Friday, March 24, 2017

Old Coleco or New Coleco : Nostalgia or Nothing


ColecoVision Video Game System (courtesy of wikipedia)
The Connecticut Leather Company, popularly known by its moniker Coleco, certainly had an interesting role in the history of video games.  It started by making dedicated game consoles in the Pong-era which were marketed as the Telstar series.  They also made a line of well-received hand-held conversions of arcade games, the mini-Arcades.  Finally, they turned their hands to marketing a game console, the ColecoVision, and a home computer, the Adam.  But when the video game crash wiped out all the consoles of the 2nd generation of video games, they were left to selling Cabbage Patch Kids dolls and other toys to survive for a time.  The costly failures of their video game ventures brought them to liquidation by the end of the 1980s.

In 2005, the Coleco brand was reintroduced to the general public by West River Holdings (WRH), a company that revitalizes older trademarks.  Companies like WRH look for trademarks which have been dormant for some time but had been previously been associated by the public with a successful product or service.  These trademarks could simply discontinued by the user of the mark or abandoned when the owner went out of business.  WRH typically forms an LLC to manage and promote each trademark it acquires.  In Coleco's case, it was Coleco Holdings, LLC.  In 2016, WRH and its brands were purchased by Dormitus Brands, another trademark holding company.

For the remainder of this article, where it is necessary to distinguish the two, I will refer to the original Coleco, the company that was sold in the late 1980s as the "old Coleco".  The WRH incarnation will be referred to as the "new Coleco".  Let's discuss the legacy of the old Coleco vs. the new Coleco.




Coleco Telstar Arcade (courtesy of wikipedia)
While the old Coleco could boast a substantial video game legacy : the Telstar Series, the mini-Arcades, the ColecoVision and the Coleco Adam, what can be said of the new Coleco?  The new Coleco began with a handheld device called the Coleco Sonic in 2006, which included 20 games from the Sega Master System.  While the Master System is an upgraded ColecoVision from a hardware perspective, the games on the Coleco Sonic have little relation to the games released on the ColecoVision (as its name might imply).

More recently, the new Coleco allowed its name to be licensed for the atgames ColecoVision Flashback console.  The ColecoVision Flashback came with sixty games, forty-eight of them were contemporary to the original Coleco while twelve were homebrews.  The Coleco Flashback also came with detachable controllers that were physical replicas of the original controllers but functionally incompatible with the original console and slightly smaller than the originals.

Coleco Adam Home Computer (courtesy of wikipedia)
However, here is the chief issue with Coleco-nostalgia, there is very little to see unless you have a true appreciation for its game library.  Its game library has a narrow focus.  Most of the games released for the Coleco were arcade ports.  While most of these ports were very good considering the limitations of the console, MAME did not exist in the 1980s. MAME can emulate almost every arcade game ported to the Coleco very well.  Some of these games were more faithfully ported on later, more powerful systems.  Additionally, many of the Coleco's arcade ports also have other good ports on the Coleco's home console and home computer competitors of the day.

There are many games on the Coleco that were ports from the Atari 2600, Atari 8-bit home computers or the Atari 5200, pretty much everything released by Activision and Imagic were ports from the rival systems.  Unlike its rival, the Intellivision, the Coleco just really does not have any unique great or many exclusive games to call its own.  Moreover, few people really like the Coleco controller.  It is uncomfortable and accessing the two buttons (one on either side of the pad) is not well suited to fast arcade action.  The control knob is very imprecise.  The Coleco Adam was the home computer version with more RAM. a full keyboard, built-in programs and a printer.  Unfortunately the Adam was beset with a host of problems and was a colossal failure for Coleco.
Coleco Sonic (courtesy of amazon.com)
Moreover, the Coleco is the most generic console ever made in the 20th Century.  It is constructed entirely from off-the-shelf parts, the Z80 CPU, the TMS9928A VDC, the TI SN76489 PSG, ROM and RAM.  Only the BIOS was unique to the machine.  There had essentially been a home computer variant of the Coleco, the Texas Instruments TI-99/4 and /4A around since 1979.  The MSX computer standard was successful everywhere except North America and used the same CPU and VDC and a somewhat better AY-3-8910 PSG.  In fact, a hardware add-on for the Coleco called the Super Game Module adds 32KB of RAM (already included in the Coleco Adam) and the AY-3-8910 for homebrew software development.  These additions make it much easier for programmers to port good MSX games to the Coleco, enhance existing games and make new games.  Given that the MSX, despite being developed partly by Microsoft, was rather unsuccessful in the English-speaking world, the Super Game Module can help introduce many MSX games to a real hardware experience.

If you consider the Coleco the most technologically advanced system for 1982, its dominance did not last long.  (Weirdly, the Coleco and the Atari 5200 (also released in 1982) had 1979 antecedents in the TI-99/4 and the Atari 400 & 800, respectively).  Less than a year after its release, Sega released a near-clone of the Coleco in Japan called the SG-1000.  Unfortunately, the Nintendo Famicom was also released at the same time of the Sega system and bested the SG-1000 in every way.  Donkey Kong as a Famicom launch title was far more impressive and closer to the arcade than the version packed in with the Coleco.  While the Adam version has all the arcade animations and levels, you needed an Adam or Expansion Module #3, which converted the ColecoVision to an Adam.

