The Combatants: Atari 2600 vs. Mattel Intellivision
The weapons: Combat (Atari 2600), Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (Intellivision),Space Invaders (Atari 2600), Major League Baseball (Intellivision)
The trash talk: "Atari vs. Intellivision? Nothing I could say would be more persuasive than what your own two eyes will tell you. So compare for yourself. Game for game, feature for feature, I think you'll find Intellivision is clearly superior." - George Plimpton in a Mattel print ad
The battle: We're not sure exactly why Plimpton - a sports journalist and one-time editor of the Harvard Lampoon - became the haughty voice of gaming's first great battle, but in 1980, you couldn't get the guy boasting about "intelligent television" out of your face. Atari had already been selling 2600 Video Computer Systems for three years prior and had a massive lead, but that gave Mattel the chance to swoop in with a more technically advanced product (its processor was actually slower, but the Intellivision had roughly ten times the RAM as the 2600 - a whopping 1K!) From the start, Intellivision fans were bred to look down on those poor, unfortunate Atari gamers.
But those hot-tubbin' hippies at Atari offered a bigger library of licensed games (most arcade hits of the day were converted, with varying degrees of skill, to 2600 cartridges - which many uninformed moms called "tapes") and the Atari system featured a better controller: One joystick, one button. Intellivision's membrane keypad and slippery disc offered more flexibility but less ergonomic fun. Plus, Atari was the same company that made great coin-op games like Asteroids, Centipede, and Tempest; Mattel made Barbie.
The spoiler: ColecoVision came along in 1982 with a stunningly accurate version of Donkey Kong - and an optional adapter that could play all Atari 2600 games. Why wouldn't you want to have it all? Meanwhile, Magnavox's Odyssey 2 developed the notorious Pac-Man wannabe K.C. Munchkin and brought it to market before Atari's official, craptacular version of Pac-Man hit homes. K.C. was so superior it had to be killed by Atari with lawsuits.
The victor: Like Kleenex and Xerox before it, the brand name became the experience. You didn't play video games; you "played Atari." And although Mattel's first consumer brochure said Intellivision was "so revolutionary, it can change your family's life," its sales of 6 million units was only about a quarter of the 2600's.