Get your hands on some underappreciated classics.
I’ll be frank. I’m not much of an Atari 2600 fan [Hack #3] . Not that I don’t enjoy a good game of E.T. every now and again, but my personal retro gaming tastes run a bit more eclectic. And hey, why restrict yourself to the VCS when there are plenty of other consoles out there for around the same price? Put in a couple hundred bucks and you could amass ten thousand 1981 dollars’ worth of electronics; the fever-dream of every bellbottomed schoolboy.
Many of the tips and pointers in the preceding hack [Hack #3] will apply to the purchase and setup of most of the consoles mentioned in this one, so I’m going to concentrate on the things that differ—non-standard accessories, unique pitfalls, etc.
There were other video game systems on the market when traditional toys giant Mattel threw their hat into the ring in 1979, but the Intellivision (short for “intelligent television,” don’t you know) was the first major competitor to the 2600. Mattel ran comparison advertisements on TV directly attacking the 2600’s admittedly lesser graphics capabilities, and Atari fired back with ads demeaning the Intellivision’s lack of arcade hits.
And they were both right! But they each took steps to remedy these deficiencies—Atari by introducing its RealSports line that looked and played better than their earlier efforts (but not as good as Intellivision Baseball, etc.) and Mattel by introducing some original shooters like Astrosmash. Intellivision Donkey Kong is just plain awful, though, and not in a funny way. They made Donkey Kong green for some reason.
The vast majority of Intellivision games shipped with “overlays,” thin printed sheets of acetate that slid into the number pad on the system’s controller and showed you which buttons did what. Many games are playable without the overlays, but some more complicated ones are next to impossible if you don’t know the button assignments. If you’re missing any, printable-quality scans of overlays are catalogued at http://www.intvfunhouse.com.
There are a multitude of different Intellivision console variations to choose from. Your best bet is to buy an original wood-and-gold Intellivision (also released by RadioShack as the Tandyvision One and by Sears as the Sears Super Video Arcade). Its power supply is internal, which means you’ll have no ugly black box taking up space on your wall outlet. And the power cord—not to mention both controllers—is hardwired into the console, so there’s no chance of losing them. Of course, this means that if you come across an Intellivision with broken controllers or frayed cords, you won’t be able to replace them. A much later release, called the INTV System III, is nearly identical to the original but with a black and silver color scheme and an LED that indicates whether the power is on.
The black sheep of the family is the pure white Intellivision II. It leaves a much smaller footprint and the controllers are replaceable (though extras are hard to find). The disadvantages are that it is incompatible with a few games (including Donkey Kong, which maybe is not such a bad thing), and that the AC adapter is external and non-standard, meaning that you won’t be able to replace it at RadioShack. Oh, and you have to hold the Power button for three seconds to turn it off, which should be a deal-breaker for easily frustrated gamers (like this author) who like having the option to smack the console’s power off. (Why Sony adopted this vile method for the PlayStation 2 and PSP I will never understand.)
Of the “golden age” systems, Coleco’s 1982 entry is my favorite. It was the high-end powerhouse of its day; where Atari and Intellivision claimed to replicate the arcade experience, Colecovision was the first system to really do it. Securing an exclusive license from Nintendo to port their hit arcade titles to the system, Coleco packed a copy of Donkey Kong in with each and every unit. Though it wasn’t entirely faithful to the arcade title, the difference between it and the 2600 and Intellivision versions that Coleco later produced is like night and day.
Coleco didn’t stop there. The company secured even more arcade hits from popular makers, publishing many of them under their own label: Data East’s Bump ‘n Jump and Burgertime, Sega’s Congo Bongo and Space Fury, Midway’s Tapper and Spy Hunter, and Universal’s Mr. Do! and Ladybug. Most of these games are relatively easy to find.
Like the Intellivision, the Colecovision has a bay at the top where its controllers are stored; unlike the Intellivision the controllers are removable and replaceable. Some, but not many, Colecovision games used overlays for the controller’s numerical pad. Since the system’s top hits were based on arcade games that only used one or two buttons, there was little need for overlays.
