Saturday, December 24, 2011

Resurrecting The Past: ColecoVision (aka Best...Christmas Present...Ever)

It is Christmastime 2011. I'm preparing to watch my Little Monsters excitedly rip open their presents that they will find under the tree. It's not unusual for me to think about the past and what life was like when I was a kid. I'd imagine that most people (at least those that celebrate Christmas) have a lot of fond memories of the Christmases of their youth. I know I certainly do. I used to love Christmas, not to mention the inexorable build up to it during the month after Thanksgiving. It all culminated with Christmas morning and seeing all those wonderful wrapped presents under the tree. With all the gifts Santa (and/or my parents) gave me for Christmas it seems like it would be tough to pick an all-time favorite. But in this case it's actually pretty simple. One Christmas present stands out above all others in my memory (at least as far as gifts that I remember anyway). That gift was opened up in 1982. Its name was ColecoVision.

Image borrowed from the site The Computer Closet

While the graphics featured on the Atari 2600 video game system seem crude and archaic today, there's no denying they were a huge step forward from what had been available in home video game systems that could be connected to televisions up to that point. Before the Atari 2600 the only real option was some variation on the simple game of Video Pong. A lot of the early Atari games weren't much better than Pong, but at least they were in color and the system had arcade-like joystick controllers.

The Sears Video Arcade (taken from the 1980 Sears Wish Book),
a clone of the Atari 2600

The Atari 2600 was the undisputed king of the hill for a couple of years before the competition really heated up. I never owned one, but played a lot of the games at the homes of friends who did have it. It was a lot of fun, but I never really felt a burning need to own one for myself.

Video Games were so hot at the time they even made the cover of 
Time Magazine in January 1982

Intellivision upped the ante a bit with its slightly improved graphics, but in 1982 a new generation of consoles arrived that blew everything else in home video gaming out of the water. Those new systems were the Atari 5200 and ColecoVision. It was around this time that I was really getting into playing video games. In addition to using my friends' Atari 2600s I was also frequenting some of the video arcades that seemed to be sprouting up everywhere (there was even one in my tiny hometown for a little while). When I saw the near-arcade-level quality of the new systems I suddenly felt that I just had to have one. Deciding between the two was a surprisingly difficult choice. Since there was no internet to refer to, my research was limited to a few sources: the video game magazines that could be found at newsstands near me, the TV commercials for the Atari 5200 and ColecoVision, and opinions of fellow kids who either owned one of the systems or had played them.

December 1982 issue of the magazine Electronic Games

After much deliberation I finally came to the conclusion that ColecoVision was the video game system for me. I'm not sure what the deciding factor was. It may have been that ColecoVision had the expansion port that allowed you to add onto it. The most important module that came out was the Atari 2600 adapter. With this you could play all of the games that had been made for the 2600--and there were a LOT of games made for it. Another incentive was that Coleco put out its Adam Computer unit, which would also attach to the Colecovision console to turn it into a full-fledged home computer (a new and exciting idea back then). That way I could say that the system offered more than just video games (even if I was really just interested in the games for the most part rather than any potential educational value).

Now I had a system of choice. The only problem left was how I was going to go about getting one of my own. These things weren't exactly cheap. I did have a paper route at the time, but my meager earnings wouldn't have allowed me to purchase a game cartridge for the Colecovision--never mind the console itself. That left my parents as my last hope of getting in on all the gaming goodness. It was fall when I was doing all this deliberation and Christmas was approaching. Not unlike Ralphie in "A Christmas Story" pining for his much desired BB gun, I began lobbying hard for a ColecoVision. I wasn't content with simply telling my parents that I wanted one for Christmas; I also touted all the values and benefits of having a ColecoVision. I knew it was a rather extravagant request for a gift, but it really was pretty much the only thing I wanted that year. Eventually I felt that I had worn my parents down, but didn't know for sure until Christmas morning when... A large present under the tree was unwrapped and discovered to be...a ColecoVision! It was actually a "family" gift and not something just for me. I was more than fine with that. Being the youngest in my family I knew that I'd get more than my fair share of time in front of the TV playing great video games!

