The ColecoVision

ColecoVision

ColecoVision - The Arcade In Your Home!

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Coleco 1982

Leading Vision

In 1983 the ColecoVision takes its place at the top of the video game heap. It has sold 1.5 million units since its release, moving 900,000 systems in ’83 alone beating the mighty 2600, the Intellivision, and Atari’s new 5200 Supersystem. For the first half of the year, this equates to over $300 million in sales of ColecoVision consoles and cartridges. There are 29 game publishers producing game for the system, although Coleco, enjoying the popularity of its console, strong-arms dealers by refusing to indulge them in the buy-back policies of unsold games other manufacturers are forging. With the Atari converter, the ColecoVision has the largest game library of any console on the market. Although the company forcefully pursues licenses for arcade games for their system, they are outmaneuvered on occasion. After they forge an agreement with coin-op game company Centuri for several of their arcade hits including Vanguard and Phoenix, Atari swoops in and snaps up the rights with a higher bid. Parker Brothers take a similar action by outbidding Coleco for the Popeye home license. Like other major players in the industry, by now Coleco is leveraging their licensing deals into cartridges for other company’s game systems. This runs them into trouble when their cartridges for Intellivision are found not to be compatible with the updated Intellivision II.

ColecoVision ad featuring special effects by John Dykstra’s Apogee, 1982
In 1983 Coleco announces a partnership with visual effects wizard John Dykstra, winner of the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects for Star Wars. Dykstra and his Apogee effects company have produced the effects for several impactful TV spots for the ColecoVision, and the new venture is to have the company designing graphics and concepts for new games on the system. It’s not known if anything might have come to fruition through the partnership between Dykstra and Coleco, especially considering Dykstra’s reported desire to create “experimental” games for the company.

ColecoVision, a home video game console by Coleco

A French ColecoVision catalog tries to sell the idea of upgrading the console to a computer, 1983

Creating ADAM

The success of their console is firmly established, so of course, Coleco takes the next seemingly obligatory step and risks it all with a precarious reach for the Holy Grail of video game manufacturers…the Home Computer Conversion! First, comes the ColecoVision Super Game Expansion Module #3, aka the Super Game Module, announced at the February 1983 Toy Fair in NYC with a planned release reported to be in July, then bumped to the fall, at a retail price of $125. This box, the width of the ColecoVision and slightly less thick in height, is inserted into the expansion slot and features 128K of extra memory, allowing room for souped-up versions of games that will be yet another step closer to flawless interpretations of the arcade originals, including enhanced graphics, animations and added game elements such as intermission, formerly omitted screens and the ability to save players’ high scores and initials. These are facilitated by a high-speed storage drive in the Super Game Module that accepts what are originally referred to by Coleco as Super Game Wafers; small tape cartridges 3/16-inch thick that, with a 500K storage capacity, hold 125 times the information of a 4K Atari 2600 cartridge. About the size of a business card, inside is near 50ft. of 1/8″ magnetic tape. The media is otherwise known as the stringy floppy and the hardware to play it the MicroDrive, made by a company called Exatron. The company, eventually changing their name to Entrepo, also markets standalone versions of the technology for computers such as the Commodore VIC-20 and Apple II.

1983 ad for the ColecoVision system, a home video game console by Coleco

1983 ColecoVision ad featuring the Super Game Module

To be Included with the Super Game Module are two enhanced versions of current ColecoVision games: Super Donkey Kong, and Super Gorf. “Super” versions of Buck Rogers Planet of ZoomDonkey Kong JuniorZaxxon, Turbo, Smurf: Rescue in Gargamel’s Castle, Subroc and Time Pilot will be available for purchase. With Atari aggressively seeking ownership of the magnetic media rights to Donkey Kong from Nintendo (see ADAM section below), Coleco decides to drop Super Donkey Kong and include the Super Buck Rogers tape with the SGM. The arcade adaptations are intended not only to match their source games for gameplay but would actually contain extra screens and gameplay features. Continued problems with the performance of the stringy floppy drive and Exatron’s inability to meet production rates of the drive required by Coleco lead the toy company to shelve the Super Game Module mid-way through 1983. Another reason for the delay is that another project has taken over the Coleco assembly lines, a top-secret project previously developed via 34 million dollars of R&D cash: what is originally referred to as the Computer Expansion Module. Talk had inevitably  been floating around from Coleco since the introduction of the ColecoVision of a keyboard-only computer expansion priced at a range of a mere $100-$200. Now dubbed the ADAM Family Computer System, the company is going all in: one version is an entire stand-alone home computer system with printer and tape storage, and the other a package that includes the same equipment but plugs into the ColecoVision game unit and takes on the Expansion Pack #3 label. While Coleco assures the press that the Super Game Module will eventually see store shelves in 1984, it never materializes.

