Colecovison: the hard-luck 1982 console

Last Updated on October 26, 2022 by Dave Farquhar

Colecovision was a game console released by toymaker Coleco in 1982. In the context of its era, it was reasonably successful, selling about 2 million units before being discontinued in 1985. Colecovision’s main draw was a faithful port of the arcade hit Donkey Kong, which it licensed from Nintendo. Its original retail price was $175 and it measured 14 inches by 8 inches by 2 inches.

Colecovision sold well at first, selling 550,000 units in 1982 and another 500,000 units in the first quarter of 1983. Its catchphrase in its advertising was “we bring the arcade experience home.”

How popular was Colecovision?

Colecovision was nearly state of the art in 1982 and sold well initially, but sales trailed off in 1983.

The Atari 2600 outsold Colecovision. Atari, of course, sold 30 million units. Mattel’s Intellivision sold 3 million units. So it, too, may have outsold Colecovision. We don’t know exactly how many units Coleco sold. Colecovision had a good start, selling a million units in its first 12 months on the market based on its strong collection of launch titles, but the video game crash of 1983 diminished its sales. It managed to sell at least another million units from 1983 to 1985 when Coleco discontinued it. But once sales started dropping, Coleco stopped reporting figures precisely. Some people estimate as high as 6 million units, but that’s optimistic. Realistically, the number was probably somewhere between 2-3 million.

Considering its brief lifespan, the Colecovision was reasonably successful. The Atari 5200, which competed against it, sold half as many units. Coleco continued producing its console even after it left the computer business, stating the console still sold moderately well.

In 1984, there were about 84 million households in the United States, so Colecovision reached about 2.4 percent market penetration. To challenge Atari for dominance, it would have needed to sell about 12.5 million units to shift market momentum. The video game crash of 1983 interrupted that momentum, and Coleco discontinued the console by October 1985, right around the time Nintendo started its limited test release of the NES. That meant Coleco didn’t stand to capitalize on Nintendo revitalizing the game market. However, without a franchise title, it’s unlikely Colecovision would have been anything but a niche player in the post-1985 market anyway.

Second generation or third?

Because Coleco released it in 1982, historians consider Colecovision a second-generation console, along with the Atari 2600 and Intelivision. Yet the Sega Master System, a third-generation console, used the same CPU and Yamaha derivatives of the same video and sound chips that Coleco used.

In 1982, Colecovision promoted it as a third-generation console. It wasn’t just hype. Comparing it to third-generation consoles, it’s an even match for the Sega console. It had double the CPU speed of a Nintendo NES, but the NES’ 6502-derived CPU was twice as efficient. Effectively the NES and Colecovision had equal CPU power. The Colecovision could display up to 32 sprites to Nintendo’s 64, and 16 colors to Nintendo’s 64, though the NES couldn’t display all 64 colors at once.

So the NES was a slightly better console, but its major advantage was better marketing.

The key argument against the Colecovision as a true third-generation console was its cartridges. Its cartridges topped out at 32KB, where Nintendo and Sega both devised bank switching methods to store 1 megabyte on theirs. Coleco theoretically could have done the same, but left the market before it had reason to try.

Technical specifications

The Colecovision sported an 8-bit NEC D780 processor (compatible with the Zilog Z-80) running at 3.58 MHz and a Texas Instruments chipset: a TMS9928A graphics chip and SN76489A sound chip. The unsuccessful TI-99/4A computer used similar chips, but a different CPU. Its specifications stack up well against other 8-bit systems of the 1980s:

  • 3.58 MHz clock speed
  • 256×192 resolution graphics
  • 16 colors
  • 32 sprites
  • 4 voice sound

Both the Colecovision and Sega Master System are very similar to Microsoft’s MSX standard for home computers. They use the same CPU and family of graphics chips, but used the General Instrument AY-3-8910 sound chip (the same as in the Atari ST and Mattel Intellivision) instead of a TI chip. Due to the similarities, Spectravideo produced a Colecovision compatibility module for its SV-318 MSX computer.

