ColecoVision was the Cadillac of home video games back in 1982; a system so powerful, you’d make friends with the biggest jerk on the block just to be near it. Everyone had an Atari—that quaint little system had been around since the ’70s, after all—and many had bought into Intellivision a few years later. But ColecoVision…no, that was the domain of the privileged few. If you had one, chances are you were an expert parental negotiator, a child of wealth, or the hardest-working paperboy on the block.
Former shoe leather company Coleco Industries had already ventured into the home video game business with its Telstar Colortron Pong clone back in 1976, but the release of the Atari VCS proved that the future of home gaming was in cartridge-based systems. Coleco went to work on a system of its own, and by the summer of 1982, the ColecoVision was ready for launch. The basic system featured a black box; a pair of Intellivision-like controllers with a control disc, buttons on either side and a 12-digit keypad designed for the plastic overlays that came with most games; and a mysterious expansion slot on the front of the main unit (more on that later).
With graphics and sound far more advanced than the Atari or Intellivision, ColecoVision was as close to a home arcade as you could get in 1982. The company knew this, and their marketing reflected it. Rather than test the waters with home-brewed games, Coleco went straight for the big arcade licenses, starting with one of the biggest: Donkey Kong. The company paid Nintendo a pretty penny for the rights to this platform-climbing, anti-ape classic, but the deal was well worth it. With Donkey Kong as its pack-in title, the ColecoVision sold well over a million units by the end of the 1982 holiday season.
ColecoVision stuck primarily with established arcade hits in the early going—Mouse Trap, Venture, Lady Bug, Donkey Kong Jr., Carnival, Zaxxon, Pepper II, Looping, and others—but the system also introduced a feature that expanded its game library by the hundreds. Released in 1982, the Expansion Module #1 plugged into the expansion slot on the front of the machine, allowing ColecoVision owners to play each and every Atari VCS/2600 game—and by this time, there were plenty. Atari sued (eventually winning a share of the profits), but sales were brisk and Atari-owning kids were left with no defense to the “my system’s better than your system” taunting.
Coleco also scored with its second Expansion Module, a steering wheel, and pedal that could be used with the pack-in arcade conversion of Turbo and a few other games. The later addition of the Super Action Controller confirmed ColecoVision’s place at the top of the home video game heap. This pistol-grip controller had four color-coded buttons for one hand, a ball-topped joystick for the other, and a 12-digit keypad and rotary dial control for any surplus hands you happened to have. The controller was a must-have for the sports hit Super Action Baseball, but it also added a true arcade feel to every other game in the ColecoVision armada.
Unfortunately, Coleco Industries tried for one Expansion Module too many. By 1983, the ColecoVision was outselling all of its competitors, and Coleco decided its next big move would be into personal computing. Released for the holiday season that year, the ADAM was available either as an add-on to the ColecoVision or as an independent unit. In addition to playing ColecoVision games, the ADAM featured a full keyboard, tape drives, and a daisy-wheel printer. It was an ambitious step, but the timing couldn’t have been worse. The entire home video game industry crashed around the end of 1983, and the bug-plagued ADAM (which tended to erase tapes left in the drive during start-up) was one of the many casualties.
ColecoVision held on for another year, but by the early months of 1985, Coleco halted production and sold its rights to Telegames. That company redesigned the ColecoVision as the Personal Arcade, but the future of home gaming belonged to the Nintendo Entertainment System. In the end, the ColecoVision’s day in the sun was a short one, but for a time, it was the envy of kids around the globe, the Holy Grail of home video game systems, and the ultimate status symbol for an emerging generation of arcade fanatics.