Lately, there’s been an influx of little-bitty arcade games hitting store shelves. There’s the steadily-improving “Arcade Classics” series that can be found at Walmart; the keychain-sized Tiny Arcade series; the working, accurate scale models coming from Replicade; the forthcoming Neo-Geo Mini. All of these have been reminding me of the original Coleco mini tabletop arcade games that came out in the early 1980s, when I was a kid, and how badly I wanted them.
Even those Coleco minis are making a comeback, with the recently-Kickstarter-funded Coleco Evolved games, which mimic the industrial design of the originals, but are much more technologically sophisticated, and feature new games of licensed IPs Robotech and Rainbow Brite, apparently to exude ’80s nostalgia without actually being ’80s video games.
Anyway, let’s crank the time machine back to 1982-ish, when Coleco was putting out their original tabletop arcade games. These little beauties, gameplay-wise, were not really any better than any other VFD-based handheld games at the time, but they were housed in colorful little hooded cabinets with tiny joysticks and arcade-accurate artwork. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Frogger, Galaxian, Zaxxon, and more got their own little machines that you could take home with you for about 50 bucks a pop.
As an 8-year-old, arcade-obsessed video game nerd, these were the coolest thing EVER. Sure, the games were better on the home consoles of the day (certainly on the Colecovision and Atari 5200 — valid arguments could probably be made on either side for the Atari 2600 and Intellivision versions of any of these titles), but the novelty of the standalone games trying to replicate the glow-in-the-dark arcade experience was extremely strong.
Even though I had an Atari 2600, and I had friends with the other consoles, and I did get to play at the arcade on a semi-regular basis, I still wanted every single one of these mini arcade games. Why? I had a plan, of course.
I was going to get all of the Coleco tabletop games — and even some other handhelds, like the Tomy Digital Derby — and set them up in rows around my room, along the walls and on my shelves, turn them all on, turn off the lights, and just live in my own mini arcade.
Unfortunately, I never did get any of those mini machines, despite at least one known letter to Santa Claus pleading my case. I think my parents’ argument against them was indeed the “you already have all those games on Atari” maneuver. They just didn’t get it, ya know? Sigh.
Fifteen or so years later, in the mid-1990s, when I started actively collecting classic video game stuff as a grown-ass man, I kept an eye out for those Coleco minis, but rarely found them at a price point I was willing to pay — they were already priced upwards of 80 bucks when I would find them, and often they weren’t in the greatest condition. Then, in 1999, I acquired my first real arcade machine, a beautiful Donkey Kong upright, thereby circumventing one childhood goal and directly arriving at another, more extravagant dream which kind of made the first one obsolete. By the mid-2000s, I did in fact live surrounded by arcade games, but they were the real things, not just toys that approximated them.
Above: the pinnacle of my arcade collecting, before I sold off 2/3 of them
Still, I would love to get at least a couple of those little Coleco dudes. Parker Bros. did a cool Q*bert game in a similar style, and Nintendo, too, came out with Game and Watch Tabletop editions (Coleco actually licensed and released the Nintendo Donkey Kong Junior instead of doing their own; the Nintendo games actually had way nicer graphics than the Coleco games, and nowadays command an even higher price on the collectors’ market — ), which would have been perfect in the mini arcade.
There are hobbyists these days who take old non-functioning Coleco tabletops and put Raspberry Pi computers and LCD screens in them, and create graphic packages for cabinets that were never part of the original Coleco lineup, making them fully-functional little arcade games (search the Facebook group “Old Made New” and the amazing work of a gentleman named Neil Henry). I’m guessing some of the newer mini machines like the Arcade Classics can probably be modded in a similar way. Hmm, how much would I love a mini arcade game emblazoned with Retro Game SuperHyper artwork…?