The Colecovision controllers consisted of a joystick with two buttons and a numeric keypad. But few games required the keypad.

Software library

The Colecovision had a library of about 145 titles produced between 1982 and 1984. This compares favorably with the 133 titles produced for Mattel’s Intellivision, though it’s much less than the 565 titles produced for the Atari 2600. In Coleco’s favor, the general quality of its titles was more consistent than Atari. Coleco produced the majority of the titles, but it did attract third party development from the major publishers of its day, including Activision, Parker Bros, Sierra, and even Atari.

Coleco did produce an expansion module that made the Colecovision comaptible with Atari 2600 cartridges. Because the two systems used completely different and completely incompatible chipsets, the expansion module was a complete re-implementation of the Atari 2600 console that just used the Colecovision for power and display output. It was a very short step for Coleco to go from producing the expansion module to producing the Gemini console, an outright Atari clone. Atari sued Coleco for patent infringement and the two companies settled, with Coleco paying Atari a royalty on each unit sold.

Native Colecovision titles tended to be ports of early 1980s arcade games. Most were reasonably faithful to the original, including a port of Nintendo’s Donkey Kong.

The Atari lawsuit

Let’s correct a couple of misconceptions about the Atari lawsuit. The Atari 2600 did use off-the-shelf parts, but Atari’s TIA chip was proprietary. Coleco sourced the TIA from VTI, also known as VLSI Technology Inc. VLSI’s clone wasn’t a clean-room implementation like Compaq’s IBM PC clones were. By one account, VLSI simply sliced the chip into four quadrants and moved the quadrants around in its implementation.

Atari didn’t win the lawsuit. The two companies settled, with Coleco agreeing to pay Atari a royalty.

Colecovision expansion options

Coleco promised early to deliver an option that it would be possible to expand the Colecovision into a full-blown home computer. This was shrewd marketing, as computer companies like Commodore targeted game systems, arguing a home computer was more versatile and therefore a smarter buy. The execution, in the form of the Adam computer, could have been better. The Adam was certainly capable, but quality control issues torpedoed it. Critics panned Atari for not doing something similar with the Atari 5200. Coleco fumbled, but Atari didn’t even try. The idea of computers and game consoles coexisting in the same household was still a few years away.

Coleco also offered arcade-style joysticks, a trackball, and a steering wheel as additional controller options. This provided a more arcade-like experience.

The Colecovision was the first game console designed with significant expandability in mind. This played into its early success, but Coleco’s failed attempt in the computer market made the console lose its advantage.

What might have been with Colecovision

Coleco Adam Computer
The Coleco Adam computer was supposed to provide insurance for the Colecovision by providing a direct upgrade path. But supply and reliability issues kept it from having much impact on the market.

Coleco’s marketing in 1982 was brilliant. Arcades were extremely popular at the time, and the console was powerful enough to play faithful recreations of most of that era’s arcade hits. The ability to expand into a full-blown computer was also a shrewd move. This provided insurance in case the market shifted away from consoles over to computers.

That’s exactly what happened in 1983, and Coleco wasn’t ready. By June 1983, retailers were saying they’d never seen a market collapse the way video games had. But the Adam computer wasn’t ready so eager consumers couldn’t buy one. Coleco finally released the Adam in September, but not in large quantities and the computer had a high rate of defects.

Had the Adam arrived on schedule and without the defects, Coleco might have weathered the storm. Being able to buy a game console one year and upgrade it to a full-blown home computer in the future would have been an attractive proposition. Maintaining profitability while Commodore cut its prices relentlessly may have been a problem, but Commodore lost a lot of money in 1985 so Coleco might have gotten a reprieve, if they’d been able to stay in the game.

Nintendo would have been another problem. One reason the NES sold so well initially was its Super Mario Bros. launch title, and Coleco didn’t have anything comparable. It’s hard to say whether Sega would have stayed out of the market and contented itself with licensing titles to Coleco, or if Sega would have also entered the US market in 1986. But it’s interesting to wonder what might have been.

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