“The greatest console ever to be shaped like a triangle!”
This article is part of a new initiative on IGN where we spend a whole month exploring topics we find interesting in the world of video games. July is Launches month, where we take an in-depth look at the soaring highs and frustrating lows that come with debuting a new console, movie, or video game.
Aside from a couple of minor design choices, the Xbox and the Playstation have looked remarkably similar to each other for the past two generations. The Xbox 360 and PS3, for example, were both slightly curved boxes, while the Xbox One and PS4 were more angular.
The reveal of the PS5, however, has changed that. As the Xbox heads into the next generation with another relatively standard black box, the PS5 has a more unusual and futuristic aesthetic. It’s a throwback to when consoles used to be more playful in their designs, focusing on fun and play rather than what looks good in an adult’s living room.
As games tackle more complex themes than they did back in the ‘80s and ‘90s (and more mature audiences), it is perhaps suitable for modern-day consoles to look like high-tech gadgets rather than child’s playthings. Back in the very early days of console gaming, though, the design process was less self-serious, built around the central question of ‘how can we make this console look more fun?’
No console captures that mindset better than the 1976 Coleco Telstar Arcade.
Part of the first generation of home video game consoles, the Telstar was competing with the likes of the Magnavox Odyssey, Fairchild’s Channel F and Atari’s 2600 in this new market. While the first edition Coleco Telstar was simply a flat plastic box with two dials, the Arcade version really swung for the fences. It consisted of three types of controllers: one side retained the twin dials, another featured a mini steering wheel and gearstick, and a third had a plastic lightgun to be aimed at the screen. Vitally, it was also triangle-shaped.
Rob Vinciguerra, host of Retro Game Living Room praised its integration of cartridges as being “a twist on [integrated chips in consoles with pre-installed games] by putting the chips on the cartridge,” which opened up new possibilities. These cartridges – also triangle-shaped, obviously – sat in a little trough on top of the console and brought up a menu screen with access to different games. Buying more cartridges meant more games; an innovative idea for the era which offered greater flexibility in both game design and player choice.
These chips were made by the MOS Technology MPS-7600-00X, which came with above-average graphics for the era and allowed you to play in color. There were four cartridges available for the console, each programmed with between three and four games, that featured enough variety to make use of the Telstar Arcade’s unique design. Cartridge 1, the most popular, featured Road Race, which made use of the steering wheel, Tennis, a Pong clone, used the dials, and Quickdraw used the gun peripheral. Other cartridges included pinball, battleships, shooting galleries, and hockey sims. The exteriors of preserved Colecos are usually in great condition to this day; a testament to how sturdy and well made these peripherals were.
It should be no surprise that Coleco’s parts were well made, however. The company began in the 1930s as a leather goods business, moving through to the ‘60s with leather crafts and then plastic toys. Through the emerging toy market, they continued to grow until the early ‘70s, when they made the bizarre decision to pivot and become a snowmobile manufacture. Poor snowfall made this an unwise venture, however, and so the company turned again – this time to video game consoles. They offered a huge lineup, releasing 14 consoles in two years between 1976-77, including the Telstar Classic, Telstar Deluxe, Telstar Marksman, Telstar Combat, and the Telstar Gemini, though only the Arcade was cartridge-based. It was clear, however, that the company’s success in the toy market drove their design decisions.
Leonard Herman, author of Phoenix IV: The History of the Videogame Industry and founder of The Game Scholar, explained that other Coleco models were also designed to catch your eye, “It certainly was a standout, in terms of design, but it wasn’t the only system in the Telstar line that was different from the competition. Telstar Combat! had a notable design – fixed “tank” joysticks – and color, and perhaps hints at Coleco’s overall direction they would have taken the Telstar series had it been more successful.”
Herman also remarked that the mid to late ‘70s were “a time of experimentation and transition in the console space,” and that while the design of the system’s casing might look strange to modern eyes, the real advancements were being made inside the consoles. “Programmable consoles [which could accept ROM cartridges, rather than having games pre-installed] were a breakthrough and really emphasized the importance of software development moving forward. If consoles had remained constrained to the ‘dedicated’ model there is a case to be made that the industry wouldn’t be what it is today and the medium wouldn’t have moved forward the way it has.”
Unfortunately for Coleco, while Telstar had its own MPS-7600-00X system, it lacked the sophistication of the programmable ROM direction the industry eventually went in. Vinciguerra explained that even though Telstar tried to make a leap forward, it was a leap too small, at the same time as other companies like Fairchild and Atari were making bigger ones. “The industry had already moved on to more complex games based on interchangeable ROM cartridges. Even as primitive as the [RCA] Studio II is, its games are more advanced than anything on the Telstar Arcade. It was immediately apparent that more complex games could be coded for consoles containing microprocessors.”
Another issue the Telstar Arcade faced was its launch timing: it released just one year before the second generation of consoles came out in 1977. “Just as we’re moving from one generation to another today, the industry was moving from the first generation to the second generation in 1977 when the Coleco Telstar Arcade came out,” Vinciguerra said, adding, “perhaps Coleco didn’t know that.”
Even so, the Telstar was positioned as Coleco’s crown jewel. But, despite promising new technology, it was ultimately being held back by bigger leaps from its competitors, meaning the Coleco Telstar Arcade ended up being far more trouble than it was worth. Coleco retreated into handheld gameplay after the Telstar Arcade and briefly returned to the home market with the moderately successful ColecoVision, but ultimately moved on to more traditional toys like the Cabbage Patch Kids, before going defunct and being gutted by Hasbro in 1989.
If things hadn’t ended so abruptly for the Coleco Telstar Arcade, might the face of gaming have changed, and could our homes be filled with more ‘toy-like’ consoles instead of the generic tech boxes we currently live with? While Vinciguerra calls the Arcade “the greatest console ever to be shaped like a triangle!” he thinks it was always destined to be a footnote. “By 1977 you already had Fairchild Channel F, RCA Studio II Home TV Programmer, and, of course, the Atari Video Computer System, better known today as Atari 2600.” It was always only a matter of time before a more advanced console ousted it.
The Coleco Telstar Arcade did have some influence, Vinciguerra suggested, through its peripherals. “The end of the first generation and Telstar Arcade didn’t see the end of peripheral-based gaming. Nintendo repopularized light guns with NES, and the industry once again saw a plethora of peripherals, from Power Glove to Activator, from Eye Toy to Kinect. Even the Nintendo Wii was based around the single gimmick of motion controls, and saw both driving and shooting Wiimote accessories.”
Herman is more adamant that the console was never destined to make a difference, even if it had stuck its landing. “If consoles went in this more novel direction it implies that the model would have been successful at least in the short-term. I’m not sure it would have much of an impact on the games being developed today. Even the successful games of that period don’t seem to have much influence on modern game development,” Herman said, adding, “The biggest impact I could see in this hypothetical scenario would be if Coleco was not only successful, but could have led and maintained the American industry better than Atari. If Atari and its competitors (Coleco being one) hadn’t tanked the American industry in 1983, it might not have given the Japanese a path to dominate for decades. Think about an industry without all those Japanese contributions, and that’s what might have happened had the Americans been more successful and responsible during the first decade of console gaming.”
If a successful Coleco Telstar Arcade means a world without Mario, Zelda, Metroid, Castlevania or Final Fantasy, maybe it’s for the best that we’re all playing on oblong plastic tech-boxes after all..