Coleco Gemini Video Game System (Colecovision), 22 Results For Gemini Game System

Dave Farquhar Retro Computing July 31, 2017March 8, 20211980s, atari, atari 2600, CES, Jay Miner, NES, sears, video game

I spotted it on page 597 of the 1983 Sears Christmas catalog. “Two big names play the same games,” the headline boasted. Next to the venerable Atari 2600, Sears presented the Coleco Gemini video game system, an Atari 2600 clone.

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In 1982, Coleco built an add-on to make its Coleco Vision game system Atari 2600-compatible. Atari sued. Coleco poked the bear by making the Gemini, an outright clone. Sears had sold Atari 2600 clones before, but they were actually real Atari 2600s with a different label on them, supplied by Atari itself. The Gemini was more of a true Atari 2600 clone.

Origins of the Coleco Gemini: The Coleco Vision expansion module

Counter-intuitively, the Gemini’s story begins with the Coleco Vision, Coleco’s higher-end game console. The Coleco Vision was short-lived but rather successful. Its design borrowed heavily from Microsoft’s MSX design for a home computer, placing it much closer to the NES and Sega Master System in capability than to the aging Atari 2600.

Coleco wanted the Coleco Vision to be able to play Atari games, but the two machines had exactly zero hardware in common. Even the CPUs were completely different. So Coleco’s expansion module to add 2600 compatibility was really a second game console in its own right.

Not entirely off the shelf parts

Inside, Coleco’s expansion module contained a 6507 CPU and a 6532 RIOT chip providing memory and I/O. Both are standard off the shelf parts that several companies could supply in the 1980s. Nothing about those two chips was exclusive to Atari. The only chip that was a problem was the TIA.

The TIA was Jay Miner’s simple audio/video chip, and it’s what makes the Atari 2600 what it is. Any successful Atari 2600 clone needed that chip, or a perfect copy, to function properly. Otherwise it wouldn’t be 100% compatible with the original. Without the TIA, Coleco’s attempts to clone the Atari 2600 would have been unsuccessful.

The TIA was Atari property. Some people have speculated that so many companies made the TIA for Atari that it was a de facto off the shelf part. That is incorrect. It was still Atari’s design, so anyone seeking to sell it to someone other than Atari needed Atari’s permission.

Coleco sourced a clone from another company, VTI, later known as VLSI Technology Inc. It’s unclear whether Coleco or VTI did the actual design work, but VTI also sold the same chip to Mattel for their 2600 compatibility module for the Intellivision console. The TIA clone accounted for 69% of VTI’s revenue in 1982, according to the trade publication Electronic Business Today.

By the accounts I can find, VTI’s clone was more of an outright copy. The design basically sliced Atari’s design into four pieces and moved them around. It wasn’t a true clean-room reimplementation, the way Compaq cloned IBM’s PC. As such, it presented considerable risk of legal problems. If a lawyer could convince a judge that slicing a chip into four quadrants and moving the quadrants around and calling it your own was the same as simply rearranging the chapters of a book and calling it your own, the game was over.

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The lawsuit

Atari sued Coleco for $350 million in December 1982, saying Coleco infringed on two of its patents. Coleco counter-sued for $500 million, claiming antitrust violations.

The two parties settled out of court in March 1983, with Coleco agreeing to pay Atari a licensing fee on the two patents. Atari decided it would be more profitable, or at least less risky, to let Coleco sell the Gemini and the expansion module and collect royalty payments. Coleco was on shaky legal ground, but Atari didn’t need antitrust issues.

If you’re wondering why no one ever cloned the Commodore 64 in the 1980s, the outcome of this lawsuit would have scared them off.

Coleco Gemini video game system, an outright Atari 2600 clone

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This is part of the shuttered Coleco factory complex in Amsterdam, NY.

The Coleco Gemini video game system was pretty much a non-factor in the marketplace by the end of 1983 as demand for the Atari 2600 tanked. Coleco didn’t last much longer either.

Coleco was hedging its bets. In 1983 it also released its Adam home computer. And when demand for home computers soared, Coleco tried to ride that wave. The Adam held a lot of promise, but manufacturing defects held the machine back, and Coleco ended up losing $98.4 million in 1984. Coleco discontinued the Adam in January 1985, unable to compete with the Commodore 64 juggernaut.

It kept the Coleco Vision game system in production until October 1985, saying it was still marginally profitable. But when it came to video games, Atari and Coleco were part of the past. The future belonged to Nintendo. The Sega Master System was extremely similar to the Coleco Vision, but Sega souped up the graphics chip to better compete with Nintendo. In theory Coleco could have repeated the Gemini strategy against Sega, but they didn’t have the money. Bowing out of video games when they did was probably the right decision.

By 1988, Coleco was $540 million in debt and filed for bankruptcy, selling most of its assets to Hasbro. It was a swift and inglorious end for a company that seemed like it could conquer the world in 1983.

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In hindsight, the Coleco Gemini video game console was probably a mistake. But if there was one product that killed Coleco, the Gemini wasn’t it. The Coleco Adam was.

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