Super Game Module, for ColecoVision (unreleased)

Super Game Module

ADAM is introduced at the June 1983 Summer CES in Chicago, in the 1000 square foot Coleco booth and heralded by flashing lasers and other elaborate fanfare. The unit itself, however, is ensconced under a rotating, tinted glass case and no show goers are allowed to touch it. Reporters eventually notice that the box on display is not driving the demonstration, but instead is being run by another device hidden under the table. The brains for ADAM are very similar to its ColecoVision cousin.  They are composed of an 8-bit, 3.58 MHz Zilog Z80A CPU with 80K of RAM (expandable to 144K), and 32K of ROM. A Texas Instruments graphics chip offers 16K of video RAM, as well as 16 colours and the ability to move 32 sprites around the screen. As for a pixel count, ADAM sports 256×192 screen resolution. There is a sound chip by TI as well, giving the system three-channel sound capability. These are also supported by four Motorola 6801 CPUs: one as a network controller, the other three each handling memory I/O, the tape drive and the keyboard. All run at a 1Mhz clock speed and they allow the ADAM to offer users its flavour of multitasking. There are three internal slots accessible to users within the main component, called the Memory Console, along with a 6-pin phone connector called AdamNet for various promised peripherals. The stand-alone system features an external cartridge slot into which ColecoVision cartridges can be inserted and played, as well as two game controllers. Both systems include a full-size, 75-key keyboard, with a stepped layout and fully-travelling keys. Several of these keys are labeled and dedicated to the built-in word processor SmartWRITER, such as MOVE/COPY, PRINT and UNDO. The keyboard also sports six Smart Keys labelled with Roman numerals from I to VI.

A move made just days before the computer’s debut at CES changes the previous wafer tape drive system into a digital cassette tape drive. This accepts what are now called Digital Data Packs, a storage medium developed in-house at Coleco that replaces the stringy floppy technology planned for the Super Game Module. The Data Packs ADAM is to use are high-speed 500K tape cassettes, of the same ferric oxide formulation found in high-end audio tapes. Their speed at retrieving data is not quite up to snuff compared to floppy drives, but still sport a data transfer rate of 1500 characters per second or 20 times faster than ordinary tape cassettes, due to circuitry inside the drive Coleco refers to as FasTransfer. Due to the extra CPUs controlling peripherals like the tape drive, the system can load in the high-res graphics from tape ahead of time in games like Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom, while the user is playing the previous screen. At least one reviewer, Michael Blanchet of the magazine Electronic Fun with Computers & Games, expresses concern over the durability of the data tapes: in his review of the ADAM version of the Buck Rogers game, Blanchet notes that every time the game is reset to play again, the tape has to rewind back to the start, leading to a lot of wear and tear on the media. In his review he notes graphical glitches appearing increasingly on-screen over 50 play sessions. There is space provided in the Memory Console for an optional second data drive, which is planned to run customers about $150. By the time the ADAM is eventually released, the memory size of the data packs has been reduced to 240K.

Ad for the ADAM Family Computer System, a home computer by Coleco 1983

Ad for the ADAM Family Computer System

Also included is a humongous, letter-quality daisy-wheel printer rated at 120 words-per-minute, and by some reports rated in decibels as loud as a construction site while operating, as the printer noisily hammers letters onto paper and advances to the next line. FYI, 120 WPM is  about five minutes to print a page of text. Only 10 pitch type size Diablo Pica font is available, but other daisywheel typesets can be purchased. Printing is bi-directional across lines, and the system uses a standard ribbon cartridge for ink. Budding novelists are also stuck with 36 characters per line, but an optional circuit board is promised that will bring with it a full 80-character line. Further, the platen only works in friction feed mode… optional tractor feed is promised to come later for around $150. An unusual configuration has the printer also serving as the entire system’s power supply, so the printer must always be turned on in order to operate the ADAM, and it will become precipitously warm in spots, reportedly up to 15C above room temperature over time. This setup also means, in the event of a printer breakdown, the computer cannot be used until the device is fixed. In the ADAM expansion system, the box containing the CPU and expansion slots has a somewhat lower profile than the stand-alone system, since the components in the original ColecoVision game unit do not have to be included. The add-on has its own port for video output to a monitor, as well as two external joystick ports, but TV output to channels 3 or 4 is handled by the original game console, which the CPU box fits onto through the expansion slot at the front of the console. An included System Interlock Tray keeps the ColecoVision and ADAM module attached to each other. In the standalone version, two ColecoVision controllers are included, and in both versions of the computer, one of them can be mounted to the right side of the keyboard via a cradle. The controller can be used to move the on-screen pointer and as a numeric keypad.

