ColecoVision: The Next Step!

by Arnie Katz

Will This Be the Hot New System?

Sensational technological leaps have generated most of the progress in the home arcading field in the decade since the introduction of the first videogame. The standard programmable videogame systems began a whole new ball game when they replaced the crude Pong units that originally dominated that phase of electronic gaming.

Then came the senior programmable videogames. They combined the convenience and versatility of having game programs on ROM cartridges with a larger resident memory and more detailed graphics.

Each class of system has played games substantially better—or at least played more sophisticated games—than the devices which preceded it. Now, here comes the third wave of programmable videogames. “Third wave” systems feature really large amounts of resident memory—up to the same 48K as most of the popular microcomputers—and screen RAM that is measured in thousands, rather than hundreds, of bytes. (Screen RAM is the “secret ingredient” in videogame graphics. It helps determine things like the amount of detail on-screen images possess and the number and speed of objects that can be moved around the screen.)

ColecoVision has the distinction of being the first “third wave” system to hit the market. The shock waves will reverberate for at least the next year, as independent publishers of software jockey for position in this explosive new segment of the hobby. ColecoVision promises coin-op quality videogames in a home setting, and it delivers on this pledge to a surprising extent. It’s not perfect by any means, but ColecoVision just may be the home arcade system of the mid-1980’s.

The simple, yet sturdy design of the ColecoVision console is calculated to inspire user confidence. Little gingerbread means there’s that much less that can go wrong to spoil your gaming. The unit is fairly free of dials, switches and buttons, because players use the controller keypad to select the number of participants, skill level and such. An on/off slide switch and an “instant reset” button are the only controls, both found on the top panel near the front.

A pair of niches located at the left rear of the top panel hold the two ColecoVision controllers supplied with the system. The hand-held command devices, which use Atari VCS-compatible connectors, plug snugly into recessed outlets and are attached to the console with telephone-like coil cords.

Hook-up is about as easy as for any other home arcade. The gamer attaches the AC adapter to the power source and plugs the other wire into the usual RF converter box. Coleco provides an RF unit with the system, though it is essentially the same as those used in conjunction with such machines as the Atari VCS, Intellivision and Astrocade. That’s good news for owners of more than one system who like to switch among the various machines during the same play session without a lot of fuss.

The cartridge slot is also situated on the top panel, though toward the left front. Push a game cartridge through the little door covering the slot until it can’t go any further into the console, and you’re ready to play. It takes a few seconds for the ColecoVision to set up a game from an ROM cartridge program, but the wait is not excessively longer than with other videogame systems. As per usual, it’s always a good idea to turn off the system completely when changing cartridges.

The controllers refine the design which Mattel pioneered with the Intellivision. There is a numeric, touch-sensitive keypad laid out about the same as the dial of a touch-tone phone. Pushing the asterisk, located to the left of the “0” on the bottom row, causes the same variation of a given game to reset. Hitting the “#”, found immediately to the right of the “0”, returns the screen display to the menu. From that list, players can choose a new set of variables to govern the play of the next round.

The joystick portion of the controller is short and stubby, topped by a large circular knob that serves as a handgrip. The stick shaft should have been much longer so that the arcader could apply more torque, even though such a configuration would have made it tougher to store a ColecoVision in a small space.

The responsiveness of the stick isn’t quite everything an arcade ace might wish. It’s not unpardonably sluggish, but movement simply isn’t as crisp as with some of the gourmet control devices now reaching market. Some upgrading of the joystick wouldn’t be a mistake.

The action buttons are sidemounted, one on each edge of the command device. Though no controller has an easier-to-use version of this arrangement, side buttons are indisputably harder to work for many, especially those having small hands.

Making the controllers interchangeable with those used on the Commodore VIC-20, Atari VCS and Atari 400/800 computer systems was a smart move. Many games can be played using special sticks in place of the standard ColecoVision ones. Players must have access to at least one keypad to establish the number of players and the difficulty level, but this presents no problem at all for the solo gamer. The rest of us will have to wait for the arrival of premium-quality controllers with two action buttons.

Sound and graphics are unsurpassed in the videogame arena. Colors are rich and deep, animation is as fluid as a Saturday morning cartoon and the sound effects are of coin-op quality. The console we tested produced a sharp, interference-free image on the screen.

One aspect of the console that is as yet impossible to evaluate is hidden discretely behind a little door on the front panel of the machine. This is the interface for the modules which Coleco intends to produce for its system. The first one, which should be available by the time this article sees print, will allow home arcaders to play cartridges intended for the Atari VCS on their ColecoVision. This should be good news for those who want the ColecoVision as a second system but don’t feel good about scrapping their VCS cartridge collection.

