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ColecoVision — finally bringing the arcade home?

By: 21 November 2010 4 Comments

One of the things that drove home video console sales was the availability of hit arcade games translations.

While the Atari 2600 thrived on solid translations of games such as Asteroids, Frogger, Missile Command and Space Invaders, there was no denying that the graphics of those home versions were well behind what players had come to expect in the arcades.

By 1982, that had started to change. Personal computers were becoming more common and systems such as the Apple II, Atari 400/800, Commodore 64 and TRS-80 Color Computer were capable of providing those arcade-like graphics at home. Gamers expected more from their home systems and console manufacturers rushed to meet them.

In 1982, we saw the arrival of the Atari 5200, which was essentially a scaled down member of the Atari 400/800 with great graphics and a price tag that kept it as a viable alternative to people who wanted to play games but didn’t want to shell out the cash for a computer. We also saw the release of the ColecoVision, another system that boasted great graphics and enough arcade hits to keep people happy.

Donkey Kong at home...

Donkey Kong!

The ColecoVision arrived in August 1982 with a pack-in game that wasnothing short of a “killer app” for the system — Donkey Kong. The Nintendo title was a major hit at the arcades and the ColecoVision was the only system on the block that had it (at the time). And, yes, it looked a heck of a lot like the arcade version, to boot. Sure, the game only had three of the four screens the arcade version had, but it looked great and the system simply flew off the shelves.

Coleco had a strategy that worked very well — license those games that Atari had not. The ColecoVision, then, was home for arcade hits such as Donkey Kong Jr., Mr. Do!, Time Pilot, Turbo and Zaxxon. It was also the Console to play more “minor” arcade games such as Ladybug, Looping, Pepper II, Venture and, well, just a lot more. That strategy put Coleco head-to-head with the Atari 5200 and was, in a lot of ways, an alternative to that system — while it might not have pulled in famed licenses such as Pac-Man, the ColecoVision had its own share of hits and some games that were at least as fun (if not more) than their counterparts on the 5200.

Furthermore, the ColecoVision was built with expansion in mind. The first expansion was a unit that allowed the system to play Atari 2600 games while another was a steering wheel that went with Turbo and some other titles. Another expansion even turned the system into a full-fledged computer (the ill-fated Adam system that helped destroy Coleco). A trac-ball was available as was the Super Action Controller for certain sports games.

Furthermore, Coleco’s incessant release of games and great third-party support means that the system’s library grew to over 140 titles very quickly. So you had arcade-quality graphics, very good sound for the time and a large library of games from about any genre available at the time (even some educational titles, mind you). The system was perfect, right?

Well, not really. The Achilles’ heel of the system was the rotten controllers. While they weren’t as bad as those dreadful, non-centering analog sticks that plagued the Atari 5200, the ColecoVision controllers were simply uncomfortable to use for long periods of time. The joystick was a stubby little thing that was manipulated by a goofy knob that just felt clumsy. Add two “action buttons” on the side of the controller and you’ve got a recipe for hand cramps. The controller also featured a numeric keypad that was rarely used and was attached to the machine by a very short cord that could make positioning the console difficult.

Also, the ColecoVision was none too reliable. I owned one of those systems for years. After about five years, the video output became a bit dicey — I had to literally move the machine around until I found that “sweet spot” where the display looked OK. After I’d owned the system for about 15 years, the thing simply blew up one day. That’s right — I heard a crack, smelled some electrical smoke and the ColecoVision was no more. I’ve heard tell that finding one of those systems in good shape is difficult and can be expensive. However, bear in mind that “expensive” is relative when it comes to systems like this — click hereto pick up a working ColecoVision at Amazon for under $80 and shop for some games while you’re at it. Of course, eBay remains a great source of both systems and games.

Still, this is a great system for collectors simply because there are some games for the ColecoVision that you can’t find anywhere else. The controllers are annoying and playing games that require precision (such as Venture) is a chore, but you won’t care so much when you hit that “groove” on a game you truly enjoy.

Where can you find support for these little machines? You’ll find game reviews all day long at The Video Game Critic and plenty of fans of the system in the forums at Atari Age (oh, and check the store over there for some new games programmed in this century by talented fans). Oh, and if you want to hook this up to a modern television set, you’ll want this adapter.

Stay tuned — more reviews to come in the “retrograming” category here at First Arkansas News.

About: Ethan C. Nobles:
Benton resident. Rogue journalist. Recovering attorney. Email =


  • Hit And Rum said:

    Thansk for a great ColecoVision article and some helpful links. I still have mine fully working from back in 1983 when my Dad bought it for us. We had the steering wheel and I remember my Dad made a crack that it would improve my Mother’s driving…sufficed to say it didn’t go down well!

    Cheers From An Australian ColecoVision Lover!

  • Ethan C. Nobles (author) said:

    You lucky thing! I miss my ColecoVision something fierce — I ought to break down and buy another one (if I could sneak it past my wife, of course).

    Thanks for stopping in and leaving a comment. Don’t be a stranger — plenty of classic console reviews on the way 😉

  • Marlon Wosick said:

    Hand cramps can be painful if you are abusing your hand too much. Take regular breaks and rest. ;

    Please do browse our new online site

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