Flash forward to 2011. The ColecoVision was utilized and enjoyed a lot during its first year in our house. It was used a little less over the next couple of years until it finally became so idle that it was put away and forgotten about. Home video game systems continued to improve by constantly refining graphics, sound and playability. But while those improvements made ColecoVision obsolete, it was never replaced in my heart with a newer, flashier system. Instead I simply drifted away from video games. While I'd still drop a few quarters into the big games at arcades I didn't really play any home-based games for quite a while. The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) came out while I was in the Army. I never really became aware of how much of an improvement it offered over the ColecoVison generation of game systems until I played Super Mario Brothers at a friend's house a couple years later. I came close to getting addicted to the game, but somehow managed to avoid getting sucked back into the video game world. Even with all the great stuff available now, I have never owned a video game system since ColecoVision.

A year or so ago I started feeling nostalgic for that great old ColecoVision experience. It was difficult to determine if our old console was still around at my parents' house. I started looking for one on eBay, but they seemed to be pretty expensive and I didn't want to spend a lot of money for a thirty-year-old unit that I might not end up using a lot. While visiting my mother a few months ago I did a little searching and was very excited to dig up the old Colecovision! It wasn't in a box and had become very dusty and a little grimy over the years. Here's what it looked like when I found it:

The label had even fallen off the Donkey Kong cartridge

I brought the unit home with me, along with a few things that went along with it. I had no idea if it still worked--or whether I'd be able to fix it if it didn't. It seemed to be complete at least. I put a bit of work into cleaning the old gal up and it ended up looking pretty good once again.

When I plugged in the gigantic (and heavy) power supply unit and turned the console on I knew that it was getting power, but still didn't know whether it would actually work or not.

Because it has an old-style RCA plug I figured there would need to be some kind of modification done to get it to work with a modern TV. But I was surprised to find that all I had to do was pick up a little Coax to RCA adapter at Radio Shack.

A few bucks later I put the adapter on, attached the wire to the TV, plugged the unit in and... didn't know how to get the TV to the right setting to pick up the console's signal. Because all the channels are now digital signals I had to figure out how to tune the TV into the non-digital (Standard) version of channel 3. When this was done the screen was filled with the familiar snowy screen that was so common back in the old days, but which you never see anymore. That was a good sign though. Then I turned the console back on and saw the old ColecoVision title screen!

It was strange to think that this machine had been sitting around for so many years (probably a couple of decades at least) and hadn't put that image up on a TV screen for such a long time. A lot has changed in the video game world, in my life and in the world in general since the last time something was played on this old unit.

When I found the ColecoVision console I also found a few game cartridges too--including the one that originally came bundled with it, Donkey Kong.

Donkey Kong, cleaned up and with the label glued back on

Naturally, Donkey Kong was also the first game I had to try out once it was confirmed that the system still seemed to work. It was like going back in time when the first notes of the Donkey Kong song started up. Despite all the years that had passed since I had last played it, it all seemed to come back pretty quickly. Of course the graphics don't seem anywhere near as groundbreaking as they did in 1983, but it was still pretty great to see. While looking into buying a used Colecovision earlier I had checked out some videos of a few of the games on YouTube. After looking at Donkey Kong on Intellivision and the Atari 2600 there I was reminded of just how much of an improvement Colecovision was over those systems.

I also tried out Zaxxon, which was another favorite of mine way back when our ColecoVision was new. I still remember seeing the commercials for that one when it came out which showed how closely it mimicked the arcade version. In all I found a total of seven ColecoVision game cartridges: the Donkey Kong one that came with the system, Mr. Do, Zaxxon, Space Panic, Smurf, Looping and Mouse Trap. One of the keypad overlays for Mouse Trap was still on one of the game controllers when I found the console and the games. The other overlay, as well as all the boxes and instruction booklets for the games are all missing. Of course the games themselves are the most important thing anyway.

