Emerson Arcadia 2001 - 1982-1983
Also known as: Leisure-Vision, Hanimex HMG-2650, Leonardo, Schmidt TVG-2000, Tele-Fever, and more
Trying to write a chronological history for the Emerson Arcadia 2001 would be almost impossible. It was born, it died, and it was forgotten, almost in the same breath. It was a blip on video gamers' radar for a brief moment, and then it was gone.
This gaming system had the misfortune of being born into "interesting times." Whether it was a live birth or not is still up for debate. The system came out at the same time that much better systems came onto the market — the Atari 5200 and ColecoVision — which made the Arcadia instant bargain-bin fodder upon arrival. The game-buying public paid it little attention when it was new, and over time, it became a vague footnote in game history.
The console itself has a few unusual traits about it. It was intended to be a portable console, so it is smaller than most of its contemporaries. It is fed by a standard 12-volt car/boat/camper type power supply. (Of course, you have to also own a portable television to take advantage of the "portability" feature.) There are two controllers that are very similar to the Intellivision control pads, but with a lighter touch on the side buttons. The round control discs have screw holes in their centers, so that you can make them into a mini joystick. The controllers accept overlays, which came with most if not all games.
Simply put, most modern gamers just don't seem to understand why the system was ever created. Collectors saw what finally hit their local store shelves, scratched their heads in confusion, and wondered just what Emerson must have been smoking when they decided to enter the 1982 video game market with this particular set of products?
Many modern collectors consider the system to have been dead upon arrival, in terms of popularity and market share. In a statistical study, Ward Shrake of Digital Archaeology: Arcadia 2001 (the author of this article) found that only one cartridge collector in ten bothered to collect for this system. As it turned out, these people bought any old game they found; they were not seeking Arcadia games out, specifically. It seemed like only the most hardcore "I collect everything" game collectors paid this system any attention. Even then, it was usually more out of a sense of duty than real interest in the game system itself. It was all largely just an afterthought to them.
Trying to dig up enough historical context to understand this system was a real chore, since it got little press when it was new, and even that was largely forgotten or ignored in modern times. The comments made by the system's makers was confusing at best, since almost none of what was originally said ended up happening in real life. Research taught us that the products that hit the clearance bins almost upon arrival were never what Emerson had originally planned. To understand the Arcadia, you have to be able to mentally separate intent from action. Never mind what the system's makers actually did; what did they mean to do? What was Emerson's original business plan? Once you've asked that question, this system has a lot more appeal, both in terms of game history and wider social interests.
Emerson's original intent was to make a system that was measurably more powerful than the market leader at the time — the venerable Atari 2600. They figured that if their system was better, and they offered many unauthorized clones of popular arcade games, then their system was sure to make them rich. They'd have a better mousetrap, and the public would be beating their doors down to get it. That's pretty much the accepted wisdom even now, so why fault Emerson?
Everyone in the industry knew games like Pac-Man, Defender, Galaxian and the like would sell many game systems. Emerson even made early press releases openly naming the arcade favorites they intended to copy. They also named their new system the Arcadia 2001, to hint at its power and its promise; popular arcade games at home. But these promised games never came out (or so it appeared), so players and collectors have pretty much shunned the system from the time it was born. Everyone assumed these arcade clones were just fictions. It now appears they were written and ready to go.
What tripped Emerson up is that the companies that owned the big arcade games began making money on the side by selling the right to copy those games onto home consoles. Companies like Atari, realizing they had to have what amounted to a monopoly on certain games, paid big to buy many exclusive home rights. Once they'd bought those rights, Atari began taking competitors to court, suing big for "copyright infringement." Long story short, Atari eventually won some large settlements from their competitors. This had a chilling effect on the actions of virtually every other player in the market, both large and small.
Needless to say, this landmine seriously hurt Emerson's chances of competing in the marketplace. They had to scramble to change their suddenly illegal games, to make them less obvious copies. On top of the delay and expense that must have cost them, my research makes it appear that they also had already paid to have thousands of these now-illegal games put into permanent ROM format. These were now all worthless and unusable, for legal reasons. Emerson worked around these problems as best they could, still intending to compete in the marketplace, trying to make their money back.