Other add-ons planned for ColecoVision include: a driving controller for Turbo and other similar games, a keyboard to turn the unit into an authentic microcomputer and, perhaps ultimately, an emulator that would permit the ColecoVision to handle Intellivision cartridges.

“All this about the hardware is fine,” you may be muttering, “but when is he going to get to the games?” Right now. Although the ROM cartridges do not come close to taxing the memory capacity of the console, their superior audio-visuals raise them above the usual run of videogames. When the price of computer chips falls low enough to make it economically feasible to make more powerful game carts, this system should really be able to lap the field.

Donkey Kong may well be the best videogame cartridge ever packed with a system. Though it eliminates the animated sequences that introduce the game as well as each of the individual scenarios, Donkey Kong effectively translates the essence of the Nintendo coin-op to the TV screen.

Playable by one or two gamers at a range of four graduated skill levels, Donkey Kong spins the saga of Mario the maintenance man. It seems that a giant ape has kidnapped his girlfriend and scampered up the side of a half-finished skyscraper. To get her back, Mario must work his way up the edifice, using ladders and elevators to ascend to the lofty perch where Donkey Kong sits with his human prize. Pushing the joystick to the left or right moves Mario back and forth along any horizontal girder, while pushing the stick forward or back will allow Mario, when correctly positioned, to climb up or down a ladder.

It wouldn’t be much of a game if our hero didn’t have to overcome some obstacles, and the ones in Donkey Kong are dillies. Mario must leap over or dodge flaming barrels or intelligent fireballs as he moves through the game’s three phases toward his goal of rescuing his lady love.

Cosmic Avenger, based on the Universal commercial arcade game, is hardly less of a success than the ape game. The arcader captains an air-and-sea fighter in the scrolling shootout. The gamer uses the action buttons to fire the nose-mounted laser and drop bombs in an effort to fight through three scenarios.

First, the arcader must pilot his craft through the perilous skies of a super-scientific city bristling with missile launchers. Adding to the conflict in this portion of the game is a fleet of UFOs which fire missiles at the ship. A radar screen located at the top, center of the display helps keep track of the movement of the flying saucers, but it can sometimes be a little hard to read in the heat of battle.

The second phase is a vast plain dotted with mesas. The UFOs fly air cover for shell -firing tanks that cruise along the ground. If you get through that without exhausting your supply of five ships, it’s time to head beneath the waves for some undersea combat. You must explode or maneuver around the mines, while dueling with torpedo-firing submarines and missile batteries.

Venture is just as fast-paced as Cosmic Avenger, but it’s a totally different gaming experience. Introduced in the commercial fun palaces by Exidy with some success, this contest of fearsome monsters and priceless treasures may well come into its own in this home edition. Now players have the chance to really delve deeply into what is a taxing strategic challenge.

Venture casts the arcader in the role of the cute-but-intrepid hero Winky. Armed with a bow that can be fired by hitting the action button, Winky must explore a multi-level labyrinth. Each level has four rooms, and each room holds a specific prize and a set of monsters to guard it. Winky must zip down corridors, avoiding the invincible hall-monsters, and enter each room in turn. Once inside, it is the player’s option to either blast a path to the booty or try to out-maneuver the guardian creatures. When an electronic explorer has put all four prizes on a particular floor into his hoard, the program moves him to the next set of four more difficult chambers.

Again, Coleco has created a home cartridge that is, for all intents and purposes, comparable to the quarter-snatcher of the same title. Each set of monsters has its unique method of attack, and there’s a different theme song for each room on any given floor.

At this point, Coleco has announced plans to produce 22 game cartridges for its new system by mid-1983.

The ColecoVision library can fairly be characterized as highly dependent on home translations of arcade machines. Titles in this category include: Zaxxon (Sega), Mousetrap (Exidy) and Turbo (Sega). There’ll also be a pair of sports simulations, Head-to-Head Baseball and Head-to-Head Football, as well as adventure cartridges based on the non-electronic “Tunnels & Trolls” role-playing game and the Smurfs cartoon characters.

Absent, at least from the announced schedule, are any plans on the part of Coleco to design many original arcade-style action games for its system. Presumably, several independent software publishers will be more than thrilled to fill this gap.

In many ways, ColecoVision is the best new videogame system introduced since Atari brought forth the VCS back in 1978. If Coleco is able to harness its mammoth potential, the first of the “third wave” systems may turn out to be the home arcaders’ top choice for the mid-1980’s.

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