The only expansion we ever got for our ColecoVision was the "Expansion Module #1", the adapter that let you play games made for the Atari 2600. This was a great one to have, as it opened up our choices to hundreds of additional titles (even though we had to accept the 2600's graphics along with the games). We never got the steering wheel controller, the track ball controller, the Super Action Controller Set or the Adam computer module. I believe those were the only other ones ever produced. In another area in my parents' house I was able to find the old Expansion Module. It was in a similar state to the ColecoVision unit--dusty and dirty, but in good physical shape. I cleaned this one up too, but haven't tested it out yet. It seems like it should be fine.

Here's the Expansion Module #1 connected to the ColecoVision console

I do have some Atari 2600 games around that I can try out in it whenever I get around to testing it. In the meantime I still have to check out the rest of the Colecovision games to see if I can remember any of them like I remembered Donkey Kong and Zaxxon.

It's been a fun and nostalgic experience to rediscover an old friend from my youth like ColecoVision and bring it back to life after such a long time. The fact that it is now Christmas 2011 and I know that I first opened this very same unit exactly twenty-nine years ago makes it all the more special. So much has changed, but the games remain the same...



  1. I really enjoyed this posting. As you can tell from my blogs, I feel the same sort of nostalgic pleasure at rediscovering something from my youth. And I really think that the thrill from these things is even better the second time around when all the great memories come flooding back.

  2. I remember being wowed by the graphics in the ColecoVision commercials when the system first hit, but always thought the controllers looked awkward and not as comfortable as the Atari 2600 I already had, so I stuck with my system, which I still occasionally pull out for a quick round of PITFALL! or BURGERTIME.

  3. That was always one of the major complaints with ColecoVision. I definitely took that factor into account while weighing which system was best for me. Even though the 5200 had much better looking controls, I think the expandability of ColecoVision was the deciding factor (though we never actually got any of the expansions beyond the 2600 adapter).

  4. Great post. My older brother got one too, I can't remember if it was for Christmas. We even had the steering wheel, and I remember my dad playing it!!! The only video game my dad ever played.

    I found it in the basement a few years ago and tried to hook it up again, but the connections had corroded and the image was full of static. The controllers didn't work either, so I finally threw it out. Too bad.

    I remember going on and on and on and on in Zaxxon.

    My little nephew got Skylanders Wii for Christmas this year. Kids today are so spoiled.

  5. Nice story Billy. Too bad it didn't work when you rediscovered it. I was VERY relieved when mine worked! Yup, kids today don't know how lucky they are.

  6. I know that this post was from quite some time ago, but I still felt the need to respond because it brought back a lot of fond memories for me as well. I'm positive that you're a little older than I am because when the Nintendo first came out I was only 9 years old, but everything you described was almost a mirror to what I remember happening as a kid also. I got my Colecovision and Atari adapter for Christmas and it was a "family" gift as well (which like you said was an easy compromise considering how badly I wanted one), and I remember how mind blowing the graphics were compared to the 2600. I would have to say that Nintendo was more so my launching point for video games though, because I was too young to remember most of the Colecovision games except for the overlays and steering wheel of course. Recently I was helping an old neighbor of mine who used to babysit me when I was a kid (and she still lives 2 doors down from the house I grew up in), and I discovered that my mom had given her my (well ours I guess lol) old Atari 2600 unit and games after we lost interest, and she still had everything in the original boxes and in mint condition! I wasn't expecting it, but she wanted to give everything back to me as payment for helping her out, and I became overwhelmed with emotions because of it. It just brought back so many great memories of growing up, and there in front of me was a literal time capsule of something that I had thought to be long gone. Anyway it had got me thinking about all of my other systems as well which led me to find this post, and I just wanted to say thanks for putting everything into words so well. I truly believe we were lucky to grow up when we did because things were just so much different than they are today, so anything that can bring me back to that place is worth holding on to imo. Thanks again, I really enjoyed your post!