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Retro-Gaming with Coleco
Date: Sep 30, 2004
Author: Robert Maloney
A look back at gaming history

After our previous foray into some old-school arcade action with the X-Arcade Dual Joystick and MAME, we got to thinking about the early years of home-style gaming.  We're talking about back in the late 70's, a time when the USSR was still our Cold War adversary, and the thought of a PC in every household was still a fantasy.  While today's generation drools over the heavenly graphics and stellar gameplay that a Doom 3 or FarCry provide, back then we didn't have much more interaction than moving paddles up and down on the edge of the screen in Pong. 

Mattel Electronics released some of the first handheld electronic games back in 1977, based on popular sports such as football and hockey.  If you've never come across any of these games, you weren't missing much.  Gameplay mostly consisted of a bunch of red lights placed in a small mock-up arena, and you hit on a few pads in order to make the plays.  Graphically challenged, these games were still warmly received simply because the essence of the real game was there.  You didn't need to "see" an actual running back to understand that you were running for a touchdown.


At the same time, more and more kids were pouring into the local arcade, the likes of which are mostly gone now.  Back rooms in convenience stores, dimly lit corners at the laundromat, even legitimate locations devoted to nothing but gaming, coin-op arcade machines popped up everywhere.  On of Marco's favorite coin-ops, Galaxian, was released in 1979, and has the distinction of being the first arcade game to actually use color; up until then all gameplay was in black and white.  This was soon followed by Pac-man and Donkey Kong in 1980 and 1981, and the craze was on.  You could find paraphernalia everywhere you looked - cards, stickers, watches.  Nothing was sacred.  The only issue was how could kids take the gameplay home with them.  That's where Coleco came in.

While Coleco may be a well-known name (think Colecovision), it's probably not well known that they started out as a company making leather craft kits for kids back in the 1930 and 40's.  In fact, the name COLECO comes from COnnecticut LEather COmpany.  As interests have changed through the years so has Coleco's.  They were a world leader in plastic above ground pool manufacturing in the 60's, and jumped on the video game bandwagon in the 1970s.  Unfortunately their first entry, Telstar, was only a brief success, and Coleco nearly faced bankruptcy.

Coleco enters the fray

Looking to bounce back from this disparity, Coleco crafted a deal with Nintendo, securing exclusive rights to bring their arcade hit, Donkey Kong, to the kids at home.  They eventually produced a Donkey Kong cartridge for the Colecovision game console, but decided to add to their own line of handheld sports games by creating mini arcade units for both this game and Pac-Man.  These were designed to copy the look and feel of the real thing, from the little joystick down to the art of the marquee and cabinet panels.  Finally, the arcade had hit home, and with it, Coleco had hit pay-dirt.



The styling of each unit mimicked a real arcade machine with a wide base for the controls and a tall cowl protecting the game screen.  They were light, yet sturdy units that were powered either by an additional power pack from Coleco called PermaPower, or by 4 'C' batteries, although these would get used up somewhat quickly.  What really set these games apart from previous handhelds was the graphics and sound.  They wouldn't be considered great by today's standards, so don't get rid of your Gameboy Advance just yet, but they offered a reasonable, if not simpler, facsimile of the actual game.

Construction was also, by necessity, kept simple.  We sacrificed one unit for our showcase to see what these were made up of.  Removing the upper cowl and screen reveals a particle board with wires running to the batteries for power and a plastic tympanic speaker for the sound.  Although limited in range, the speaker was quite capable in producing loud game sounds - sometimes to the detriment of some kid's parents.  The jewel of the unit was the VFD display, short for Vacuum Fluorescent Display.  VFD screens are commonly used in VCRs, stereos, etc. and provide a bright green light with a good contrast.

