Connecticut Leather Company, later shortened to Coleco, was founded by brothers Arnold and Leonard Greenburg to make shoe leather 1932 and by the 1950s manufactured leather craft kits. 1956 took Coleco out of leather and into plastics, leading the company to become the top manufacturer of above-ground swimming pools. 1966 saw the acquisition of Eagle Toys and Coleco’s repertiore expanded to table top and hockey and football. 1975 was another expansion year- the Telstar video tennis console debuted, chipped by General Instruments, the major chip producer for console games at the time.
Coleco’s rise to fame in video games had everything to do with their chip supply. Though General Instruments was a huge supplier, they were unable to keep up with the sudden rash of their ‘Pong-on-a-chip’ demand and because Coleco had gotten their order in first, they had already completed Telstar’s inventory when chips ran out and expected market domination at its upcoming launch in 1976 by cheer volume in the marketplace.
But Telstar ran into multiple issues with interference from the console that held it up with FCC testing. As hoped for, Telstar hit shelves in spring of 1976 and sold a mint but by Fall of that year it was bumped down by the Channel F console from Fairchild Camera and Instrument– the first console to come with multiple games. Now players didn’t have to have a console dedicated to one game- they could load something else in.
Next Coleco went into handheld electronic games made popular by toy giant Mattel. Coleco put out several successful lines including ‘head to head’ 2-player sports games, Mini-Arcade games and educational games before moving into tabletop Mini-Arcade games up through 1983. Coleco secured extremely popular titles such as Donkey Kong, Ms. Pac-Man, Frogger, Galaxian, Donkey Kong, Zaxxon, etc.
1982 saw the launch of ColecoVision, Coleco’s 8bit answer to Atari’s VCS as well an Atari 2600 clone called Coleco Gemini. ColecoVision’s popularity hinged on its excellent graphics and range of titles. Coleco came to the forefront by manufacturing popular Atari-compatible cartridges and by 1984 had a catalogue of approximately 145 titles with an adaptor that allowed the ColecoVision to play VCS games. In a genius move by Coleco, theVision was bundled with Donkey Kong which propelled it into sales of over 500,000 units by Christmas of that year. Competing mainly with Atari 5200 at the time, ColecoVision remained a strong unit, so much so that Nintendo’s NES design and hardware was based on it. ColecoVision also had the same CPU and sound chip as Sega’s Master System.
The console had been developed by Eric Bromley and had the capabilities to put game images over clear backgrounds- Bromley’s intent was to develop games with video images in their backgrounds but the cost killed this idea and it was never featured in the final console sold. However, because it was so graphically advanced, Hasbro used a modified ColecoVision unit to experiment with interactive video in 1985 and it came as inspiration to Worlds of Wonder’s Tom Zito (of Teddy Ruxpin fame) to build a prototype of the Vision to stream images through a cable signal into the console, paving the way for future products.
But when it actually debuted in 1982, ColecoVision only had a few games to go to market with, unlike the established Atari who already had over 100 games to their name for VCS. And unfortunately, though players could use the adaptor to play VCS games on their Visions, the games didn’t look any better on the Vision.
Regarding Donkey Kong, Coleco gained a 6 month liscence exclusively with Nintendo in 1981 for ColecoVision to produce the home video game version. Coleco’s Donkey Kong became the closest version to the arcade game and 6 months later they began selling versions for VCS and Intellivision consoles. 1982 was Coleco’s 50th anniversary as a company and proved to be the companies best sales year of the 80s.
Unfortunately success never comes without its perils- Nintendo and Coleco fell prey to legal troubles with Universal Studios who demanded all Donkey Kong products destroyed and sales discontinued due to trademark conflict with the movie characters King Kong. Coleco ‘s Arnold Greenburg settled with the Hollywood giant and made a deal to pay royalties to Universal on all Donkey Kong shipments. Later when Nintendo ended up in court proving Kong to be of pubic domain and not exclusive to Universal, Coleco took up with Universal to get their money back. By the time all legal battles were over in 1985, Coleco had already moved out of games and into dolls- Cabbage Patch Kid dolls.
Going forward into 1982-1983, Coleco changed directions slightly with the public’s increasing interest in computers to work on the Adam computer– a computer with a master console and date recorder, cartridge slot for games, printer and keyboard. Selling for $600 USD, a partial Adam kit able to be plugged into the ColecoVision console was also sold for $400.
Production held Adam back in 1983 with only 1/5 of the promised units ready to ship. Adam promised the first bundled word-processor at an amazingly low price and at that time Coleco split into both toy and electronics divisions.
On the toy side, Arnold Greenburg came into contact with Little People dolls’ creator Xavier Roberts’ small studio called Appalachian Artworks. Because of the uniqueness and thoroughly thought-out world of the dolls which included their own adoption certificates and Babyland General hospital, Greenburg lisenced the newly re-named Cabbage Patch Kids for mass production. The Cabbage Patch Kids would go on to break sales records through 1985 before dropping into market oblivion.
Over on the electronics side, Adam wasn’t doing so well. Pushed into production before ready, defective Adams were shipped all over the country to store shelves and returned for glitches and bugs in the system. Stock in Coleco dropped drastically. A 2nd version of Adam shipped but by then interest had waned. Electronics sales all round for Coleco were down and they resulted to gimmicks such as giving away Cabbage Patch Dolls to buyers purchasing console and game cartridges to keep up sales with the Atari 5200’s newly dropped price. Adam’s sales tanked and Coleco’s last move was to acquire liscense to sell the Trivial Pursuit, Scrabble and Parcheesi game in 1986. This didn’t save the company however, filing for bankruptcy in 1988 lost that liscense and the that of the Cabbage Patch Kids in 1989.
The Ultimate History of Video Games – Steven L. Kent
Whatever Happened to the Cabbage Patch Kids?