It’s January 1977. RCA had watched as rival TV manufacture Magnavox successfully released the world's first video game console, Odyssey, five years earlier. RCA executives also saw numerous "pong" systems that came to the market and were met with success and acclaim in the years in between, most notably Atari’s Pong in 1975.
This was particularly upsetting to some folks at RCA because they had turned away the inventor of the home videogame console, Ralph Baer, who had approached RCA with his idea before doing business with Magnavox.
In an effort to enter into a new and lucrative market, RCA decided to counter the popular dedicated consoles that dominated the marketplace by releasing a system that is programmable. The idea was revolutionary. Game programs could be placed on cartridges and sold separately from the console. Cartridges could be sold cheap, and consumers would only need to buy one just one machine to have a platform that could potentially play an unlimited number of games.
An excellent idea, but unfortunately, despite an attempt rush the Studio II to retail shelves, Fairchild, a maker of semiconductors and camera parts, beat RCA to the punch in 1976 by releasing their vastly more powerful Video Entertainment System (VES), which later became known as Channel F.
Upon its release, the Studio II was immediately rendered obsolete. The controllers were integrated into the console; no cords, no wires. The sound came from a speaker on the unit, not from the TV. The color was only in black and white. The Channel F had almost none of these shortcomings.
The Studio II was marketed only during 1977. With the release of the Atari Video Computer System (later known as Atari 2600) and Magnavox’s Odyssey 2, RCA decided to cut their losses on their poorly planned console venture, never again to return to the video game world.
A total of eleven (11) programs were released for the Studio II. The console also had five simple games built into the unit, such as Doodle, Addition, and Freeway.
Overall, it’s a joke. RCA, the American company who defeated juggernaut Sony in the first format wars and won supremacy for the VHS standard over Sony's Betamax, must have had too many people working on VCR’s and not enough on video games. In a word, Studio II is awful. In a few words: “Worst. Console. Ever.”
Fairchild's 1976 Channel-F console, released several months before Studio II, was years ahead of RCA. Their console featured color, and graphics detailed enough to produce quality clones of Atari hits such as Combat and Lunar Lander.
On the other hand, Studio II isn’t powerful enough to produce a clone of an ASCII based calculator game from the mid 1990s. Yes, the graphics are actually much worse. See: Freeway. Even the obligatory Pong clone, Tennis/Squash, is so poor and slow that a novice gamer can easily play a match against himself with little difficulty.
The process of selecting a game to play requires players to punch in unintelligible combinations of numbers, which makes reading the manual a must. This is clearly why RCA printed abbreviated instructions on the back of the cartridges themselves, and why the carts are actually inserted backwards into the system. This is the only evidence of forward thinking that exists from RCA in regards to the Studio II.
Controls that do not detach from the console, (this was an option for the 1972 Magnavox Odyssey and Channel F), make game play a chore, forcing the gamer to hold the entire console. Two player games are an even bigger nightmare.
The graphics are surprisingly not far ahead of where Magnavox was five years earlier, and with a console that didn’t even have a CPU. Studio II is hardly worthy of being considered a part of the generation that gave birth to consoles along with Atari’s 2600.
A conversation piece at best, the Studio II does have a few oddities that make it interesting.
The console was intended to be in color. This is proven by the existence of the 1978 Sheen M1200, a UK clone, and also by the fact that some of the original games were programmed in color. Likely to cut corners, RCA made the decision that its console can only output in black and white.
Interestingly, the console’s external power supply plugs into its TV game switch (RF unit), and not directly into the unit. This of course also means that any Studio II minus the game switch component is even more utterly useless than a complete system. Atari repeated this blunder in 1982 with the release of their 5200 console.
What’s with the name? Seriously! How can it be a “two” of anything if it’s the first of something? The “II” in the title wasn’t meant to suggest that the console was a successor to a previous console. It was to symbolize that this was a second studio for artists to create a product. At the time the term “RCA Studio” referred to RCA’s recording studios where famous musicians such as Elvis Pressley laid down tracks.
The 1802 microprocessor at the heart of the console was popular among early computer enthusiasts. One such computer, the COSMAC Elf, is still built today, often converted from old Studio IIs. The processor was even a component in the Galileo spacecraft which explored the Jovian system from 1995 to 2003.
Possibly the only US console to be supported by its manufacturer for less than one year, Studio II is quickly, and rightfully, forgotten amidst game history.