Wishing Upon a Telstar
The Connecticut Leather Company is founded in West Hartford, Connecticut by Russian immigrant Maurice Greenberg in 1932, selling shoe repair supplies out of a shop on Market Street. Joining the family business after graduating from Hartford’s Trinity College with a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics in 1948, his son Leonard champions a move to leather craft kits featuring character licensing from the likes of Disney and Howdy Doody. He also moves the company into vacuum form plastic molding in 1957 and sells off the leather business as their plastic products like sandboxes and toboggans go soaring off store shelves. Shortening their name to Coleco in 1961, by the end of the decade they are the largest manufacturer of above-ground swimming pools. Lawyer Arnold Greenberg joins his father and brother in 1966, and Coleco makes its first move into games two years later by acquiring Eagle Toys, a Canadian maker of popular rod hockey tables that becomes Coleco Canada. The company becomes a publicly traded entity on the NYSE in 1971, and Maurice’s two sons Leonard and Arnold take the helm in 1973, with Leonard handling the manufacturing and engineering side and Arnold covering the finances and marketing. In a quest for diversification, Coleco flirts with bankruptcy due to some shaky forays into snowmobile and dirt bike production. As the success of Atari’s PONG arcade game opens up a new genre of entertainment, however, the Greenbergs figure moving their tabletop hockey games onto the home TV would be a hit. The release of its million-seller $49.95 Telstar home PONG clone in 1976 gives Coleco a taste of the profits to be had in electronic video games, and it thirsts for more. The company produces nine more varieties of the Telstar unit, nearly bankrupting itself again in 1978 as the home videogame market moves over to programmable, cartridge based game units. With Pong-type game manufacturers slashing the price of their dedicated consoles up to 75%, Coleco is forced to dump over a million obsolete Telstar machines at a cost of 22.3 million dollars.
The Third Wave
Coleco’s line of electronic handheld sports games such as Electronic Quarterback and the Head-to-Head series help keep the company afloat in the late 70′s, with $200 million in sales for the devices posted in 1979. This leads the brothers to ignore the near disaster experienced with the Telstar PONG clones and fund a new R&D video game division to the tune of $1.5 million. The team is led by Eric Bromley, who has experience under his belt heading the R&D departments of coin-op companies such as Midway. Bromley’s team is charged to develop a new third-generation home videogame system, one that will set the standard in graphics quality, performance and expandability. Bromley himself had done preliminary work in designing and costing a system several years earlier, but the high cost of RAM kept an advanced console out of reach.
By 1981, however, RAM prices have dropped dramatically, so much so that the project is now within range of the target price-point set by Coleco. Bromley and Arnold Greenberg hash out the specs of the new system, giving it the placeholder moniker of ColecoVision until the marketing types can think up a better one. They never do, so the name sticks. The new system is based around an 8-bit 3.58 MHz Z80A CPU, with 1K of RAM and 8K ROM. Also on-board is the powerful Texas Instruments TMS9918A video controller chip, giving the system 16K of video RAM and allowing a screen resolution of 256×192. It has the capability to display 32 sprites on-screen at the same time, along with a 16 colour on-screen palette out of a total of 32. Three channel sound via the TI SN76489 sound generator chip is also thrown into the mix for good measure. The console’s cartridges are 32K, the most memory of any system currently on the market.
The ColecoVision is a sturdy looking device, a large black box with two controllers that follow the Intellivision‘s lead by allowing overlays to be inserted over a 12 button membrane keypad. But the system splits the difference between the joysticks of the VCS and the control disk of the Intellivision by having a short, thumb-busting mushroom-shaped stick which proves to be too imprecise for most gamers. At one point in the prototype stage, there are fly-wheel spinners called “speed rollers” included on the controllers, for greater player precision or throttle control in some games. Due to mechanical issues these are dropped from the design, to resurface again in the later released Super Action Controllers by Coleco. Their omission might also be attributed to the fact that they make the ColecoVision controllers, already outrageously large in smaller hands, even bigger. The machine’s durable cartridges come with connecting boards that are designed to withstand 10,000 insertions into the console cartridge slot, the equivalent of inserting a cart three times a day, everyday, for ten years. Probably the greatest promise of longevity of the ColecoVision, however, comes from the large port in the front of the box covered by a sliding panel, called the Expansion Module Interface. Into this maw is where purchasers will plug in the many add-on modules planned to be released for the system. It is Coleco’s insatiable desire to fill this hole that will eventually lead it, and the ColecoVision system, to destruction.
