There are two memories that define all that I was in my high school years. The first is a string of consecutive Saturday nights at the Meadowlands Race Track with my friend Pat McCloskey. Pat and I were bitten by the gambling bug, but not the kind that eventually leaves you destitute. This bug was satisfied with just blowing a hundred or so and calling it a night. The second memory is staring at the clock on a night before a test and actually contemplating at 2 A.M., "Study for finals, or play another game of Ladybug?" As you may have guessed, I wasn't the most socially accepted teen at the time. But I was a heck of a Ladybug player. Thank you, ColecoVision!
This groundbreaking system was touted as the "third wave" by the publications of the time (the first being hard-wired dedicated systems like Ultra Pong Doubles and the second being the first wave of programmables such as the Atari 2600). Hyped for several months before its eventual release during the summer of 1982, Coleco lived up to the promise of better graphics, better sound and "expandability," something few console developers dabbled in. Without going into too many statistics, the heart of the ColecoVision contains an 8-bit 3.58 MHz CPU. The video display unit allows up to 32 sprites on-screen at once (fewer if more than one color), with 16 colors max at any one time. Best of all, the screen resolution, in pixels, is 192 high by 256 wide, second only to the Atari 5200 in its day.
Speaking of the Atari 5200 "Super System," it provided the competition for Coleco. Not only had Atari already made a name for itself by successfully marketing the 2600 VCS for several years, their new system was released only months after the ColecoVision and appeared superior on paper in all respects. What you get on paper and what you get on-screen is not always relational, as many gamers have learned by now. Despite its vibrant colors and excellent software collection, the 5200 worked with analog joysticks, and programmers weren't ready for them at the time. They felt mushy and didn't center, so you would often find yourself going far beyond the point at which you wanted to stop. This was not good at a time when most games were based on precision timing and reactions. There may be arguments to the contrary, but at the time, it seemed as if Coleco's machine was the favorite. It certainly was in my town.
The stubby joystick/pad combo was tough to get used to at first, kind of like a fat Intellivision controller with the knob at the top instead of a disc at the bottom. But stick with it for a little while and you'll find it is one of the most responsive ever. Coleco even released a Driving Module, complete with gas pedal, and a Roller Controller that felt just like the arcade types found on games like Centipede and Crystal Castles. There was an adapter that allowed you to play Atari 2600 cartridges on your ColecoVision, a feature that was challenged in court but settled in Coleco's favor. Had things been a little different, there would have been another module that would play wafer discs similar to CD-ROMs and containing far more information than a cartridge could hold. That meant bigger versions of some already classic titles like Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., Buck Rogers and who knows what else? Unfortunately, Coleco sunk their bucks into a personal computer called the ADAM and its failure, along with the video game crash of 1984, ruined any hopes of development for the ColecoVision.
What I still find fascinating about this machine is its use of "sleeper" arcade games. Does anyone remember Pepper II in the arcades? Was there even a Pepper I? Despite its relative anonymity, Pepper II was a favorite among ColecoVision owners. The premise is simple: "zip" up sections of a track. Each zipped section nets a certain amount of points and/or special items. Zip up all of the sections on four interconnected screens and the level is complete. Of course, you have to outwit the "Zipper Ripper" and the "Roving Eyes," but there are ways. Not only does this game employ many of the skills necessary to beat more popular titles like Pac-Man, but there are elements of Amidar and Qix in there as well.
Another popular ColecoVision title that didn't reach many arcades previously is the aforementioned Ladybug. Ladybug is my favorite maze game of all time. Again borrowing from the ever beloved Pac-Man, the general goal is to eat up all of the dots in the maze (they're actually "x"s in Ladybug) while being pursued by several baddies who take the form of evil insects. There are many twists to the formula, however. There are no easy "power pill" captures, enabling you to turn the tables. You can never turn the tables in this game. You can, however, turn many of the walls. By rotating these preset sections, you can guide the bad guys out of your path or hide in near-safe positions until the coast is clear. There are colored letters spread throughout the maze, and if you get them when they're the right color, you can increase the score multiplier, get an extra ladybug or win a ticket to a special screen that contains bonus food and big, big points. Also present on every screen is "the vegetable," which changes a la Pac-Man each screen. The vegetable is always in the center of the screen, where the baddies generally hang out. But if you can get there when the coast is clear, time stops for several seconds, allowing you to clear a good portion of the playfield. There are also skulls on each level, which spells death for you or the other insects to touch. That's a lot of game packed into one cartridge.
Not all of the ColecoVision library games were arcade titles first. Several truly innovative games came out of the Coleco camp, the best of which is Tarzan. Playing just a tad like Activision's Pitfall!, you guide Tarzan across dozens of screens inhabited by bad apes, snakes, crocodiles, hunters, pits, vines, lakes, imprisoned apes and temples. Your only friend is your sidekick Nkima, the chimp, although even Nkima lets you down - he disappears at the first sight of bananas, the dirty ape!. The fun in this game lies in the number of different ways you can dispose of the enemies. My favorite is luring a gorilla up a tree, then punching it off and into a pit down below. Joy! Tarzan also sports a jungle soundtrack that might drive ordinary gamers mad, but I still find myself humming it back at the office. No, they don't understand.
There are also a few decent sports titles on this system. Super Action Baseball was easily the best of its time, allowing "practice" modes for hitting, pitching and fielding. Some of today's games don't even have that! It sports the sword-handle-shaped Super Action Controller rather well. This unusual looking stick has four trigger buttons, a joystick, a keypad and a spinning wheel control all in one. It was primarily to be used with the sports games and a few specially adapted titles, but all games work fine with it. Another example of the Super Action Controller at its best is in Rocky Super Action Boxing. Here, you control the combatants of Rocky III: Rocky Balboa and Mr. T. There are an on-screen ref, a nicely detailed ring and excellent arcade-style boxing. It requires a good deal of strategy, and it's not uncommon for fights to go the distance. Two friends of mine almost went at it for real after several grueling bouts that ended without a knockout.
From a collecting standpoint, the ColecoVision is somewhat of a mixed bag. There are games that you can find just about anywhere if you look for them, like the pack-in Donkey Kong and other commons like Ladybug, Venture, Cosmic Avenger, Mouse Trap and Smurf. Fortunately, these games are all fun to play, so the beginning collector will have plenty to keep him or herself busy while hunting down the others. The others can be murder to find. Try to track down original copies of Flipper Slipper, Jungle Hunt, Motocross Racer, Robin Hood, Sector Alpha, Q*Bert's Qubes, Tomarc or Tournament Tennis! Here's the kicker: they're not all that much fun to play!!
Recently, a ColecoVision emulator complete with sound surfaced on the 'net. It's called ColEm. You can find it right here at EMULATOR ACTION). It's available for most PC platforms. The trouble is that the library of ColecoVision binary (game) files was scratched due to copyright problems. It's too bad. Maybe they'll turn up again someday. There's still nothing quite like the real thing, though. Grab a little nostalgia and find yourself a used system. Check out your attic. There's probably one up there, too!
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Last updated Tuesday, February 13, 2007 06:01 PM