Back in the early eighties, Mattel began marketing a toy-line based on a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by war and whose ruins hid fantastic science. It was almost as if it were TSR’s Gamma World, only not on Earth and with the additions of swords and sorcery. It would also be better known as He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.
The mini-comics that came with the action figures painted a different backstory than what the popular cartoon series did when it started up in ’83 which told a more traditional tale. Instead of being a barbarian from a distant tribe isolated from a war-ravaged Eternia, He-Man now had a dual identity as that of Prince Adam. There were even more surprising differences between the mini-comics that told one story and the cartoon’s, such as the Sorceress’ cobra costume.
Mattel would also branch their newest toy line out into video games, through its electronics division, with Masters of the Universe: The Power of He-Man in 1983 for the Atari 2600 and their own console, the Intellivision. Wait, their own console? More on that twist in a minute!
The game was simple and, depending on which system you played it on, had a number of interesting challenges. Both versions started with He-Man taking off in a side-scrolling action segment as he flew his Wind Raider to Castle Greyskull thirty miles away before he ran out of gas.
Below, enemies would attack by shooting up destructible projectiles that looked like spinning batons (on the Atari 2600) and followed along until you dropped a crater-making bomb to trap them. More of them popped up along the way and you had to shoot targets out of the sky while at the same time, bombing the ground to trap these enemies while avoiding getting shot down.
After making it to the end, here is where the two versions differed from each other in huge ways.
In the Atari 2600 version, players were dropped into a room with He-Man on one side and Skeletor on the right who moved up and down shooting magic bolts that He-Man can block with his sword. In between them, two walls with moving openings traveled back and forth between them.
The goal was to get He-Man over to the other side, while dodging or blocking bolts and avoiding contact with the walls. Getting hit with either one meant a loss in score which meant it was all over when he ran out of points. But making it to the other side won the game with a short victory screen before moving on to the next level of difficulty.
On the Intellivision, however, players were treated to a three-part boss battle with early examples of in-game cinematics. Instead of walls, players had to get He-Man to the other side of the screen while blocking Skeletor’s bolts which could travel at different speeds.
Once he made it to the other side, a short, automatic sword duel would play out before Skeletor ran off. In the final, third battle at Castle Greyskull, Skeletor retreats for the last time winning the game. These sequences were timed, so getting hit didn’t mean you lost any points — but running out of time meant Skeletor would blow you away with a magic cyclone.
The Intellivision version also had superior graphics and sound compared to the one for the Atari 2600, but both games had that recognizable theme song from the cartoon series playing at the title screen.
What was even more remarkable was that Mattel made the game for a rival hardware maker, Atari.
The Intellivision was Mattel’s baby. When they first came up with the idea, they didn’t want to manufacture the hardware — only the games. But when no one took them up on their offer, they decided to build the systems themselves. And make games for both it and other platforms.
It’s almost as if Nintendo decided that their internal developers would make games for their system and for their rivals, even if it was only a small trickle of titles.
Alas, Mattel’s fortunes in the console gaming market quickly evaporated along with Atari’s in the same year that Masters of the Universe came out during the Video Game Crash. In 1984, Mattel Electronics was folded.
But their games, and the initiative that they had taken to bring some of them over to the Atari 2600 along with the innovative tricks they used such as in-game animations to heighten the episodic feel of the game’s story in early cinematics with a title like Masters of the Universe, were revolutionary ideas even though they were overshadowed by one of gaming history’s worst moments.
Today, He-Man endures and has had a few more games come out for the franchise over the years. Still, while every game with a story loves a good cinematic nowadays, getting Super Mario over to any other system (in an official capacity, at least) remains a pipe dream.