The Master Component was a large, flat rectangular box that featured brown-and-gold detailing. The two controllers were permanently attached to the system. They consisted of thumb-operated control discs with 16 possible movement directions, which was twice the number of a typical joystick.
The controllers also had 12 button keypads with two action buttons on each side. The top two action buttons were wired together, so in actuality only three unique functions could be performed by the four action buttons.
Finally, the control disc and action buttons could not be used simultaneously with the keypad buttons; internally, they registered as the same inputs.
"The Intellivision Master Component will bring you many years of fun and excitement if you follow a few simple rules to keep it in good condition." (from the Intellivision Owner's manual)
Because of these quirks, Intellivision controllers were notoriously difficult to use. Although the multifunction controllers worked well for games requiring complex input, such as the genre-defining Major League Baseball (1980), they proved sluggish for games that required precise directional movement or timely button presses, such as the Nintendo arcade port, Popeye (Parker Brothers, 1983).
The heart of the Intellivision was a 16-bit microprocessor from General Instruments -- quite a step up from most other video game and computer systems at the time, which would continue to rely on 8-bit microprocessors for years. The Intellivision's sound chip was also impressive, allowing output of three distinct sound channels.
The machine also boasted a 16-color palette, but could only display eight simultaneous moving objects onscreen. Fortunately, clever programming could minimize this limitation on moving objects.
At first, Mattel farmed out game programming duties to a company named APh Technological Consulting. In 1980, an in-house development team was formed, which came to be known as The Blue Sky Rangers.
Some of the platform's famous controller keypad overlays were quite useful, like those for Truckin', Space Battle, and Las Vegas Poker & Blackjack, shown in the top row, while others, like Burgertime, Bump 'n' Jump, and Lock 'n' Chase, shown in the bottom row, were more for cosmetics than to serve a particular need.
Mattel advertised aggressively in popular magazines, and, like Atari, used television commercials as an important part of its marketing plan. For most of the Intellivision's original run up to 1983, Mattel employed writer George Plimpton, who became known as "Mr. Intellivision."
Plimpton's infamous advertisements helped promote the system and highlighted its technological advantages over Atari's Video Computer System (VCS, aka 2600). The advertisements often featured an Intellivision game -- usually a sports title that took full advantage of the system's capabilities -- right next to a woefully simplistic-looking game on the VCS.