The Story of the ColecoVision: Pioneer in the First Console Wars

In just a few short years during the early 1980s, an advanced new gaming machine burst onto the scene, sold over two million units, pushed technological boundaries with its expandable hardware, and licensed hit arcade titles before succumbing amidst a massive industry meltdown. This is the tale of the ColecoVision – an important precursor to future gaming success stories.

The ColecoVision holds an fascinating yet tragic place in the history of video game consoles. While its peak lifespan lasted barely two years, it presaged many features that only became standard in later generations.

Let‘s explore the background context, rapid rise and sudden downfall of this pioneer that for a brief time looked poised to dethrone the mighty Atari 2600.

Coleco Learns Video Gaming The Hard Way

Coleco‘s first attempt at breaking into gaming came in 1976 with the Telstar console. The timing lined up perfectly with the rising mid-1970‘s craze for televised ping pong titles.

Initial sales skyrocketed past 1 million units as Coleman rode the cultural wave. However by 1978 the bottom fell out as public fascination shifted elsewhere. Burdened by 300,000 excess inventory, the company took a $22 million bath on Telstar losses.

Despite the inauspicious start, Coleco remained active in the booming arcade videogame sector with licensed single-title machines and mini tabletop versions of gaming phenomena like Pac-Man. Strong sales here convinced executives to take another shot at the home console market as the 1980s began.

A Comeback Years In The Making

Coleco‘s research lead Eric Bromley later explained that by 1979, they committed to a new cartridge-based console. However, it was still two more years before component costs made the advanced system economically viable. As they waited for the right moment, a major opportunity fell in their lap – exclusive rights to the hottest arcade game of the age.

Scoring The Donkey Kong Coup

Coleco reached out to little-known Japanese gaming firm Nintendo in 1981. Their title Donkey Kong featuring a certain jumpman named Mario was eating quarters at a rate only rivaled by Pac-Man.

Coleco secured rights to bundle the home version as a pack-in cartridge. This let them launch with the most popular coin-op machine of the era pre-installed for free. It provided great incentive for gamers to give the new but unknown ColecoVision a look over the dominant Atari 2600.

Explosive blastoff in 1982

With Donkey Kong as the experience customers would get right out of the box, Coleco went bold with an August 1982 launch at a pricey $175.

The risk paid off – 500,000 units sold in just the last quarter of 1982, matching total Atari 2600 volume for the year. Strong critical praise for audiovisual abilities beyond both Atari‘s aging product and their new 5200 stumble further boosted attention.

Sales Momentum Skyrockets then Crashes

Positive buzz combined with savvy marketing (including prominent ads featuring key license Pac-Man) pushed ColecoVision past 1 million sales by early 1983 – before even being released overseas.

Early indications pointed towards a serious challenge to Atari‘s pole position. But the same month that overseas expansion reached Europe, bad omens started. What came to be known as the Video Game Crash of 1983 brought a cataclysmic plunge, wiping out 97% of the gaming industry‘s value almost overnight.

Despite seemingly doing everything right, ColecoVision found itself fatally exposed to forces beyond its control. Just 18 months after launch, the company threw in the towel – writing off its entire video game division by the end of 1984.

By The Numbers:

Console Lifespan: August 1982 – Fall 1985

Total Consoles Sold: Over 2 million units

Number of Games Released: 145

Pushing Hardware Limits

While ColecoVision lacked the long-term sales curve to cement "winner" status in the first console war, reviewers praised its advanced capabilities pushing contemporary hardware limits.

Built around off-the-shelf computing components, the core system vastly improved upon both visuals and sounds versus competitors:

Atari 2600ColecoVision
Resolution192 x 160256 x 192
Colors On-Screen128512
Sound Channels13

This power partly explains how it pulled off smooth arcade conversions – an important goal in trying to differentiate from Atari‘s catalog.

Pioneering Accessories and Expansions

Another innovation ColecoVision brought was its pioneering expandability. Optional add-ons converted the base console into a more versatile machine:

  • Driving Controller: A steering wheel/gas pedal controller bundled with racer Turbo
  • Roller Controller: Trackball accessory that came with Slither to mimic arcade cabinet controls
  • Adam Computer System: A $600 combo kit that turned a ColecoVision into a functional computer

While not big sellers individually, together they expanded the system‘s value and helped strengthen its positioning as a cutting-edge platform.

Bringing Top Hits Home

Licensing partnerships also helped raise the ColecoVision‘s profile above the competition. Early deals with arcade kings like Sega and Namco let Coleco feature home conversions of monster titles like Zaxxon, Mr. Do! and Pac-Man.

Having major cabinet coin-ops in their roster lent visibility and credibility while allowing players to enjoy popular quarter-munchers without leaving home.

Titles Driving The Buzz

While Donkey Kong understandably got the most early attention, Coleco built up an impressive and well-rounded library around their arcade licenses, exclusives, and clever pack-ins:

Donkey KongPlatformerNintendo
Donkey Kong JuniorPlatformerNintendo
Lady BugMazeUniversal
Pepper IIMazeColeco
Smurf: Rescue In Gargamel‘s CastlePlatformerColeco
War RoomStrategyColeco

Key offerings in multiple genres from both third parties and Coleco‘s own studio helped cement a diverse catalog to appeal to varied player tastes of the time.

Lasting Impact from Short Run

Despite being terminated along with much of the wider video game industry in the crash just two years after launch, ColecoVision‘s influence echoes far beyond its truncated lifespan.

Many choices Coleco made around hardware, accessories and licensing single arcade titles as killer apps became standard approaches in the console world only a decade later as the market recovered.

Unfortunately, Coleco and their console were simply ahead of their time – undone by plunging industry conditions beyond internal management‘s control. Their rapid forced exit enabled the subsequent rise of a newly dominant console maker – Japanese giant Nintendo.

So next time you play Super Mario Bros. or plug an accessory into your Super NES, spare a thought for the pioneering and unlucky ColecoVision!

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