VFD is composed of three basic electrodes; the Cathode (Filaments), Anodes (Phosphor) and Grids under a high vacuum condition in a glass envelope.  The Cathode consists of fine tungsten wires which are coated by alkaline earth metal oxides which emit electrons. The Grids are a thin metal mesh which control and diffuse electrons emitted from the Cathode. The Anodes are conductive electrodes on which the phosphor is printed to indicate characters, icons or symbols.  Electrons emitted from the Cathode are accelerated with positive potential applied to both the Grid and Anode, which upon collision with the Anode excites the phosphor to emit light. The desired illuminated patterns can be achieved by controlling the positive or negative potentials on each Grid and Anode, and the game's colors are laid out on a thin sheet that lays across the top of the glass.

So there you have it.  Now, for some show and tell, we've got our personal collection for display.  Some units, such as Pac-Man and Donkey Kong I have owned since they came out, back in 1981.  Overall, they are in good shape, although the decals on Pac-Man show some mottling where the glue has seeped through, a common issue with these units.  Others have been obtained over the years (thank you, Ebay!) and are now ready for us to present. 

Mr. & Mrs. Pac-Man and Galaxian

Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man
Shouldn't they be married by now?



Pac-Man is probably the most universally known arcade game, spawning more related games than any other title, except perhaps for Donkey Kong.  Originally called "Puck-man" in Japan, the name was quickly changed to "Pac-Man" for one main reason: the tendency for American kids to change the first letter of words in print.  The name "Pac-Man" is actually derived from the Japanese slang term "paku-paku", which means "to eat" and, believe it or not, his shape is based on a pizza pie with a slice missing. Essentially a maze-game, Pac-Man runs around the screen eating dots while being chased by four ghosts: Inky, Pinky, Blinky, and Clyde.  The simple structure to the game lends to a good translation for the Coleco version.  The maze is made up of red lines alternating with yellow dots, and the lack of any other colors does eventually wear a little thin.  Also wearisome was the constant "wah-wah-wah" in place of Pac-Man's signature "waka-waka-waka".  It was loud and ultimately annoying, especially without a way to turn the sound down or off.  Still, for "pac-maniacs", this was the game to have in the early 80's. 




After winning an enhancement kit lawsuit against Atari, General Computing went to Bally Midway and tried to bluff their way into releasing their own Pac-Man offshoot called Crazy Otto.  Crazy Otto was a character similar to Pac-Man, but had a set of legs.  Bally Midway had other plans, however, and suggested General Computing work on a sequel, which started off as Mrs. Pac-Man, but eventually ended up as Ms. Pac-Man when female workers at Midway objected.  The same basic premise of Pac-Man was retained.  What they added was some new A.I. for the ghosts, a variety of mazes to run through, as well as new bonus items and cutscenes.  It was also one of the first games to attract a large female following, although the character was really nothing more than Pac-Man with eyelashes, lipstick, a bow and a dimple.  What had worked well with the home version of Pac-Man worked for Ms. Pac-Man too.  The only differences to be found were slight variations in the maze structure, the moving bonus fruit, and an upgrade on the character graphics.  For whatever reason, Ms. Pac-Man remains one of the rarest tabletop arcade units; it's extremely hard to find.

Where the BigWop got started?



Galaxian has a unique place in arcade game history as the first color arcade game.  Up until then, games were in black and white with strips placed on the screen to add some color.  It also had better sound than what had been common at the time, and used some game elements that have since become standard such as flags or symbols to mark level progression.  In a way it was an off-shoot of Space Invaders, except these aliens were much more mobile and it required adept control of the ship to outmaneuver and outgun the enemy.  All heady stuff for 1979.  The Coleco version was one of the best ports - it had plenty of color and sound, and the gameplay was just as frenetic.  They even added two new modes; Head to Head, where two players took on each other, and Midway's Attackers, a Space Invader clone.  With three games in one system, it was a kid's (and parent's) delight.

The Donkey Kong duo and Frogger

Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong, Jr.
Who knew an Italian plumber could be so much trouble?



