The History of ColecoVision Game System

What was ColecoVision?

While the masses fondly remember the Nintendo Entertainment System as the first arcade-quality home console, retro enthusiasts and hardcore gamers agree that there was one system that trumped the NES in critical acclaims, impact, and nostalgia, the ColecoVision.

In its brief two-year lifespan, ColecoVision broke expectations and sales records. It was on its way to becoming the most successful console in history, had it not been for the industry collapse in 1983 and 1984 and a risky gamble to convert the console into a home computer.

2013 E3 VHM Colecovision

EMR / Flickr

The Pre-History

In some respects, the name of this article could have been titled Coleco: The House that Atari Built, as Coleco created an entire business on cloning and advancing Atari technology.

In 1975, Atari's Pong was popular in arcades and self-contained home units, exceeding sales of its only competition, the Magnavox Odyssey. With the overnight success of Pong, all kinds of companies attempted to leap into video games, including the Connecticut Leather Company (also called Coleco), which started business in leather goods and then moved into the manufacture of plastic wading pools.

A year after the release of Pong, Coleco entered the video game fray with the first Pong clone, the Telstar. In addition to containing Pong (called Tennis here), the chip was modified to include two variations of the game, Hockey and Handball. Having more than one game also made the Telstar the world's first dedicated console.

Although Atari owned the rights to Pong, legally, Atari couldn't battle the tidal wave of clones introduced to the market. There was already a grey area surrounding the game as Atari had borrowed the concept and design from Tennis for Two, which some argue to be the first video game, as well as the Magnavox Odyssey Tennis game that released a year prior to Pong.

At first, the Telstar was a big seller. Over the next two years, Coleco released several models, each with more Pong variations and increased quality. The microchip that Telstar used was manufactured by General Electric. As GE wasn't bound by an exclusive agreement, any company seeking to get into the video game business could get their own Pong clone using the GE chips. Eventually, Atari turned to GE as it was a cheaper solution than manufacturing the chips itself. Soon the market was flooded with hundreds of Pong rip-offs, and sales started to decrease.

As people began to tire of Pong, Atari saw the potential in creating a system with a variety of games on interchangeable cartridges. In 1977, Atari released the Atari 2600 (also called the Atari VCS). The 2600 quickly became a success, dominating the market until 1982 when Coleco decided to go back to the well of Atari tech for the ColecoVision.

Body of a Console, Heart of a Computer

In 1982, the home market was dominated by the Atari 2600 and the Mattel Intellivision. Many tried to compete but failed until ColecoVision came along.

By the early 1980s, computer technology became less expensive because of the Commodore 64 and because consumers craved higher quality games. Coleco delivered by being the first to put a computer processor into a home video game console. Although this increased the cost to 50 percent higher than the competition, it allowed Coleco to deliver near arcade quality.

Although the advanced technology was a selling point, it wasn't enough to pull away customers from the established, dominating force of the Atari 2600. In addition to needing a hit game, for Coleco to steal customers from the 2600, it would need to steal Atari's tech once again.

The ColecoVision/Nintendo Partnership and the Atari Clone

By the early 1980s, Nintendo had only dipped a toe into the home video game pool with its Pong clone, the Color TV Game System. Nintendo's main game business came from arcades with its first major hit, Donkey Kong.

At the time, there was a bidding war between Atari and Mattel for the home video game rights to Donkey Kong. However, Coleco swooped in with an immediate offer and a promise to make the game higher in quality than any other system could deliver. Donkey Cong went to Coleco, which made a near-perfect recreation and packaged it with the ColecoVision. The chance to play the arcade hit at home drove sales of the console to major success.

ColecoVision controller ad

Coleco Holdings, LLC.

The other factor in the ColecoVision breaking sales records was its first Expansion Module. Since the ColecoVision was built with computer technology, just like a computer, it could be modified with hardware add-ons that expanded its capabilities. Expansion Module #1 launched alongside ColecoVision and contained an emulator that allowed the system to play Atari 2600 cartridges.

Gamers now had a single system that crossed platforms, giving ColecoVision the largest library of games for any console. This pushed ColecoVision over the top as it quickly outsold Atari and Intellivision in a matter of months.

Atari tried to intervene by suing Coleco for violating their 2600 patent. At the time, video games were a new concept, and only a few laws were in place to protect ownership rights. Atari took a beating trying to protect its tech over the years, not just with Pong clones but with the courts allowing unauthorized games to be made for the 2600.

Coleco squeezed through the courts by proving it had built its emulator with off-the-shelf parts. As none of the individual components were owned by Atari, the courts didn't feel it was a patent violation. Upon this ruling, Coleco continued with their sales and made a separate standalone 2600 clone called the Coleco Gemini.