Block diagram of the ADAM, a computer by Coleco

Block diagram of the inner workings of the Coleco Adam computer

A blank Data Pack is included with the computer, as well as SmartBASIC and Super Buck Rogers Planet of Zoom. As an added bonus, since the ADAM is running a Z80 CPU, it is compatible with the popular CP/M operating system. At the summer 1983 CES, a company called InfoSoft debuts a compatible operating system for ADAM titled I/OS, allowing the computer access to the vast library of CP/M software. The ADAM can also handle AppleSoft BASIC programs, albeit with some modifications to the program. Hardware peripherals promised for the ADAM after its release include a 64K memory expansion card for under $200, a 5 1/4 inch floppy drive for about $350, and a 300 baud modem for around $50. Documentation included inside the enormous ADAM box includes a reference guide for the SmartWRITER program and a manual for the Buck Rogers game. Also nestled inside is a 64-page set-up manual, a programming guide for SmartBASIC, based in part on Russ Walters’ general purpose reference work The Secret Guide to Computers. As a well-known computer guru from the Boston area, Walters gained a certain amount of infamy by insisting that readers with computer issues call his phone number directly with queries, day or night. In fact, the ADAM manual gives the same advice, if their listed support number is busy (which it usually was). Finding the info from Secret Guide, in their words, “inadequate”, Coleco eventually re-writes the BASIC manual, removing mention of Walters and his guide. Walters then threatens to sue, stating that his contract with the company stipulates that these mentions are required. Things are eventually settled out of court for $20,000, with the settlement requiring that Walters must stop criticizing the ADAM to callers.

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Comments >>

  1. avatarRalf

    Great article showing the spirit of these consoles. Today Coleco, Intellivison and Atari still have plenty of fans supporting these systems. As old tv’s fade away and people are surrounded by hightech gadgets these old consoles are still attractive if updated: Stereo/Surround sound, AV/Composite video output are state of the art creating new game experience even with old games. If you hear the stereo/surround sound from such an old console you are really surprised how great these games are.

    Specially as modern consoles sucks in gameplay and complexity (today you need about 15-30 minute to get warm or update your PS3/P4) quick and easy games are really a runner (for the masses on smartphones/tables). So we may see the dying of dedicated gaming consoles very soon, still living on tables and phones.

    Reply
    1. avatarWilliam

      I think the latest consoles that were just released as I am writing this, the Xbox One and PS4, really mitigate the issues with long start-up times and having to constantly update them. They have systems in place, such as background updating, that put an end to this kind of thing.

      Mobile gaming has certainly come to the fore recently, but I don’t think it will be replacing dedicated game consoles quite yet.

      Reply
  2. avatarRalf

    If you look around you will see people having less time today. So filling the limited spare time with a quick game is what happened (for example during public transport, in a break etc.). You do not have a full blown console with you but you still carry a smartphone or tablet with you… that’s the big difference. I have plenty of games at home for all kind of current consoles but there are a lot I never played and they are still in original cover due to time issues. Last time I want to play with my girlfriend on my PS3 the update of the console itself and the game took 45 minutes alone (!!!). Well not so tell we waited a while and then switching over to watch a movie ;-(

    Reply
  3. avatarW. J. Brookes

    What an excellent article. This in one of the few write-ups that really gives readers a sense of what it was like when the ColecoVision was released. You captured it really well. I know, because I got one of these amazing machines when it was first released (thanks Dad).

    Yeah, the ColecoVision was quite the machine. I seem to recall playing it so much that I wore out my tendons. The time away from the machine while healing was tough. Later I noticed Nintendo gamers coined the phrase “Nintendo thumb”. I totally understood what they were talking about.

    For those that have never tried a ColecoVision, your best bet is the stuff they ported over in-house (as opposed to a lot of the 3rd-party games — which usually sucked). So for a list of gooders, check out:

    – Donkey Kong Jr. (Super Donkey Kong Jr. includes all levels from the arcade version)
    – Frenzy
    – Time Pilot
    – Venture
    – Zaxxon
    – Cosmic Avenger
    – Q*Bert

    Note: This machine is the same spec as the SEGA SG-1000. So for a similar experience, try the following SG-1000 games:
    – Galaga
    – Golgo 13
    – Hustle Chummy
    – Star Force
    – Elevator Action
    – Exerion

    Reply
    1. avatarWilliam

      Thanks for the kind words about the article.

      As noted in the article, I had a ColecoVision myself, and it was nothing short of a spectacular games console. I know exactly what you mean about straining your hands with the stiff mushroom stick, I’m sure it put a lot of kids’ hands out of commission.

      Out of the games you list for CV, Venture and Zaxxon were probably my favourites. I remember really liking Mousetrap too, it was a nice strategic take on all the Pac-Man games that were out at the time. And of course, the Donkey Kong game that came packed with the system was a revelation.

      Thanks again for writing!

      Reply

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