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 (for "Fun") 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 Channel F 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 built into the console. A "hold" button even allows the player 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 Atari 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 sharper video, 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 fine addition to any classic collection. Note: Two grades for each category below 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 features fake wood trim, a four-button keypad on the front left edge, and a front-loading cartridge slot on the right. The power switch is inexplicably hidden in 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 that awful 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.
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.
Controllers: A. The controllers are little more than a grip with a knob on top, yet 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). If that's not enough the knob pulls up, acting as 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, lacking 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.
Pack-in Game: B. The Channel F had a built in Tennis/Hockey game. While these games may look like a glorified Pong, they make superb use of the Channel F controller, giving you far more control than you would have playing similar games on other classic systems.
Launch titles: The system was launched in April 1977, and while at least a dozen games were available by the end of that year, I have been unable to ascertain exactly which were available at launch.
Library: D+. The Channel F library is pretty much what you would expect - basic variations of old standards like combat, pong, and space war. Still, there is fun to be had as many games 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.
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, innovative controllers
Pros and Cons:
+ Amazing controllers.
+ Pause function.
+ Built-in customization system.
- Working systems hard to find and expensive.
- Limited selection of games.
- Terrible audio quality.