Colecovision ad

Coleco Holdings, LLC.

The Games

The ColecoVision touted arcade-quality games in a home system. Although these weren't direct ports of the coin-op arcade titles, these games were remade to match the ColecoVision's capability, which was more advanced than anyone had previously seen in a home system.

The Donkey Kong game that came with the system is the closest ColecoVision came to recreating an original arcade game. It's the most comprehensive version of Donkey Kong released for a home system. Even the version Nintendo released for the Nintendo Entertainment System, and more recently the ​Nintendo Wii, doesn't contain all the arcade levels.

While many could argue that the launch titles, especially Donkey Kong, are remarkably close to arcade quality, many of the system's subsequent games didn't show as much time or care. Visually and gameplay-wise, numerous ColecoVision titles couldn't hold a flame to the coin-op counterparts, such as Galaga and Popeye.

Expansion Modules Giveth and Taketh Away

Although Expansion Module #1 was part of what made the ColecoVision a success, it was the other Modules that would eventually lead to the system's demise.

Anticipation was high with the announcement of Expansion Modules #2 and #3, neither of which met gamer expectations. Expansion Model #2 ended up being an advanced Steering Wheel controller peripheral. At the time, it was the most advanced peripheral of its kind, complete with a gas pedal and in-pack game Turbo. Still, it wasn't a big seller. Plus, only a handful of compatible games were designed for it.

Since the ColecoVision release, plans had publicly been underway for a third Expansion Model called the Super Game Module. The SGM was intended to expand the memory and power of the ColecoVision, allowing for more advanced games with better graphics, gameplay, and additional levels.

Instead of a cartridge, the SGM was to use a diskette-like Super Game Wafer, which stored saves, stats, and high scores on magnetic tape. Several games were developed for the Module, and it was demoed at the 1983 New York Toy Show, receiving a high amount of praise and buzz.

Everyone was confident the SGM would be a hit. So, Coleco began working with RCA and video game console creator Ralph Baer (Magnavox Odyssey) on a second Super Game Module, which could play games and movies on a disk similar to RAC's CED VideoDisk Players, a precursor to Laserdiscs and DVDs.

That June, Coleco unexpectedly delayed the SGM release. Two months later, it canceled the project. Instead, Coleco released a different Expansion Module #3, the Adam Computer.

The Adam Computer Gamble

At the time, the Commodore 64 was the home computer of choice and started to cut in on the video game market. Instead of making a computer that plays video games, Coleco got the idea to make a game console that doubles as a computer. Hence, the Adam was born.

Adam computer

Coleco Holdings, LLC.

Borrowing many of its components from the canceled Super Game Module, the Adam consisted of an add-on keyboard, the Digital Data Pack (a cassette tape data storage system similar to the one used for the Commodore 64), a printer called the SmartWriter Electronic Typewriter, system software, and an in-pack game.

Although Coleco owned the console rights to ​Donkey Kong, Nintendo finalized a deal for Atari to exclusively produce Donkey Kong for the computer market. Instead, a game initially planned for the SGM, Buck Rodgers: Plant of Zoom, became Adam's in-pack game.

Although an advanced system, the Adam was plagued with bugs and hardware malfunctions. The most notable of these included:

  • An enormous number of defective Digital Data Packs that would break almost immediately upon use.
  • A magnetic surge emanated from the computer when first booted up that would damage or erase any data storage cassettes close to it.

The Adam's technical woes and its price tag of $750, a cost that was higher than buying a ColecoVision and Commodore 64 combined, sealed the system's fate. Coleco lost money on the Adam as the Video Game Market Crash hit. Although Coleco had made plans for a fourth Expansion Module, which would allow Intellivision cartridges to be played on the system, all future projects were immediately canceled.

The ColecoVision Ends

The ColecoVision held onto the market until 1984, when Coleco exited the electronics business to focus primarily on their toy lines, such as the Cabbage Patch Kids.

One year after the ColecoVision left the market, its former licensing partner, Nintendo, came to North America and reignited the video game industry with the Nintendo Entertainment System.​

Regardless of the success Coleco found in toys, the financial burden caused by the ​Adam Computer damaged the company beyond repair. Starting in 1988, the company began to sell off its assets and closed its doors a year later.

Although the company as we know it no longer exists, the brand name was sold. In 2005, a new Coleco was formed, specializing in electronic toys and dedicated handheld games.

In its short two-year life, the ColecoVision sold over six million units and made a permanent mark as one of the highest quality and most advanced home video game consoles of the 1980s.

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