Coleco Gemini: An Atari 2600 clone from 1983

I spotted it on page 597 of the 1983 Sears Christmas catalog. “Two big names play the same games,” the headline boasted. Next to the venerable Atari 2600, Sears presented the Coleco Gemini video game system, an Atari 2600 clone.

In 1982, Coleco built an add-on to make its Coleco Vision game system Atari 2600-compatible. Atari sued. Coleco poked the bear by making the Gemini, an outright clone. Sears had sold Atari 2600 clones before, but they were actually real Atari 2600s with a different label on them, supplied by Atari itself. The Gemini was more of a true Atari 2600 clone.

Origins of the Coleco Gemini: The Coleco Vision expansion module

Counter-intuitively, the Gemini’s story begins with the Coleco Vision, Coleco’s higher-end game console. The Coleco Vision was short-lived but rather successful. Its design borrowed heavily from Microsoft’s MSX design for a home computer, placing it much closer to the NES and Sega Master System in capability than to the aging Atari 2600.

Coleco wanted the Coleco Vision to be able to play Atari games, but the two machines had exactly zero hardware in common. Even the CPUs were completely different. So Coleco’s expansion module to add 2600 compatibility was really a second game console in its own right.

Not entirely off the shelf parts

Inside, Coleco’s expansion module contained a 6507 CPU and a 6532 RIOT chip providing memory and I/O. Both are standard off the shelf parts that several companies could supply in the 1980s. Nothing about those two chips was exclusive to Atari. The only chip that was a problem was the TIA.

The TIA was Jay Miner’s simple audio/video chip, and it’s what makes the Atari 2600 what it is. Any successful Atari 2600 clone needed that chip, or a perfect copy, to function properly. Otherwise it wouldn’t be 100% compatible with the original. Without the TIA, Coleco’s attempts to clone the Atari 2600 would have been unsuccessful.

The TIA was Atari property. Some people have speculated that so many companies made the TIA for Atari that it was a de facto off the shelf part. That is incorrect. It was still Atari’s design, so anyone seeking to sell it to someone other than Atari needed Atari’s permission.

Coleco sourced a clone from another company, VTI, later known as VLSI Technology Inc. It’s unclear whether Coleco or VTI did the actual design work, but VTI also sold the same chip to Mattel for their 2600 compatibility module for the Intellivision console. The TIA clone accounted for 69% of VTI’s revenue in 1982, according to the trade publication Electronic Business Today.

By the accounts I can find, VTI’s clone was more of an outright copy. The design basically sliced Atari’s design into four pieces and moved them around. It wasn’t a true clean-room reimplementation, the way Compaq cloned IBM’s PC. As such, it presented considerable risk of legal problems. If a lawyer could convince a judge that slicing a chip into four quadrants and moving the quadrants around and calling it your own was the same as simply rearranging the chapters of a book and calling it your own, the game was over.

The lawsuit

Atari sued Coleco for $350 million in December 1982, saying Coleco infringed on two of its patents. Coleco counter-sued for $500 million, claiming antitrust violations.

The two parties settled out of court in March 1983, with Coleco agreeing to pay Atari a licensing fee on the two patents. Atari decided it would be more profitable, or at least less risky, to let Coleco sell the Gemini and the expansion module and collect royalty payments. Coleco was on shaky legal ground, but Atari didn’t need antitrust issues.

If you’re wondering why no one ever cloned the Commodore 64 in the 1980s, the outcome of this lawsuit would have scared them off.

Coleco Gemini video game system, an outright Atari 2600 clone

Coleco Gemini console, an Atari 2600 clone
This Coleco Gemini video game system, which dates to 1983, was a close clone of the successful Atari 2600.

Although some books say Coleco released the Coleco Gemini video game system in 1982, the earliest mention I can find of the console is from early 1983, saying Coleco introduced it at the February Consumer Electronics Show (CES). 1983 press coverage of the settlement just refers to the Gemini as an upcoming product.

Regardless, the Coleco Gemini used exactly the same technology as the Coleco Vision expansion module: standard 6507 and 6532 chips and VLSI’s TIA clone. Coleco even used an identical power supply as Atari, and it connects the same way to a TV too.

Coleco already knew how to build and market the console. The question was, how much could Coleco undercut Atari’s price?

Not much, in 1983. Atari had multiple suppliers for its chips, so it could probably get TIA chips for less than VTI was charging Coleco. Plus Coleco owed Atari those royalty payments. As a result, the Gemini and the real thing both sold for $60 in the Sears catalog. The question was, did you want Donkey Kong and Mouse Trap for pack-in games, or Pac Man and Tank Plus? Coleco offered two better games and no rebate hassle. But it was a tight race.

Columbia House sold the Coleco Gemini as part of a video game club, much like its long-running club for music. But as 1983 wore on, it became clear the video game market was in trouble. A flood of low-quality cartridges and the limitations of the Atari 2600 design, which was six years old by then, caught up with Atari and Coleco. When the Atari 2600 market faded, the Atari 2600 clone market faded with it.

Sears promoted the duo in its Christmas catalog as two big names that play the same games, but consumers were losing interest. Atari resorted to porting its exclusive titles to other computers to prop up its bottom line, while Coleco pinned its hopes on the Adam computer.