The gigantic power supply is external, detachable, and proprietary, so make sure it is included when you buy the system. There were a few accessories for the system that are not especially rare: a plastic steering wheel and pedal that included Sega’s Turbo arcade game, and a pair of Super Action Controllers that featured comfortable grips and large buttons and included Super Action Baseball in the box. Last but not least, Expansion Module #1 let you play all Atari 2600 games on the Colecovision.
And if you do come across an ADAM computer at a flea market, know that it can play Colecovision games. It was an awful computer even at the time of its release—it was buggy, slow, and useless—but in a pinch it can serve as a Colecovision.
To defend against the onslaught of high-powered competitors, Atari released the 5200 a few months after the Colecovision in 1982. Although it occupied a much more stylized (and absolutely gigantic) form factor, the innards of the 5200 were nearly identical to Atari’s line of 8-bit computers such as the 400. This resulted in a pretty high-powered system, able to more than keep up with the Colecovision graphically.
So why does it usually get little more than a footnote in gaming history? Because of its awful controllers. Like the Intellivision and the Colecovision before it, the 5200 added a numerical keypad to the controller; the games of course featured overlays, although few really needed them. But this wasn’t the death knell—the analog joystick was. Though the concept was interesting (and indeed would take off when Nintendo added a stick to the Nintendo 64’s controller in 1996), the 5200’s stick was not self-centering, meaning that the player had to manually bring it back to the center. The market for 5200 joysticks from third-party manufacturers boomed for a while.
If you find yourself frustrated with the standard controller, but really love your 5200, you might consider buying a new product called the Redemption 5200 (http://www.atariage.com/store/index.php?cPath=22_76). It is available in three versions, and lets you use 2600, Sega Master System, Sega Genesis, Atari 7800, and PC joystick controllers with the 5200, breathing new life into old games.
Although all 5200 models look alike at first glance, there is one important difference to keep in mind. Earlier models of the system, which had four controller ports, used a single cord to do two things: receive power and transmit the RF signal to the television set. This cord was, luckily, hardwired into the system; however, the special adapter that split the signal into power and RF was not, and the system is useless without it. If you find a version with two controller ports on the front, it uses separate cables for power and RF (and will work with any TV/Game switch).
What was the deal with numerical keypads and overlays, anyway? One explanation is that it made the video game system look more like a computer without the expense of adding an entire keyboard. This led parents to believe they were purchasing something that their child might someday use to learn programming. Indeed, some systems such as the Atari 2600 and Odyssey2 did feature add-on software that let users program in BASIC, but it was a tremendous chore that rarely if ever resulted in useful programs.
Thus, all the keypad really did was make the controllers awkward to hold in the hand. Amazingly, the Atari Jaguar system, released in 1996, had a numerical keypad and overlays on its oversized standard controller. (In another ill-advised throwback it even used a manual old-style TV/Game Switch.)
The super-powered 7800 was intended from the beginning to be the successor to the 2600. It might have worked, too, had Atari executives not rushed out the 5200 to compete with the Colecovision and Intellivision. Work on the 7800 continued and the system was readied for a release in 1984. But Atari then made the ill-fated decision to dump video games entirely and concentrate solely on personal computers.
And then Nintendo happened, and Atari was shaken out of its lull by the fact that the video game market was now bigger than it had ever been under their watch. Looking at their stock of 2600 and 7800 merchandise that had been manufactured but never shipped, they jumped back on the bandwagon. So in 1986, Atari put its 1984 inventory on the shelves. They probably made a decent amount of money, but the 7800 didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell against the onslaught of the NES.
The 7800 uses a standard TV/Game switch but a unique AC adapter, so be sure the system you’re buying has one included. One advantage to the 7800 is that it is backwards compatible with 2600 cartridges without the use of an adapter. The joysticks, while notoriously painful after a few hours of play, were better than the 5200’s. And though the system’s software catalog was small, the games are still generally easy to find. You can order brand new, sealed 7800 titles for $5 each through O’Shea Ltd (http://www.oshealtd.com), though there is a minimum order of 12 games. Be sure to check out Ninja Golf!