ColecoVision Preview – Qwerty Versus Donkey Kong

A plug-in keyboard would zap-up the new ColecoVision games unit, says Geof Wheelwright.


When you take the lid off, this games machine looks far more like the computer it really is. The big processing chip near the front is a Z80A and the front interface connects to peripherals – including the soon-to-be-released computer keyboard.

Don’t write off the ColecoVision video games system just because you want a programmable computer. That may have been the rule in the past, but this machine will sport a plug-in keyboard – one day.

At £130 the Coleco machine is a computer in video game clothing. CBS Electronics and Ideal Toys are due to launch it in June.

The vital clue is on the front of the machine – hiding just below the game cartridge socket is an innocent-looking expansion interface. This is where you can plug in a computer keyboard.

There’s no estimated price on the keyboard yet, but Ideal spokesman Richard Ault promises it will cost less than the games unit itself.

Electronics companies used to wean you onto the harder stuff – real home computers – by getting you to buy a games machine first. But now even the games machine companies are realising that more and more people are ready for the hard stuff, and can’t get it fast enough.

ColecoVision was released in North America last year, aimed at the Mattel and Atari video games market. But CBS and Ideal realise that it just isn’t on to bring out a non-programmable machine in the UK.

Despite this reasoning the keyboard will not be available for the ColecoVision launch. This means it will not be possible to access the machine’s computer capabilities immediately. The machine tested played games wonderfully and featured sophisticated high-resolution graphics. But when struck with the programmer’s natural itch to create, I could do nothing with it.

Mr Ault concedes that the success or failure of the machine in this country will depend on the arrival of the keyboard. He vows that it will be on sale by autumn.

He seems to shudder at the mention of Mattel’s long-standing – and unfulfilled – promise to supply a computer keyboard for the Intellivision games machine and swears Ideal will not ‘do a Mattel’.

But the ColecoVision promotional material currently available seems to make the same kind of vague keyboard promises that characterised Mattel’s no-show.

One example of this is that, although the other plug-ins for the Coleco are well documented, there is not even a mock-up of the computer keyboard in company promotional brochures.

So until that keyboard turns up you’ll have to be content with £20 CBS Electronic games cartridges.

The game supplied with our machine was Donkey Kong, a licensed version of the popular arcade game of the same name. CBS Electronics has the market cornered on this cartridge, and sells the same game for both the Mattel Intellivision system and the Atari VCS. Coleco’s version of the game seems better than the ones implemented on Atari and Mattel machines.

Even without a keyboard the ColecoVision can be credited with a good deal of ingenuity in design. Like any good computer, it’s adaptable and expandable – even using it as a games machine.

But software availability is the key to success, and Coleco’s designers have developed a highly versatile expansion module interface on the front of the machine. Plug-in modules allow the machine to play all the games cartridges currently available for both Atari and Intellivision machines.

You will also be able to plug in the computer keyboard and a “Turbo Drive’ module to the interface. The turbo drive module wasn’t available for our test, but looks like good fun. You plug the joystick into it to serve as a gearshift, and use the wheel and foot-pedal provided to drive down the on-screen highway generated by the computer.

We thought the hand-controllers were a nice compromise between the limiting Atari joystick and the rather pedestrian Intellivision keypad. The controllers consist of an eight-directional disc on a stick – a sort of upside-down joystick – at the top, two independently controlled fire buttons at the side, and a 12-key numeric pad which can handle the overlays needed for Intellivision games.

As a pure games machine, it’s unlikely you will find anything in the £130 price range to touch the Coleco machine’s quality graphics and playability. And if you want something that can turn into a computer when you’re tired of either buying or playing games, keep the Coleco in mind.

We wouldn’t advise buying the Coleco machine on the assumption that you’ll soon be able to use it as a computer, but you can draw that conclusion if Coleco meets its summer deadline for release of the keyboard in the US.

First published in Personal Computer News, 25th March 1983


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