Controller ports: 2
Number of Games: 26+
Initial Price: $169.95
This obscure console actually beat the Atari 2600 to market, arriving in 1976 under its original moniker the Video Entertainment System (VES). The Fairchild Channel F was the first system to accommodate programmable ROM cartridges. As you might expect, its games tend to have rudimentary graphics and minimal audio. In fact, the original version of the console emanated distorted sound from a built-in speaker. Most cartridges packed multiple games which tend to be playable despite the early technology. The system employs a standardized way of setting general options (like time and speed) via a keypad which is built into the console. A "hold" button even allows players to pause a game in progress. But the best feature of the system is its cylindrical controllers, which are comfortable to grip and surprisingly functional.
The Channel F never mounted a serious challenge to the Atari 2600 due to its limited capabilities and meager library. Still, the system managed to limp along for several years - long enough for a second iteration to be released. The Channel F System II improved upon the original with a sharper video signal, detachable controllers, and sound that played through the television speaker. Both systems are rare, and it took me many years to acquire one in decent working order. While I wouldn't call it a must-have system, the Channel F is surprisingly playable and a nice addition to any classic collection. Note: Two grades reflect both editions of the console.
Console design: C-/C+. The original Channel F has a streamlined design with a smoked plastic lid that hides the controllers when they are stored inside. Longer than it is wide, the system has a black top and fake wood trim. A four-button keypad is found on the front left edge, with a front-loading cartridge slot on the right. The power switch is inexplicably located on the lower rear of the system, and it is hard to reach. The Channel F System II featured a sleeker design, detachable controllers, and ditched the built-in speaker.
Console durability: F. A dearth of working Channel F systems in circulation is a clear indicator that these consoles have not held up well over time.
Controllers: A. The controllers are little more than a grip with a knob on top, but they are highly functional. The knob functions as both an eight-way joystick and a button. In addition, the knob turns slightly left and right, adding an additional degree of control (angling a paddle for example). In addition to pushing in on the knob, you can pull up on it, which acts like a second button. These rich controls really elevate the playability of some otherwise very simplistic games. Taking into account when they were released (1976), these controllers are downright amazing.
Media: D-. The bulky, yellow cartridges are ugly, and they lack any real kind of artwork.
Packaging: D-. The games were packaged in small black boxes with rainbow graphics. The instructions tended to be small leaflets with minimal information.
Games: D+. The Channel F library is pretty much what you would expect - basic variations of standard formulas like combat, pong, and space war. Still, there is some fun to be had, as many games (like Tennis) manage to transcend their simplistic visuals. In 2008 an impressive version of Pac-Man was ported to the system which effectively redefined what the system was capable of.
Graphics: D-/D+. The graphics are blocky, sparse, and the quality of the video output signal is fuzzy and prone to shadowing. The second edition had a much cleaner signal on par with the Atari 2600.
Audio: F/D-. The speaker in the original Fairchild system emits some of the most unpleasant, cringeworthy noises I've ever heard. Adding insult to injury, you can't adjust the volume! You'll also need to turn down the TV volume or you'll hear static. The Channel F System II directed the audio to the TV, but while it's less irritating, the sound effects are still minimal.
Collectability: D. These system tend to be rare and expensive. Just obtaining a working system is a tall order. The cartridges can be tricky to track down as well, but thankfully a multi-cart is available.
Innovations: First console to accept programmable ROM cartridges, hold (pause) button, unique controllers
Pros and Cons:
+ Innovative controllers.
+ Pause function.
+ Built-in customization system.
- Working systems hard to find and expensive.
- Limited selection of games.
- Poor audio quality.