ColecoVision Flashback (courtesy of amazon.com)
The ColecoVision Flashback was a good value, but like all atgames products, the emulation would only pass casual muster.  The sound was off, although not quite as bad as the junk sound output by atgames Sega Genesis clones.  A few games had more substantial issues, but most play faithfully.  The joysticks felt cheap and the buttons were not the most responsive.  Although a real Colecovision can be modded to RGB, the Flashback only supports composite video.  It doesn't support any of the ColecoVision's special controllers and of course cannot be upgraded.

The Flashback, released in 2014, was undoubtedly the highlight for the new Coleco.  Its next major venture, however, would do the company no credit.  When the RetroVGS failed to come close to its Indiegogo target, it looked like a failed venture in December of 2015.  Then a month later, the RetroVGS was resurrected as the Coleco Chameleon.  Mike Kennedy, the man who was the driving force behind the pie-in-the-sky goals of the RetroVGS campaign, struck a licensing deal with the new Coleco.  With the branding of the Coleco name and the original molds for the Atari Jaguar console shell, he demonstrated a "prototype" at the New York Toy Fair in February of 2016.

From the beginnings of the show, many observers began to question the legitimacy of the prototype.  They believed that inside the Jaguar/Chameleon shell was the motherboard of a SNES mini (SNS-101).  The Chameleon prototype used wired SNES controllers, had the rear connectors of a SNES mini, was powered by a 3-in-1 power supply suitable for a NES, SNES or Genesis and was running an sd2snes flash cart.  The new Coleco rallied to the defense of its new partner, as did some other partners like (the former pirate who runs) Piko Interactive.  However, the second protype was shown in a clear Jaguar shell and ultimately turned out to be a PC DVI capture card.  At that point Coleco gave Mike Kennedy seven days to allow them to inspect the prototype, and when he could not meet that demand, they severed all ties with him and doomed the Coleco Chameleon to history.

RWB has used a rather controversial tactic in relation to trademarks, trademark squatting.
http://propertyintangible.com/2008/07/who-owns-dead-mark-ask-river-west.html
Essentially, when someone wishes to seek trademark protection, they must file an Intent to Use application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.  This application is sent to an examiner for review.  The Intent to Use protects the applicant for a period of six months, intended to allow the applicant to begin to use his trademark in trade or commerce without having to compete with others trying to use that mark.  At the end of the six month period, the applicant must file a Statement of Use, where they include a sworn statement informing the USPTO how they have used the mark.  The Applicant can obtain six six month extensions of time to file the SoU. So for a period of forty two months (3.5 years), they can tie up anyone else who would use that mark.  During that time, a company wanting to introduce its product may have a powerful motivation to settle with a trademark squatter, as explained here : http://www.insidecounsel.com/2010/05/01/trademark-squatting-on-the-rise-in-us

RWB is a marketing company, not a video game company.  As the first article cited in the previous paragraph indicates, RWB did not make, manufacture or sell anything, they only license the Coleco branding to anyone with whom they can make a deal.  They had failed to conduct their due diligence prior to entering into an agreement with Mike Kennedy.  Mike Kennedy's first commercial venture, Game Gavel, was supposed to be the great eBay alternative to selling video games.  However, almost no one bought or sold there by the time of the Chameleon.  Even Mike Kennedy sold his items on eBay after Game Gavel was in operation, an illustration of chutzpah if ever there was one.

Mike Kennedy's second commercial venture, Retro Videogame Magazine, was having serious difficulties delivering on its second Kickstarter campaign pledges and had alienated many contributors to the magazine with a chaotic publishing schedule and many customers with the declining quality of the magazine's content.  Now it is reduced to begging on Patreon for funding to publish new issues of the Magazine.  Had RWB done their due diligence on Mike Kennedy's retrogaming business ventures and the conduct of the RetroVGS campaign, they should have stayed far away.

After the Coleco Chameleon debacle, the new Coleco has been pretty quiet of late.  They did solicit some community advice on the AtariAge forums about making a new line of mini-Arcades.  I loved the Coleco Pac-Man mini-Arcade I had when I was a kid and regret the day I threw it away.  It was loud, took four C batteries and did not particularly look or sound like the arcade game.  One of its best features was its Vacuum Fluorescent Display (VFD), allowing it to be played in the dark.  It also had a two-player simultaneous mode and played like Pac-Man.  I have a Pac-Man electronic game made by Basic Fun that has the same concept as the Coleco mini-Arcade and looks and sounds closer to the arcade game, but it uses a monochrome non-backlit LCD display.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your anti-mostalgic perspective on the ColecoVision is valid, but I think you're missing the historical point of what a big deal it was AT THE TIME to have a very arcade-close version of Donkey Kong to play at home. Yes, the Famicom got a better port, but it would be several years before the NES brought it to the United States. By that time, Coleco was pretty much dead and the Donkey Kong arcade fad had cooled significantly.