Launch Telemetry

Launch Telemetry
The Lost Generation

Russ Pitts | 27 Mar 2007 08:01
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"Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom
Remember us - if at all - not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.
" - T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

The new consoles were rumored to be in short supply. Undaunted, legions of gamers lined up to buy what few units were available, hoping against hope they'd be among the lucky few to walk home with the season's most sought after technological wonder. A shortage of electronic components had threatened to sabotage the launch before it even began, and technical glitches were delaying hardware certification, but the manufacturer promised the shelves would be full, in spite of last-minute shipping problems. They were only part wrong; the shelves weren't full, but they were occupied with gleaming console boxes, waiting to be carried home in the arms of lucky gamers. As for big launch titles, there was only one, really, but it was a doozie; a game familiar to everyone who played games - a bona fide console-seller.

This scenario should sound familiar to anyone who's lived through a console launch. In 2005 the Xbox 360 launched under similar circumstances, and a year later both Sony and Nintendo launched their next-gen machines in an almost carbon copy of the exercise. Five years or so prior, all three companies danced the same dance around their Xbox, PlayStation 2 and GameCube machines, with a special guest appearance by the Sega Dreamcast (just before that company's hardware division went supernova). But the situation described above happened before these companies were even in the game. Long before.

The machine? The Coleco Telstar, the third home videogame console ever made. The technological doodads in short supply weren't blue laser diodes, but the General Instruments chips allowing the device to play multiple games with one chip. The launch title? A version of Pong. The Coleco Telstar launched to rave reviews and, although it ultimately lost money for the company, helped kick-start the home console revolution started by Baer's Odyssey a few years prior. The only thing missing, it seemed, were more games, and somebody was already working on that problem.

The year was 1976, and the first console war had begun. Like learning that our parents also had sex (once), the idea that console wars of the past were just as bloody, just as lopsided and just as meaningless is lost on most gamers. As is the one lesson learned by the losers (and winners) of each and every console war, from Atari vs. Intellivision to PlayStation 3 vs. Xbox 360: It's the games, stupid.

Here We Go round the Prickly Pear
Coleco started life as a leather goods manufacturer, eventually moving into the realm of play products by way of above-ground swimming pools. I had one. It was awesome. My father's prized rose bushes were leveled in order to clear ground for the beast, but the resulting swim-hole-out-of-a-box was well worth the destruction of a few beloved thorny flowers. The Connecticut Leather Company discovered they enjoyed making children smile so much (with water) that they stretched their legs a decade or so later with handheld LCD games and, eventually, the Telstar home game console. A "generation" later, they made it big with a "programmable" home console called ColecoVision and a little game by Nintendo called Donkey Kong.

I had one of these, too. I was what you might call a Coleco fanboy. Well before web forums and message boards, I'd gather with my friends on the playground during recess, behind the gym after school or down in the canals on weekends to shoot the bull, trade stolen porn mags or fish for carp, all the while debating the pros and cons of our respective console machines.

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