Koming with Kong
The key to the success of this new machine is to be its pack-in cartridge, an adaptation of the smash arcade hit Donkey Kong. Coleco sends Bromley over to Japan to negotiate the rights, where imposing Nintendo chairman Hiroshi Yamauchi presents him with an ultimatum. Either agree to a pay Nintendo a $2 royalty per cartridge sold and wire a $200,000 advance by the end of the day, or risk losing the license to either Atari or Mattel, both of whom are scratching at the door looking to buy. Bromley makes the call to Greenberg and convinces him that the rights to the biggest hit since Pac-Man are within their grasp. A verbal agreement to the Donkey Kong license is made. Bromley later gets a scare when Nintendo informs him they have changed their minds and decided to give Atari the licence, but an impassioned plea to Yamauchi persuades the usually iron-willed Nintendo president to stick with the original Coleco deal and grant Atari only the home computer rights.
Coleco’s tight adaptation of Donkey Kong for the ColecoVision, of course, becomes one of the greatest system-sellers in video game history. There will not be a game bundled with a console more effective at showcasing the strengths of the system until 2006, when Nintendo includes Wii Sports with the Wii. Later on in 1982, lawsuits are filed against both Nintendo and Coleco by Universal Studios, claiming Donkey Kong infringes on their King Kong copyright. With the large sum of money already invested in the licence looming in their minds, Coleco cuts a deal with Universal, giving them 3 percent of Donkey Kong sales. Nintendo, however, fights the lawsuit, offering numerous in-court demonstrations of gameplay vs. movie plot. Manhattan District Court Judge D. J. Sweet eventually rules that Donkey Kong has “a totally different concept and feel from the drama” and that “no reasonable jury could find likelihood of confusion”. It is also discovered the fact that MCA Universal has let their copyright to King Kong lapse anyway. After appeals all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, in 1984 Universal loses the case and Nintendo is awarded $1.8 million in damages. This prompts Coleco to then file suit and receive a portion of their lost royalties. Donkey Kong is also released for the VCS/2600 by Coleco, in early 1983. Game design is contracted out to small engineering and development house Wickstead Design Associates, where Garry Kitchen programs the hotly anticipated title. His version of Nintendo’s arcade hit sells over 4 million copies on Atari’s ubiquitous game platform. Kitchen will eventually end up joining his brothers at Activision.
That Arcade Quality
Along with Donkey Kong, twelve additional cartridges are announced along with the ColecoVision. While Atari had pioneered the licensing of arcade games for home play with Space Invaders, Coleco makes this a key part of their strategy, aggressively seeking licenses for coin-op games instead of concentrating on creating original titles. Outside of the pack-in cartridge, the first batch of arcade conversions are Lady Bug, Mouse Trap, Venture, Carnival, Cosmic Avenger, Turbo, Space Fury and Zaxxon. Three Exidy games are also announced as arcade conversions, but ultimately cancelled: Side Trak, Spectar and Rip Cord. The department inside Coleco developing these translations is staffed by around 30 artists, designers and programmers at start up. Once the rights to an arcade game is secured for the ColecoVision, the design team receives an arcade unit that joins its brethren in the “game room”. Lacking any technical source material, the game designers at Coleco must videotape gameplay from the coin-op version for reference while translating the game. The usual timeframe for development of a game at Coleco is three to four months. While the conversions are not flawless interpretations, they are one giant step towards capturing the graphics and game mechanics of the original coin-op for play at home. One fly in the ointment, however, is the seemingly interminable (at least for an anxious kid desperately waiting to play the game) ten-second or so delay between turning on the console with a cartridge inserted, and the game selection screen showing up. This can be chalked up to Coleco wanting to get as many arcade game hits out on their game machine as possible; the initial suite of games for the ColecoVision are programmed in PASCAL, an easier language to create in than the machine language the Z80 CPU natively deals in. While this allows for speedy development, the console must put the brakes on and parse the information from the cartridge at the start of each of each new play session.
