Gaming Literacy: The ColecoVision Expansion Module #1 played competitor's games

In our Gaming Literacy series we're taking a look at relics and moments from gaming past. These are the artifacts and events all gamers should know, whether they be glorious highlights or frightening failures. 

Once upon a time, in the early 1980s, the home video game industry was so new that literally nobody had any clue what they were doing. Everybody was making it up as they went along.  It was essentially the Wild West.

However, because everything was so new, and technology was so much more basic, it was actually possible to do things back then that would never be possible in the future. There is no more perfect example than the ColecoVision Expansion Module #1. The device has the world’s most boring name but it was a singularly unique device in the history of video games, as it allowed you to play games from a competing game console on their system. Specifically, you could play games from the industry leading Atari 2600.

ColecoVision vs. Atari

For the uninitiated, the ColecoVision was a home game console released in 1982 to compete with Atari. It was a reasonably successful console that saw about 145 games made for it over a two year period, and it sold an excess of 1 million units. Today it would be fair to say the console is largely forgotten, though it’s probably fondly remembered by those that owned one.

As one of those ColecoVision-owners, what I remember most about my ColecoVision is all the Atari games I played on it, because the ColecoVision did something that most game consoles did not at the time: it left itself open for upgrades. I had one of those upgrades, the infamous Expansion Module #1. In practice the module was essentially a mini game console itself that had a slot for Atari 2600 games. By plugging the expansion module into the main game console you could play Atari games on the ColecoVision.

Take a moment to really imagine what this would mean, in more modern gaming terms. Imagine being able to play NES games on your Master System, or Gamecube games on your PlayStation 2. Want to play the latest Halo on your PS4? All you need is a special adapter. The idea would be laughed out of the room today. Whoever tried that would be sued back to the stone age.

Well Atari actually tried that whole lawsuit thing. And Atari lost.

Atari sued ColecoVision for patent infringement (you can check out this old New York Times article about it), and while you might expect that to be an open and shut case, it wasn’t. You see, while gaming systems today are high tech pieces of equipment with all sorts of proprietary firmware and software involved, in the 1980s that simply wasn’t the case. In fact, if you had access to some fairly basic electronic components and had the requisite knowledge, you could build an Atari 2600 right now without much trouble. That’s essentially all Coleco did. Everything in the expansion module came from off the shelf components. Since Coleco didn’t use anything proprietary, the the judge found Coleco was well within their rights to build their own 2600 and sell it.

Atari and Coleco ended up settling out of court, and Coleco eventually became an actual licensee of Atari patents. This resulted in the Coleco Gemini, the game console equivalent of a PC clone. It was a full console, made specifically by Coleco, but one that only played Atari 2600 games.

The battle between Atari and Coleco is not one of the more famous console wars, but it was one of the few console battles to involve an actually lawsuit. It was one of the first tech confrontations of its kind, and the fact that the (relatively) little guy won the fight and was actually able to keep selling such a strange product makes this a story worthy of the gaming history books...even if the console that produced it is largely forgotten. 

For more on the distant past of the console wars, check out these classic commercials