ColecoVision: A Beginner’s Guide

ColecoVision 101

Presented by Ack

See the other entries in the Retro Gaming 101 Series

Coleco Industries had a lot going for it in the early 1980s.  Its new console, the ColecoVision, had started to tear up sales charts thanks to the quality of its arcade ports, especially its pack-in, Donkey Kong.  Expansion modules being released were adding to the console’s usefulness and its potential game library.  But the console’s time in the limelight was tragically short-lived, as the market’s bottom fell out and the ColecoVision became just another dead format in the wake of gaming history.

Still, there is something to say for the ingenuity of individuals in gaming history.  Without Eric Bromley, the ColecoVision would not have existed, and it’s safe to say that some of gaming’s most entertaining stories would never have occurred.  Bromley’s invention received high praise and the sales to back it up in its few years in the market, but this is perhaps secondary to the tale of how Bromley got his hands on Nintendo’s prize coin-op, Donkey Kong.

Bromley wasn’t even aware of the game’s existence when he met with Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi to secure the rights to several Nintendo properties, but after a short trip to the bathroom, he stumbled across the game which would make his console king.  What followed was a whirlwind tale of $200,000, Japanese business practices, and Bromley’s inevitable begging of Yamauchi to allow him to live his dream of making the best console imaginable with the best game he could include.  But he got that dream.  So out of respect to Eric Bromley, his dreams, and pure dumb luck, Racketboy.com is proud to present the ColecoVision 101.

photo by moparx

Background Information

  • Coleco Industries, originally the Connecticut Leather Company, originally entered the video game market with the release of the Telstar Arcade in 1976.  Despite its initial success, competition forced the company to take a $22 million loss.
  • Engineer Eric Bromley, who had previously worked in R&D for such companies as Midway, began working on a design for Coleco CEO Arnold Greenberg as early as 1979, but was unable to proceed due to the high cost of RAM.
  • After Bromley discovered the price of RAM had dropped in 1981 from a copy of the Wall Street Journal, the company decided to return to the video game fray, releasing the ColecoVision in August 1982.  Outside of the United States it was known as the CBS ColecoVision because it was distributed by CBS Electronics.  In the US it was unveiled at $174.99.
  • To gain access to its pack-in title, Donkey Kong, Coleco paid Nintendo $200,000 to license the game, plus $2.00 in royalties per unit sold.
  • The system had strong sales figures from the beginning, passing its first million in early 1983, only months before the market crash of that year.
  • Unfortunately despite its strong sales, the console couldn’t weather the storm.  Sales dropped dramatically and limped on for a little longer, but production was ultimately canceled in late 1984.
  • By the time of its death, the ColecoVision had sold at least 2 million units, with some claims saying the final number was over 6 million.
  • While Coleco ended up eventually being bought out by Hasbro in the wake of bankruptcy over Cabbage Patch Dolls, their ColecoVision rights went to British-based Telegames.  In 1988, Telegames released the Dina 2-in-1, a clone which plays both ColecoVision and Sega SG-1000 games.  In the US, the machine is known as the Telegames Personal Arcade.

 

photo by ninetyonepercent

Historical Impact

  • The ColecoVision was the first console to feature expansion modules to further its life and capabilities.
  • Despite the inventiveness of the expansions, the ColecoVision also showed that no accessory can save you if it features a high failure rate.  Coleco lost over $80 million in the wake of the ADAM computer’s release due to its high failure rate.
  • The console proved the strength of arcade-worthy ports, often outdoing its rivals in quality.
  • The ColecoVision is also a symbol of what was lost due to the video game market crash of the early 1980s.  If the market had not gone under, sales predictions show that the console may very well have overtaken the Atari 2600, becoming the top dog on the market.
  • Nintendo effectively put Coleco in a stranglehold to get the rights to Donkey Kong, forcing them to send $200,000 to Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi’s corporate account by midnight that night and then wrote the contract out on a napkin.  Later, Yamauchi said Atari had the rights to Donkey Kong, and Bromley basically begged and groveled with the help of Yamauchi’s daughter, Yoko Yamauchi, to receive a formal contract for the game.
  • Coleco was also sued by Atari over the creation of the ColecoVision Expansion Module #1.  But since the Atari 2600 was built from freely available parts, Coleco won the lawsuit.

ColecoVision Games - photo by Brandi Ediss

Strengths

  • A near-arcade perfect port of Donkey Kong was the pack-in game for the ColecoVision.
  • Many of the arcade games ported over to the ColecoVision were regarded as near-arcade perfect when compared to other ports on home consoles or computers.
  • The first expansion module released for the ColecoVision allowed players to play Atari 2600 games on it, giving access to an enormous library beyond its own releases.
  • With the proper accessories, the ColecoVision can be turned into a functional personal computer.
  • The ColecoVision has been blessed with an active homebrew community, bringing even more games to the already formidable size of its accessible library.  This is further enhanced by the similarities between the ColecoVision, MSX, and SG-1000, allowing homebrewers to freely port games between them.

Weaknesses

  • The ColecoVision had a problem with vaporware.  Several games which were announced for it never saw release, despite being advertised with screenshots on the console’s box.
  • All of Coleco’s first-party games, and many of the console’s third-party games, feature a twelve second delay on start up.  This is due to a loop in the BIOS.  Some companies managed to bypass the BIOS, hence why not all games have this delay.
  • The size of the console and its power supply has been the subject of numerous complaints across the Internet.
  • Due to their age, many ColecoVisions have begun to wear down, with issues with controller joysticks, ports, or image troubles.  Thankfully these are repairable, but it will take some technical know-how.
  • Video game collectors used to post-1985 controller designs will likely have an issue becoming comfortable with the ColecoVision’s awkward shape.  The numeric keys on the controller also weren’t used very often.

Technical Specs

  • CPU: NEC version of a Zilog Z80A, runs at 3.58 MHz.
  • Video Display Processor: Texas Instruments TMS9928A.  The ColecoVision features a resolution of 256×192, 16 colors, and 32 sprites at a time.
  • VRAM: 16 KB, RAM: 1 KB, ROM: 8 KB
  • Sound: Texas Instruments SN76489A, with 3 tone generators and 1 white noise generator.
  • Cartridge ROM: 8K/16K/24K/32K

 

ColecoVision and Peripherals Boxes - photo by ClassicVideoGames

Peripherals

  • Expansion Module #1 enables the owner to play Atari 2600 games on the ColecoVision.  Understandably, Atari filed a lawsuit against Coleco over the device but lost.
  • Expansion Module #2 is a steering wheel and gas pedal controller for use with certain driving games.  It included the pack-in game Turbo.
  • Expansion Module #3 turns the ColecoVision into the Coleco ADAM computer.  This unit included a keyboard, printer, and DDP cassette drives.  It also included the game Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom, Smart Basic, and a word processor.
  • The Roller Controller was released with the game Slither.  It’s a trackball controller for use with such titles as Wargames.
  • The Super Action Controllers look like boxing gloves with keypads and joysticks on top.  They included the game Super Action Baseball and were usable for later releases, like Super Action Boxing.
  • Other companies also released a handful of controllers for the ColecoVision, such as Spectravideo’s Quickshot III Deluxe or Suncom’s Joy Sensor.
  • Personal Peripherals also released a version of their Super Sketch Pad for the ColecoVision.  The controller plugged directly into the Sketch Master pack-in cartridge.

 

ADAM Technical Specs

  • CPU: NEC version of a Zilog Z80A, runs at 3.58 MHz.
  • Video Display Processor: Texas Instruments TMS9928A.  The Coleco ADAM also features a resolution of 256×192, 16 colors, and 32 sprites at a time.
  • Sound: Texas Instruments SN76489A, with 3 tone generators and 1 white noise generator.
  • VRAM: 16 KB, RAM: 64 KB, ROM: 8 KB.  The word processor is saved in ROM.
  • 2 Digital Data Drives.
  • Optional accessories for the Coleco ADAM include a modem and EVE voice module.

 

photo by davebraco

Emulation and Homebrew

  • The first ColecoVision homebrew game, a Tetris-clone called Kevtris programmed by Kevin Horton, was released in 1996.  The homebrew community continues to thrive, developing new games for both the console and the ADAM computer while also porting over titles from the MSX and SG-1000.
  • The ColecoVision community also has taken an interest in modding the console, ranging from VGA output and internalizing the power supply to Ben Heck’s ColecoVision handheld and Kevin Horton’s Multi-Cart.
  • The ColecoVision has been emulated in MESS.  Other emulators include the emulator ADAMEm for DOS, the emulator Mission for use on the MSX, and the Java-based Virtual ColecoVision.
  • Console and handheld-based emulators for the ColecoVision include PSPColem for the PSP, ColecoDS for the Nintendo DS, [D]ColEm for the Dreamcast, as well as other emulators on the Nintendo Wii, Game Boy Advance, GP2X, and others.

More Information

  • www.colecovision.dk is an excellent resource on the ColecoVision, including information about many of the individuals in the homebrew and modding community and their projects.
  • www.colecovisionzone.com includes information on the console as well as downloadable manuals and technical details on the console and its clones.
  • http://www.maniacworld.com/game_console_history/Colecovision.htm is a resource which features technical, historical, and other information on the console, including a short list of problems and potential fixes for broken units

 

9 Comments

  1. hobie-wan says:

    I remember a friend of my mother that had a full Adam setup. It was amazingly huge with everything hooked up on the desk. I never saw it in action though. Only played a Coleco a few times as a kid.

  2. dion says:

    A correction:
    Telegames was a distributor who purchased licensing rights to repackage and sell ColecoVision items with the Telegames moniker (similar to the ColecoVision CBS moniker)( and similar to NeoGeoFreak and the NGF brand for neogeo items). Telegames also released many games that were never directly released from Coleco and were thus never mentioned in formal catalogs or brochures from back then. NeoGeoFreak had a similar venture with SNK and we released many neogeo aes cartridges that were not released directly from SNK, but are now starting to gain more acceptance. It is the same with Telegames and the CBS brand of ColecoVision cartridges.

    thank you,
    Dion Dakis
    NeoGeoFreak/NGF-USA

  3. CurlyPaul says:

    Cool article. I really want one of these machines, but the price of the hardware puts me off a bit.

  4. TopSpot123 says:

    Great article. This is my first video game system by the way.

    I do take small issue with that claim that the Donkey Kong port is “near-arcade perfect”. It differs just as greatly from the arcade version as most other home ports. It is, however, greatly playable and fun. It’s my favorite home port, but I am biased.

  5. Ack says:

    Hey TopSpot123, you’re right. The home port is different from the arcade release, but it’s considered the closest to the arcade when compared to other home releases of the game. I should have specified that instead.

  6. Eddie says:

    If anyone is interested, a local game shop has a factory sealed Colecovision for sale http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=500317294&ref=ffa#!/GamersAnonymous I have no clue as to whether the asking price is fair or not.

  7. Alex says:

    I got a Coleco at goodwill but when I finally hooked it up the controllers dont work I can get the game to start but the controls wont work at all. Oh well, at least I can say I own one, and its in nice condition.

  8. TopSpot123 says:

    In response to Alex, if memory serves me, if the game only needs one action button and you can select a game type with your number pad, you can swap out an Atari 2600 controller after choosing a game type and play that way.

  9. Martin Pardys says:

    Please let me know if you have these Colecovision cartridges for sale: Boulder Dash, Tank wars, skiing, and Super Sketch.
    Martin Pardys