After its February debut at the Toy Industry Association’s Toy Fair in New York City, the ColecoVision is released in late-summer of 1982, at a retail cost of $199. Hitting the market in the midst of the public relations war Atari and Mattel are waging against each other, Coleco’s new system sells for around 50 dollars more than the 2600 but also 50 dollars less than Mattel’s Intellivision. Distribution of the powerhouse console outside of North America is handled by CBS Electronics. The ColecoVIsion is an instant success, with the first run of 550,000 machines selling out by Christmas 1982. In the first quarter of 1983, Coleco reports that one million of the devices have been sold in total, along with eight million cartridges. Coleco stock enjoys an amazing run, named the best performer on the NYSE for 1982, increasing from 6 7/8 to 36 3/4 over the year. Helping the balance sheet along is the incredible reception of Coleco’s electronic tabletop replicas of arcade games, including Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and Galaxian. Even with over 200,000 units coming off the production line by 1982, early in the year Coleco must withdraw their TV ad campaign for these devices in the NYC area due to a lack of ability to keep up with demand. The company’s performance on the stock exchange leads the New York Times to name Coleco as one of its 10 Super Stocks of 1982. Sales revenue for the company has tripled from $178 million in 1981 to $510 million through 1982.
The company’s sprawling factory and warehouse complex in Amsterdam, NY is a hive of activity. Things get so intense, in fact, that safety concerns over the deteriorating conditions of freight elevators in Building 8 are ignored. In order to get around damaged doors and gates, safety interlocks are bypassed to allow the elevators to move while the doors are not fully closed. On February 17, 1984, Coleco employee Blaine Lamson is on the third floor of Building 8, attempting to load pallets onto elevator #12 with a forklift truck. Due to some jury-rigging with the elevator’s control lever, the elevator begins to rise with the forklift half inside, and Mr. Lamson is crushed to death. A $10,000 civil penalty is eventually levied against Coleco in May of 1984 by the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, with the company found to have been willfully negligent in ensuring the safety of their employees.
“I must have this machine!”
In 1982 my Atari VCS is three years old, and while I’m enjoying the new games being produced for the system by Activision, the horrible Pac-Man translation from Atari really starts me thinking it might be time to put the old beast to pasture and move on to a better system. I look at the Intellivision as a possible upgrade, but the games really don’t appeal to me, along with that crazy control disc. That year my family and I take our annual trip to the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, and coming through the Dufferin street gates I notice a large crowd gathered around a big geoscopic dome, one I think they had installed fitness stuff in during previous Ex’s so I had never really paid much attention to it. But this time the sound of electronic boops and beeps drifts out of the entry way and plays its siren song in my young ears, and as I enter a girl hands me a button that says “Try ColecoVision”. “What the heck is a ColecoVision?” I wonder, and the answer is like a slap in the face when I look around inside. Amid smaller displays with Intellivision’s and VCSs crying to be heard looms a huge set-up with a line of people standing in front of a bank of monitors playing what looks from a distance like the arcade version of Donkey Kong. As I approach, I’m amazed to see that this game is being played on a home system! The ColecoVision! I stand in the large queue and wait my turn, inching up the line, anxiously shifting from foot to foot like I have a full bladder, eternities ticking away as I watch those other lucky bastards play the game. Finally I’m up against the rope separating me from the play area, and miracle! Someone who must have been playing for at least three hours is led away by an attendant and I fly to the monitor, a large popping sound echoing through the place as the air rushes in to fill the vacuum where I had been standing microseconds before. I look at the machine secured to its pedestal, large and black and imposing. I pick up the