Coleco Gemini: An Atari 2600 clone from 1983

I spotted it on page 597 of the 1983 Sears 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. And then Coleco poked the bear by making an outright clone. Sears had sold Atari 2600 clones before, but they were actually a private-label version of the real Atari 2600. The Gemini was more of a true Atari 2600 clone.

Origins of the Coleco Gemini: The Coleco Vision expansion module

The Coleco Vision was a successful game console. 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 chips that several companies could supply in the 1980s. 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, also 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 moved some parts around but it wasn’t a true clean-room reimplementation. As such, it presented some risk of legal problems.

The lawsuit

Atari sued Coleco for $350 million in December 1982, saying Coleco infringed on two of its patents. The two parties settled in March 1983, with Coleco agreeing to pay Atari a licensing fee on the two patents. Atari decided it would be more profitable to let Coleco sell its stuff and collect royalty payments.

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 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.

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. 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 by 1983, 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.

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.

Problems with the Coleco Gemini Atari 2600 clone

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. 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, but it’s possible to do.

You can buy a broken Gemini on Ebay for $10-$15 and stand a chance of being able to fix it. Just be careful not to pay too much for one.

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.

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 done by the end of 1983 as demand for the Atari 2600 tanked. Coleco didn’t last much longer either.

Coleco tried to pivot to home computers with its Adam computer, which it released in 1983. 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.

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.

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