the entire Channel F library consists of. If the Channel F could have stayed relevant into the very early 80s, developers certainly could have done more with what the console hardware could muster. As it stands, most of the best and interesting titles were released late in the console’s short life-span with some even seeing 80s release dates from Zircon, the company that bought the rights to the Channel F. This means that finding the final few titles is difficult and can be expensive for purists that desire owning the actual cartridges. Despite the Channel F’s software deficiencies, I do believe its a worthy console to own for anyone interested in the earliest of gaming consoles, vintage 1970s era electronic design, or anyone wanting to own a piece of gaming history that many are completely unaware of.
I added two new carts to my Channel F library this month, including an unopened copy of Videocart-8 (Magic Numbers) and a game/manual only copy of Videocart-21, Bowling. I was fascinated by the fact that there are still unopened copies of Channel F games floating around the internet from 40 years ago. While I had initially bought Magic Numbers to open and play, I’ve decided to keep it sealed due to its age. It even still has the $19.98 sticker on the front, which would be equivalent to $80 today! Adding Bowling to my collection was a wise choice as that quickly became my favorite Channel F title that I own. Bowling is fun and super addictive despite it’s simplicity. You can play an entire 10 frames in just a few minutes!