Coleco Gemini video game system rarity and value

The Coleco Gemini was only on the market for about a year, so it’s rarer than the 2600. But there’s not as much demand for it, so the Gemini is worth less. The controllers were better than Atari’s own, so there’s more demand for the controllers than for the console itself. Prices vary but a working tested Gemini typically sells for around $30 on Ebay. A Coleco Gemini bundled with some games will sell for a bit more, of course.

The Columbia House variant: the Columbia House Home Arcade

Columbia House’s rebranded Gemini, the Columbia House Home Arcade, is rare. Their video game club was much less successful than their record club, mostly because of the timing.

It worked a lot like the record club. You made your initial selection and paid $5, and then you were obligated to buy a two additional titles at regular price, $25-$30, within a year. In the end, you got three cartridges for $55, $60, or $65, depending on your selections, and paid about $18 per game. It wasn’t a terrible deal, but not a great deal either. You could select titles from Coleco (of course), CBS (Columbia House’s parent company), Parker Bros., Spectravision, Tigervision, and Imagic. Activision was conspicuously absent.

Most would-be members already had a console. Columbia House miscalculated how much they could grow the video game market. That’s why the Columbia House Home Arcade is rare.

About 10,000 units are manufactured, and were offered for sale for $49.95, but it’s unclear how many actually sold, how many were simply given to employees, and how many were destroyed.

Problems with the Coleco Gemini Atari 2600 clone

Coleco Gemini video game system
Although Coleco had a factory in upstate New York, it manufactured the Gemini in Taiwan. Actual Atari 2600s were made overseas, so making the Gemini in the USA was probably cost prohibitive.

The Coleco Gemini video game system wasn’t as rugged as the Atari 2600, so it didn’t hold up as well to repeated plugging in and unplugging. Coleco was trying to undercut Atari’s price or at least keep pace, so they skimped a bit on quality. The solder joints on the controller ports and the RF out can break. So if your Gemini doesn’t work right and you’ve tried known-good joysticks, you probably need to touch up the solder joints on the ports. The RF connector is harder to reach since it’s inside a metal box that’s soldered shut. The RF output takes more determination to repair since you first have to desolder the lid, but it’s possible to do.

You can buy a broken Gemini on Ebay for $10-$15 and stand a pretty good chance of being able to fix it since the most likely problem is broken solder joints. Just be careful not to pay too much for one.

The pros and cons of the Gemini controllers

Some people like the Gemini controllers better than Atari’s own, but they weren’t compatible with multiplayer paddle games. They were fine in single player mode, but to play multiplayer, you need a set of Atari paddles. Others say the Gemini controllers feel lightweight and cheap.

I’ve seen some question as to why Coleco didn’t copy Atari’s controller designs. The computer manufacturer Commodore sold outright copies of Atari’s joysticks and paddles in 1982. They looked exactly like Atari controllers, except they had a raised Commodore logo on them and were white with silver legends instead of black with orange legends, to match the VIC-20 color scheme. Atari sued in October 1982 and won an injunction to halt their sale just 29 days later. Coleco was undoubtedly familiar with this lawsuit.

The Coleco Gemini’s legacy

The Coleco Gemini ended up benefiting Atari in the form of more than just royalty payments. When Atari went to develop its 7800 console, it enlisted VTI for design help with its MARIA chip since the TIA’s original designer, Jay Miner, had moved on from Atari. The expertise VTI used to help Atari’s competitors make Atari 2600 clones ended up helping Atari make its own future console backward compatible with the 2600 too.

Thus, the Coleco Gemini and efforts to make Coleco and Mattel consoles compatible with Atari ended up directly helping Atari as well.

VTI had to stop using the VTI name in the mid 1980s due to a trademark conflict. But under the name VLSI Technology, they became a leading manufacturer of custom and semi-custom chips. They produced chips that ended up in numerous popular IBM compatible clones, including the Tandy 1000 and Leading Edge Model D.

But what about Coleco? How did Coleco go from being the #2 console maker to oblivion?

Coleco’s eventual fate

Coleco factory
This is part of the shuttered Coleco factory complex in Amsterdam, NY.

The Coleco Gemini video game system was pretty much a non-factor in the marketplace by the end of 1983 as demand for the Atari 2600 tanked. Coleco didn’t last much longer either.

Coleco was hedging its bets. In 1983 it also released its Adam home computer. And when demand for home computers soared, Coleco tried to ride that wave. The Adam held a lot of promise, but manufacturing defects held the machine back, and Coleco ended up losing $98.4 million in 1984. Coleco discontinued the Adam in January 1985, unable to compete with the Commodore 64 juggernaut.

It kept the Coleco Vision game system in production until October 1985, saying it was still marginally profitable. But when it came to video games, Atari and Coleco were part of the past. The future belonged to Nintendo. The Sega Master System was extremely similar to the Coleco Vision, but Sega souped up the graphics chip to better compete with Nintendo. In theory Coleco could have repeated the Gemini strategy against Sega, but they didn’t have the money. Bowing out of video games when they did was probably the right decision.

By 1988, Coleco was $540 million in debt and filed for bankruptcy, selling most of its assets to Hasbro. It was a swift and inglorious end for a company that seemed like it could conquer the world in 1983.

In hindsight, the Coleco Gemini video game console was probably a mistake. But if there was one product that killed Coleco, the Gemini wasn’t it. The Coleco Adam was.

One thought on “Coleco Gemini: An Atari 2600 clone from 1983

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: