by Maurice Molyneaux
with technical assistance from Kevin Horton

Pitfall II for 5200 (left) and Colecovision (right)

While gutting a stack of old magazines I stumbled across an article comparing the top videogame consoles of that time. Amusing reading, because the writer obviously didn't have his facts straight. For instance, one of the methods the author rates the systems on is...

1. Microprocessor power: It's the Central Processing Unit (CPU) which determines the level of sophistication that a given game can achieve. Some processors are capable of manipulating larger chunks of information at one time, and it's this capability which allows the more powerful machines to animate many different moving objects at high speed without the flicker problem that crops up in less powerful systems. Although sound and graphics are generated by separate chips (which may or may not use the full potential of the CPU), the CPU determines the upper limits of these capabilities.

This paragraph is correct on just about every other thing it says.

  • The CPU doesn't necessarily determine anything in terms of game sophistication, it simply impacts how many instructions can be executed in a given time.
  • The CPU doesn't necessarily directly impact moving objects at high speed without flicker. Quite often this is a factor of other hardware, such as a graphics chip. For instance, the Colecovision's ability to put 32 sprites on screen at once as opposed to the 2600's two players and two balls has nothing to do with the processors in each.
  • That the CPU determines the upper limits of these capabilities is a specious conclusion. For example, the TurboGrafx-16 has a 16 bit graphics chip and an 8-bit processor, the former being much faster than the latter.

  • Frogger for 5200 (left) and Colecovision (right)

    It's human nature to compare everything. Our egos practically insist that what we have must be as good as, if not better, than what anyone else has. This is true of cars, stereos, penises and video game consoles. However, while it's simple to argue that this or that is better, and come up with statistics to prove the point, a fair comparison of any who items is rarely cut and dried. For instance, in comparing two cars, you can say that Car X is best because it has a higher top speed, and better acceleration and handling than car Y. However, someone could argue that car Y is best because it is nearly as fast, gets better mileage, and is a quieter and smoother ride. Car X's strengths make it the better sports car, car Y's strengths make it the better family car. Which is better depends upon in which category you put them.

    The same problem occurs in comparing videogame systems. Sure, it's easy to state that the Nintendo 64 is better than the Sega Genesis, if you're talking about its capabilities. But they are machines of different generations. When you have to compare competitors from the same generation, things get tough.

    How tough? Let's compare two of the greatest competitors in the era of classic gaming: the Colecovision and the Atari 5200 SuperSystem. And, to try to make this as fair a comparison as possible, comparisons will be made on various elements of the systems to see if one stacks up as 'better'.


    "Size matters," seems to have been the guiding principle behind the design of both consoles. Physically, both the CV and the 5200 are big. Okay, they're downright huge--several times larger than need be. Admittedly, in both cases this seems to have been at least partially due to the inclusion of bays to store their controllers. Putting the controllers in their bays is a simple matter that requires no unplugging, so no advantage in either case. As to appearance, the 5200 wins the "looks" contest hands-down, with its sleek profile and classy black and chrome color scheme. Even its controllers look good (how they WORK is something we'll get to later...).

    Advantage: 5200


    To be blunt, they stink on both systems. Both are nice ideas badly executed. They are similar is general design, featuring Intellivision-type keypads, two distinct fire buttons, and a small joystick. Game-specific "overlays" can be placed over the keypads, illustrating the functions of each button. The CV controller suffers because the stick is short, awkward, and badly shaped, and the fire buttons are painful to use due to both their spacing and that they have too much give. The 5200 controller is a better fit in the hand, but the fire buttons are "squishy", and the non-self- centering analog joystick is a poor choice for all but a few games. Pac-Man on a stock 5200 controller is the definition of "out of control".

    One can argue that the 5200 controllers were revolutionary, being the first that placed all of the game functions in the controller and not on the console. Start, Pause and Reset are all right on the controller, leaving only the power and channel select switches on the console. One could argue this, but consider that the CV, which shipped first, uses keypad buttons for starting, pausing, etc. When looked at from a functionality standpoint, the 5200's 'first' is probably more a cosmetic touch than a real breakthrough.

    Advantage: Colecovision, by a slight margin


    5200 Super Pac-Man

    The Colecovision and the 5200 both use 8-bit processors, rated at 3.58 and 1.79 MHz respectively. On the face of this you might assume that the CV processor is twice as fast as the 5200, but it's not. The CV uses a Z80 microprocessor and the 5200 uses a 6502, and their instruction sets and architecture are very different. Even though the Z80 runs faster than the 6502, the latter can do more operations per clock cycle (effectively 2 to 1), so, they are more or less equal. Neither has an edge in processor horsepower.

    Advantage: None


    This is a tough comparison, as mostly one has to do it on the basis of what we've heard the machines do. The 5200's sound chip, called POKEY, also appeared in the Atari 8-bit computers, the XE game system, and even in the 7800 cart Ballblazer, so there's a wide range of examples of what it can do. As I'm only familiar with the CV's Texas Instruments SN76489AN sound chip from the sound of the CV itself, there's a smaller range of samples to compare. Also, given the number of machines and years POKEY was used, it's been explored and pushed more than CV's sound ever was, so really saying which, if either, is better, is a tough call.

    From the technical side, the 5200 has more sound channels than the CV, four to three, but the CV has an additional 'noise' channel, and its frequency range is larger. The CV can go WAY above the 5200 in frequency. In fact, it can generate frequencies so high that they're effectively useless. On the downside, it doesn't go very low. The 5200 has some "effects" that you can use like a filter effect (adding the odd ratty sound on Gremlins, for example), whereas the CV doesn't have such effects.

    (Oh, and in case you're wondering, the CV was capable of talking, just like the 5200 did in Realsports Baseball and Berzerk. Kevin Horton has played audio samples through the CV, so its sound chip could do it, but no one apparently ever bothered.)

    Advantage: Who the hell knows???


    The 5200 boot screen, 108 colors at once...something
    the Coleco cannot do

    In this instance there is only one clear winner. The 5200's video hardware can generate 16 hues with 8 luminance levels for each, resulting in a total color palette (colors the machine can generate) of 128 (the luminance ranges are doubled in one mode, resulting in 256 colors possible). In contrast, the CV has a total palette of 16 colors, period. Actually, 15 colors and transparent, which is used for some flashing background trickery, but really isn't a drawing color. Furthermore, these colors aren't wonderful, mostly primary and secondary colors in a few different intensities, all fairly bright. The 5200's ability to set the luminance on its colors gives it a definite edge.

    Advantage: 5200

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