Donkey Kong was an overnight sensation, and was the first game to feature both objects that needed to be jumped over and to offer different playing levels.  The hero in the game was simply known as "Jumpman", although the trademark red and blue hat and overalls and mustache were present.  This now-famous outfit was actually due to graphics limitations rather than any stylistic view.  The hat was placed on Jumpman's head to hide his hair, which did not have enough pixels to be animated properly.  Overalls were colored blue to differentiate them from his red sleeves and a mustache was added to help users distinguish where his nose ended and his mouth began.  Jumpman had to jump or smash barrels as he climbed up girders to save his girl from the clutches of Donkey Kong.  Like Pac-Man, Donkey Kong got his name in another odd twist; his creators wanted a stubborn kind of monkey as the nemesis of the game.  "Kong" sounded fitting, but a quick look in the dictionary brought up "ass or donkey" for stubborn, and thus was born "Donkey Kong".  The handheld version kept the basic layout, but it's simplistic graphics lost a bit of the arcade game's charm.  The sounds were also god-awful; it sounded more like the game was breaking than playing.  Being one of the only ways to play DK at home in 1981, however, it quickly found its way under many Christmas trees and remains one of the more common units out there.



Donkey Kong's first sequel, Donkey Kong Jr., turned the tables on us.  Mario, who had just earned his moniker after Nintendo of America's president took his name from their landlord, was now holding Donkey Kong prisoner.  It was now up to the player, playing as DK's son, Junior, to rescue the big ape.  Gameplay was entirely different from the original, as Junior needed to climb vines and chains to unlock Donkey Kong's cage, while avoiding Snapjaws and other assorted creatures.  The tabletop version of Donkey Kong, Jr. was also completely different from previous games, using a color LCD screen that needed to be lit by an external light source.  Unlike the VFD-based games, DK Jr. could not be played in the dark, although it could serve as a alarm clock.  DK Jr. also sported perhaps the best graphics and gameplay of the lot.  Unfortunately, this would be the last system that Coleco would produce (1981-1983).

The original "hip-hopper"



Frogger, like many other games, seems to have such a simple premise; get the frog from one side of the screen to the other.  The thing is, there are various obstacles in his way including cars, snakes, diving turtles, etc.  Highly successful in Japan in 1981, Sega brought Frogger to the states in 1982, and it has enjoyed mass recognition and popularity since then.  The simple gameplay was brought to the household by Coleco soon after it hit the arcades, and while the idea was the same, the limited colors and lack of variety made this version less fun to play.  Another one of the series that can be found in many attics and trunks of thirty-somethings.

Zaxxon and Q*Bert

3D Space Warfare



Zaxxon was the first game to use a 3D perspective.  In it, you must pilot your ship around and over various obstacles while keeping an eye on enemy planes and tanks, with the final goal of defeating a robot named Zaxxon.  Playing in "3D" posed some new challenges for game players - lining up enemy fighters never required such an effort.  "3D" also posed a challenge for conversion to home use.  The console was completely different inside and out, and it used a combination of mirrors and dual VFD displays to pull of the three-dimensional effect.  The planet surface and ground based enemies were created on one VFD, while the player's ship and other air-based enemies were on the other VFD, which was in turn reflected off of the mirror.  Sounds good on paper, but gameplay was harder than expected.  The "3D" effect was hard to completely grasp, and players were just as prone to crashing into walls as they were getting shot down.  It still looked undeniably cool, however, and could be the showpiece to any collection.

Technically not Coleco, but who cares?



Q*Bert was inspired by the artwork of M.C. Escher, and his name originated from the combination of "Cube" and "Hubert".  The sole point of the game was to change the color of the cubes, but what really gave this game its needed twist was the angular jumps.  Q*Bert jumped on diagonal paths, which led to some eye-straining (and sometimes console pounding) when the player jumped off the edge of the pyramid in what appeared to be a safe jump.  Our last showcase was not from Coleco, but from Parker Brothers, the only such handheld game they produced.  The design was totally different than Coleco's handhelds with a more vertical VFD screen and large diagonal joystick.  These design choices actually made it easier to physically play the game, although the way the cubes were displayed made for a less enjoyable experience overall.  Released too near the video-game dropout of 1983, and not having the build-up and recognition that Coleco enjoyed at the time, this tabletop game remains a mystery to many players and collectors.

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