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The RCA Studio II

DoctorSpuds

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Man, I hate to do the cliché thing of calling the thing I’m reviewing ‘terrible’ right off the bat, but seriously, the RCA Studio II might just be the most woeful games console I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. Just a warning, my Google-Fu is pretty weak for this console in particular, mainly because there isn’t a whole lot that exists on it, and because it was disco-ed so quickly.

 

I got lucky recently. At my local game store he gets all sorts of weird crap in, and by weird I mean rare. I walk in a couple days back and what do I see sitting on the counter… an RCA Studio II, in the box, with six minty CIB games, with an original shipping box (for the games) from RCA in NC to a woman here in Madison. I threw out a number for shits and giggles (130$) and he immediately said yes. Now I own a boxed RCA studio II (Matching SN’s) with over half of the North American library, woo! I knew what I was getting into when I bought it, I know it’s a terrible system but… y’know, bragging rights? I decided to pull DSRT out of its pseudo retirement to review this sucker. So without further ado…

 

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The Studio II was RCA’s answer to the Fairchild Channel F, and subsequently the Atari VCS, but wound up being obsolete right out the gate. Just about every part of this machine can be criticized and detracted in some way, from the games, to the packaging the console comes in, to the console itself. Let’s simply start with the console.

 

Right out the gate the specs don’t seem too bad, but then you take a look at the video chip and well:

 

RCA CDP1861 "Pixie" video chip, 64x32, monochrome graphics.

 

Oh dear… that’s not good, and the sound?

 

An internal speaker capable of making simple beeping noises…

 

Oh dear again.

 

I’m pretty sure Magnavox was offering Dedicated Consoles with higher graphical and sound fidelity than this several years prior, by 1977 most bargain bin Pong consoles came with color.

The console itself is a sturdy slab of beige plastic with a faceplate of burnished beige metal with ‘Studio II’ emblazoned on it. Immediately one will notice the two numerical keypads on either side of the unit, we’ll get to those later. I will admit that the build quality is fantastic, with the plastic shell being nearly half a centimeter thick, not a chance of it creaking in your hands. The keypad buttons are also extremely nice to use, they’re using rubber domes (I think) but you still get a satisfying dull click when you press down. But here’s the bad part of it all… it’s ugly, absolutely downright hideous. The entire thing is two-tone beige with chrome highlights, it reminds of the inside of a Winnebago, it is completely lacking any sort of style or visual appeal. The 2600 had the outlandish ridges and the soft angular design, the Channel F looked like and 8-track player, the Intellivision had the woodgrain coupled with the gold for the classy high-class charm. The Studio II looks like something you’d see in a school computer room or a church basement, or a daycare, it has no sharp edges so the kids can’t hurt themselves on it and it can survive being thrown into a wall. It’s positively dismal.

 

Speaking of dismal, how about the packaging? The word unappealing comes to mind first and foremost. Any good game packaging has one of three things or a combination if the company is feeling ambitious: Pictures of the games, pictures of people playing the games (and having fun), and eye-catching artwork to draw in the eye of potential customers. The Studio II has one of those things, pictures of the 5 built-in ‘games’ (two could be classified as games, one is a tech demo, one is a drawing program, and the other is math), but you’d be forgiven for thinking they are just quick artists interpretations, there’s no way they could look that bad. They do, the artists renditions actually look better. There is also actual drawn artwork on the box. I know I’m not the pinnacle of artistic ability but these look like crap. Whoever they got to paint this stuff could draw a racecar but couldn’t draw a person’s face to save their life. The family sitting around watching, not playing, watching, a static image of some poorly drawn houses look so dissatisfied and disgusted that it’s almost hilarious. The woman is actually drawing her chin into her neck in disgust and the man is thousand-yard-staring into oblivion. Captain archer is playing bowling! And his face is falling off!Even the fairly clinical Sears Telegames system boxes were more appealing than this! Actually! No! RCA did have better artwork! It’s on the Owner’s manual! How else could they screw this up!?

