Aqua PCB Is A Big Upgrade For The Mattel Aquarius

A small keyboard form factor retrocomputer with blue keys on a black background sits in front of a display and a LEGO model of the Space Shuttle. There are a number of jumper wires and a breadboard coming from an open panel on the right side of the machine.

In case you weren’t around in the 80s, or you happened to blink, you may have missed the Mattel Aquarius computer. [Nick Bild] has a soft spot in his heart for the machine though and built the Aqua cartridge to make the Aquarius into a more usable machine.

Originally equipped with a mere 4 KB of RAM and a small, rubbery keyboard, it’s not too surprising that the Aquarius only lasted five months on the market. [Nick] decided on the cartridge slot to beef up the specs of this little machine given the small number of expansion ports on the device. Adding 32 KB of RAM certainly gives it a boost, and he also designed an SD card interface called Aqua Write that connects to the Aqua cartridge for easily transferring files from a more modern machine.

The Aqua Write uses an Arduino Mega 2560 to handle moving data between the SD card and the system’s memory. This is complicated somewhat because a “PLA sits between the Z80 and data bus that XORs data with a software lock code (initialized to a random value on startup).” [Nick] gets around this by running a small program to overwrite the lock code to zero after startup.

Getting data on and off retrocomputers can certainly be a challenge. If you’re trying to get files on or off another old machine, check out this Simple Universal Modem or consider Using a Raspberry Pi as a Virtual Floppy Drive.

9 thoughts on “Aqua PCB Is A Big Upgrade For The Mattel Aquarius

    1. Hi there! I’m no Aquarius owner, but after reading the Wikipedia article, I agree with what you’re telling. If the machine only had a little bit more RAM! With 48 to 64KB, it would have been possible to boot CP/M 2.2 and turn the machine into something useful.

      Considering its cheap production and cute design, it would have been a nice little CP/M machine (even though it had merely 40 chars/line) .

      Because, the built-in serial printer port (RS-232 compatible!), would have been ideal for transferring CP/M programs from other machines over serial via Kermit protocol. The printer READY signal line could have been used as RXD..

    2. It was mine as well, and I completely agree. I bought it from my next-door neighbor at his yard sale for $40, which was about $35 too much. I think I was 10 or 11, and I tried entering a couple programs into it from a book I’d checked out at the school library. One of them worked, but the other required more memory than the Aquarius had. It wasn’t even up to the task of being an entry-level learning tool.

  1. Yeah, this was one I’d have no qualms about giving it a brain transplant and some modern I/O.
    Let it run a down clocked, memory limited emulator, if you feel the need, the disappointment will more than justify your actions.

  2. I bought a used one and tried to use it for something. The video output was garbage. It came with a dual slot expansion unit and a RAM cartridge plus one game cartridge.

    What the computer was really for was to satisfy the Securities and Exchange Commission that Mattel had finally followed through on their production of a computer. I assume they got investment funds based on their assertion they were going to produce a computer. Initially their “expansion” for the Intellivision suffered such feature creep that the game console became a peripheral for the computer and it was very expensive. Mattel sold a few then offered to buy them back and/or exchange them for product. A vastly simplified computer addon was produced for the Intellivision, pretty sure it’s nearly as rare as the first one.

    IIRC a major reason the Aquarius was such crap was because Mattel Electronics was low on $$$ after wasting so much on the two versions of the addon for the Intellivision.

    Rather than making any attempt at an addon. expansion, or upgrade to the Intellivision, Mattel should’ve started with a clean slate to design a computer which integrated Intellivision support, including building in the DAC used for playing back the digitized audio used in Intellivoice games.

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