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 both critical acclaims, impact and nostalgia, the ColecoVision.

In its brief two year lifespan, ColecoVision broke expectations, sales records and was well on its way to becoming the most successful console in history, had it not been for the industry collapse in 1983/84 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 a major hit in both arcades and self-contained home units, far exceeding sales of their only competition, the Magnavox Odyssey. With the overnight success of Pong, all kinds of companies were attempting to make the leap into video games, including the Connecticut Leather Company (aka Coleco), who had started their business in leather goods and then moved into manufacturing plastic wading pools.

A year after Pong's release Coleco entered the video game fray with the very first Pong clone, the Telstar. In addition to containing Pong (called Tennis here), the chip had been 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 they couldn't battle the tidal wave of clones hitting the market. There was already a grey area surrounding the game as Atari themselves had "borrowed" the concept and design from Tennis for Two, which some argue to be the very first video game, as well as the Magnavox Odyssey's Tennis game that released a year prior to Pong.

At first, the Telstar was a big seller and over the next two years, Coleco released several different models, each with more Pong variations and an increase in quality. The microchip that Telstar used was actually 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, even Atari turned to GE as it was a cheaper solution than manufacturing the chips themselves. Soon the market was flooded with hundreds of different Pong rip-offs, and sales started to nosedive.

As people began to tire of Pong, Atari saw the potential in creating a system with a wide variety of games on interchangeable cartridges, and in 1977 they released the Atari 2600 (aka Atari VCS). The 2600 quickly became a major 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 Mattel's Intellivision. Many had tried to compete but failed... until ColecoVision came along.

By the early 80s computer technology was becoming less expensive thanks to the Commodore 64, and consumers were craving 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% 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 away customers from the 2600 they would also need to once again steal Atari's tech.

The ColecoVision/Nintendo Partnership and the Atari Clone

By the early 80s, Nintendo had only dipped a toe into the home video game pool with their own Pong clone, the Color TV Game System. Nintendo's main game business was coming from arcades with their 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, but Coleco swooped in with an immediate offer and a promise to make the game higher in quality than any other system could deliver. DK went to Coleco who 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
Images © Coleco Holdings, LLC.

The other factor in ColecoVision breaking sales records was their 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 would allow the system to play Atari 2600 cartridges. Gamers now had a single system that could cross-platforms, giving ColecoVision the largest library of games for any console. This pushed ColecoVision over the top as it quickly outsold both Atari and Intellivision in a matter of months.

Atari tried to intervene by suing Coleco for violating their 2600 patent, but at the time video games were such a new concept that there were few laws in place protecting ownership rights. Atari had taken a beating trying to protect their tech over the years, not just with Pong clones but with the courts allowing unauthorized games to be made for the 2600. Coleco was able to squeeze through the courts by proving they had built their 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 not only continued with their sales but made a separate stand-alone 2600 clone called the Coleco Gemini.

Colecovision ad
Images © Coleco Holdings, LLC.

The Games

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

The Donkey Kong game that came with the system is not only the closest ColecoVision came to recreating an original arcade game, but it is the most comprehensive version of Donkey Kong ever released for a home system. Even the version Nintendo released themselves for the Nintendo Entertainment System, and more recently the ​Nintendo Wii, does not contain all of the arcade levels.

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

Expansion Module's Giveth and Taketh Away

Although Expansion Module #1 was part of what made the ColecoVision a hit, 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. Although at the time it was the most advanced peripheral of its kind, complete with a gas pedal and in-pack game Turbo, it was not a big seller and only a handful of compatible games were ever designed for it.

Since the release of the ColecoVision, plans had publicly been underway for their 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 cartridges, the SGM was to use a diskette-like "Super Game Wafers" 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 so confident the SGM would be a hit that Coleco began working with RCA and video game console creator Ralph Baer (Magnavox Odyssey) on a second Super Game Module, one that 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 release of the SGM and two months later canceled the project completely, and instead 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. Coleco got the idea that instead of making a computer which plays video games, why not have a game console that doubles as a computer? Hence the Adam was born.

Adam computer
Images © 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 was finalizing a deal for Atari to exclusively produce DK for the computer market, so instead, a game initially planned for the SGMBuck Rodgers: Plant of Zoom, became Adam's in-pack game.

Although an advanced system, the Adam was plagued bugs and hardware malfunctions. The most notable of these included an enormous number of defective Digital Data Packs that would break almost immediately upon using, and a magnetic surge emanated from the computer when first booted up that would damage/erase any data storage cassettes close to it.

The Adam's technical woes married with its price tag of $750, a cost that was higher than buying a ColecoVision and Commodore 64 combined, sealed the systems fate. Coleco lost its shirt on the Adam just as the Video Game Market Crash hit. Although Coleco had made plans for a fourth Expansion Module, one that 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 biz to focus primarily on their toy lines such as the Cabbage Patch Kids.

One year after the ColecoVision left the market, their 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 their assets and closed its doors a year later.

Although the company as we know it no longer exists, the brand name was sold and 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 80s.