 

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Well it looks like Atari got the inspiration for the initial 5200 from these guys because there is only one cord running out of the system. You could tear this thing apart looking for a power jack but you’ll never find one. The power and video use the same cord, which means if you lost the special AV switchbox made specifically for this console then you can’t play it. Because the system itself is also the controller that means that the cord running from it is very long, to account for the tiny cord meant to go from the switchbox to the TV, which means packing the system up is a hassle because the thing is, no joke, fifteen feet long and stiff as hell. You can also search the console for a power button but you’ll also not be able to find one, why? Because the AV switchbox is also the power switch! Which means you’d better have it in an easy to reach place otherwise you won’t be able to use the system! This is despicable, and the main reason why the Studio II is not worth owning today. If that switchbox breaks then you are sunk, if the cord from the console frays or snaps, you’re sunk, if one of the prongs from the switchbox frays or snaps then you’re sunk! This sort of innovation is an absolute hindrance as it makes the overall unit fragile and unwieldy to use in any sort of capacity, not that you’d really want to since almost half of the games are educational!

 

Here is a list of the entire NA game library that I took straight from Wikipedia, I’ll also throw in my two cents on the ‘games as well’

 

1.       18V400|TV Arcade I: Space War: You guide a missile from a static point to hit slowly moving enemies, boring.

2.       18V401|TV Arcade II: Fun with Numbers: Fuck no. The Parker Brothers Merlin does this better

3.       18V402|TV Arcade III: Tennis/Squash: Non-analogue Pong with a hilariously thin game field, boring and barely works as the ball will ricochet off of nothing.

4.       18V403|TV Arcade IV: Baseball: The game in its most abstract form, it mostly plays itself.

5.       18V404|TV Arcade Series: Speedway/Tag: Brilliantly boring, an insult to racing games. Getting a 2600 and Indy 500 is probably cheaper.

6.       18V405|TV Arcade Series: Gunfighter/Moonship Battle: Atari used this exact fourmula to make Outlaw, but did it better. Moonship battle may not be classifiable as a game, Imagine Space War but without that fluid motion or gravity.

7.       18V500|TV School House I: Learning, it came with quiz books! It’s quiz software!

8.       18V501|TV School House II: Math Fun: More learning but with math!

9.       18V600|TV Casino I: Blackjack: How about not.

10.     18V601|TV Casino Series: TV Bingo: Pixelated Bingo, bring your own cards and chips. 

11.     18V700|TV Mystic Series: Biorhythm: Pseudoscience mumbo jumbo, just play Taboo the Sixth Sense on NES if you want to waste your time in such a fashion.

 

Honestly the American library just blows, most of the games are not in fact games, they’re just learning software or things you could do without the need of a game console. At least overseas they got Pinball and Star Wars which are arguably more entertaining than anything we got over here.

 

If it isn’t obvious, this thing did not sell well, not in the slightest. RCA estimated that they sold between 53-64k units total, with puts it in as a strong contender for rarest home videogame console, at least in North America. I know the Amiga CD32 is the current title holder but the Studio II is probably in the top ten. This damn thing is so forgotten that not a single ‘game’s journalism’ site that has posted a ‘most obscure’ or ‘worst ever’ console list even has it listed. The Studio II has been completely forgotten to time and you know what, that’s definitely for the best.

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Yes, the system was obsolete when it was launched but much of the recent research points to that RCA - just like their competitors (*) surely - had most of the console ready at least 1-2 years before the launch. Due to change of CEO, their priorities changed and the system was somewhat delayed. They also seem to have had a few more action based games in development. The Pinball and Star Wars games belong to the Studio III which never was manufactured by RCA but instead licensed to the Far East in what we used to think were Studio II clones, though a lot points to both the system and games were developed within RCA.

 

(*) Not sure if Fairchild delayed the Channel F by much, though it started as an Intel based console converted to use the F8 CPU. However I think Atari were working on their ROM based system for a while and as long as there was no strong competition, they could keep improving it rather than releasing it prematurely. If the Studio II had been pushed out by early 1976 with the Channel F shortly following, who knows how much longer Atari could've waited.

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3 hours ago, carlsson said:

If the Studio II had been pushed out by early 1976 with the Channel F shortly following, who knows how much longer Atari could've waited.

So it wound up being the 7800 of the first/second generation then, Pretty good when it was developed but by the time it was released it was overshadowed by pretty much everything else, and the new consoles on the horizon were so far superior that it wasn't even funny.

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You can also read a little about Joseph Weisbecker and his work leading up to the Studio II. There is also the article on RCA itself, scroll down to Computers and Later years about how Robert Sarnoff took over as the president after his father, and the downfall that led to Robert being ousted a few years later.

Edited by carlsson

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