controller, surprised by the size and heft, and press the start key. There’s Mario! He looks like Mario! There’s the gorilla Kong! He looks like Kong! I don’t even notice deficiencies like the reverse positioning of Kong or the lack of detail on the barrels or the missing ‘mudpie’ level. For once, the pitch phrase “The Arcade in Your Home!” doesn’t come off like so much hyperbole. As my thumb strains against the stiff mushroom controller, guiding Mario over barrels and gaps and rivets, an epiphany washes over me like rain: I MUST HAVE THIS MACHINE! Then suddenly, Oh No! The screen goes blank! A hand on my shoulder! Reality snaps back as I find myself back in Toronto, Ontario, being led out of the play area to the popping sound of another vacuum being filled behind me. The 5 minute play interval, now seeming like 3 seconds instead of 3 hours, is over. I get in line three more times, and each session at the ColecoVision is as wondrous as the last. I then wander around the rest of the displays, check out Lost Luggage for the VCS, play Mattel’s Downhill Skiing, …but even the graphics of the Intellivision seem like images chiseled onto a stone tablet compared to the Coleco. And the VCS? Pfffft. What had been cutting edge a couple years ago was now hopelessly antiquated. That Christmas, I got my ColecoVision.
Filling the Hole
Expandability is what Coleco promised, and they keep to their word with the release of two hardware add-ons in 1982. Expansion Module #1 is the Atari 2600 converter, the first such hybridizing device for a home console, selling for about $60. It allows users to plug in the hundreds of cartridges available for Atari’s system and play the games on the ColecoVision. 150,000 converters are sold within the first three months, although it eventually becomes apparent that due to slight differences between the original cartridge slot on the 2600 and the one on the expansion module, some game cartridges for the Atari system to not make full contact when inserted. Starpath’s Supercharger cartridge adapter is also a victim of this discrepancy, although the company eventually includes an extender with their unit to make it fit Coleco’s adapter.
Expansion Module #1, along with Coleco’s stand-alone VCS clone Gemini, results in a flurry of litigation. It starts in late 1982, with a $350 million lawsuit from Atari charging infringement by Coleco of two of their patents: US 4112422A was filed back in 1976 by Steve Mayer and Ron Milner, during the development of the VCS, titled Method and apparatus for generating moving objects on a video display screen. To keep things brief, it deals with the method of how the VCS uses a beam to draw images on a screen, controlled by a microprocessor, with the image data read from system ROM which receives it from the RAM of a game cartridge. The second patent, filed in 1982, deals with how the VCS produces sound effects. Atari also includes various accusations of deception in Coleco’s marketing of the expansion module, as well as describing Expansion Module #1 and the Gemini as mere repackaging of the VCS hardware. Or as Atari chairman Ray Kassar describes it, “…merely a thinly disguised copy of Atari’s VCS unit.” And to round out the litany of Atari complaints, they accuse Coleco of confusing the public with prominent referrals to trademarked Atari games in their advertising. Coleco counter-sues for $550 million, arguing that Atari had produced games based on circuitry referred to in the Mayer/Milner patent a full year before filing, proving in their mind that the company knew the technical obviousness of the design. They also claim that Atari is infringing on American anti-trust laws by using various strong-arm tactics to maintain a monopoly in the video game market. Accusations such as patent abuse and threats to game distributors who carry competing products to Atari, are mentioned. On March 23, 1983 the two companies propose a settlement dealing with all issues raised, with the case formally closes four days later. The settlement requires that Coleco pays royalties to Atari on every Converter and Gemini sold. Despite this legal rigamarole, there is also an adapter planned to allow the ColecoVision to play Intellivision cartridges, but it’s doubtful that Mattel would put up such a struggle at having a company produce another purchase path for their software. At any rate, the Intellivision adapter never makes it off the drawing board.