Then Coleco dropped their secret weapon — the ColecoVision — onto the market. It went off like a nuclear weapon, wiping out the chances of just about every small or late player on the market at that time. The system specs for the ColecoVision system were so much better than everyone else's that all Emerson could do to try to compete was to lie to the media, inflating their system's specs in a desperate attempt to catch up. (For instance, they claimed to have 28k of RAM memory when they actually had 1k.) The media saw through it, got upset, and gave the system and its games lukewarm reviews at launch. It was over before it began. Closeouts quickly followed.
The first memory most gamers at the time have of this system was of seeing it go directly to the bargain bins upon release. Even if researched it at that time, you would have just found out about Emerson's promised arcade game clones, which is not what came out. Most people looked at the available evidence, concluded that Emerson was just lying in their original press releases (as they did in later ones), shrugged, and moved on down the store aisles to where the new Atari 5200 or ColecoVision systems were. A few diehards did keep track of the carts they found in the wild, but altogether the system and its games were already off the radar scope.
The Arcadia's game library is not very large; there are only 51 unique carts, not counting label and name variations. (That figure includes 10 carts rumored to exist, but unconfirmed by collectors.) Three quarters of the confirmed carts have already been found and digitally archived (see The Vault. A few fan favorites are Cat Trax, Tanks A Lot, Hobo, and Star Chess. The games for this system are what you would expect for a 1982 era game console; a mostly black background with a few abstract, colored blobs here and there on the screen. They have been described as "a cross between Odyssey˛ and Intellivision" in terms of graphics.
The cartridges are a "label variation" fan's wildest fantasy. There are at least three different types of case styles and artwork, with variations on each. Emerson-family carts come in two different lengths of black plastic cases; the short style is similar to Atari 2600 carts in overall size. This family uses a unique "sketch" type of picture label. MPT-03 family cart cases (see below) resemble Super NES carts in size and shape, except that they are molded in brown plastic. Their labels look much more modern and stylized, with only a minimal picture on each. There are also a family of what look like pirate carts, that look nothing like the others in shape, size or label artwork. And yet the games inside each are identical!
In the wake of the system's passing, some interesting things happened which are just now being rediscovered. With the information-sharing capabilities of the Internet, and many dedicated game aficionados worldwide, we now know that some of the Emerson system's later titles were licensed versions of little-known arcade games such as Jump Bug, Route 16 and Jungler. Thanks to emulators like MAME, we can even compare these games to the originals and see they were not bad copies.
We now understand that many of the games that Emerson worked on exist in two different versions: the original version they intended for American release but which ended up being sold overseas, and the American release version, which was changed enough to be a "legal" clone of whatever arcade game it was based on. But this is not the sort of thing that a manufacturer admits to, so we had to figure it out by collecting and comparing cartridges. The ROM chips that Emerson had made, that could not be sold in the U.S., somehow found their way into other hands overseas. There, they became the games they were originally intended to be. These ROM chips were sold for what we've now come to recognize as an entire family of Emerson-compatible systems: the MPT-03 system and its clones.
The reason no previous collector knew for sure that the MPT-03 system was compatible is that the cartridges are nothing like those on the Arcadia 2001. Both their size and their pin layouts are totally different, so cartridges were not directly interchangeable. But we have since torn some apart, and found out that the ROMs inside are identical. (If you change the chips out, or play the games via emulation, you find they were obviously meant for the original Arcadia system. And some obvious Emerson-sounding MPT-03 game names turned out to be 100% byte-for-byte identical to their U.S. releases.)
The system's library is still very confusing. Trying to track down someone that has a certain game, and to get them to try to compare it to another game that they might never have seen, is obviously going to lead to problems with accuracy. It is very difficult, without comparing cartridges side-by-side (or byte-by-byte) to see which games are really just renamed versions of a game you already knew about, and which are formerly undiscovered "different" game variants. In time, all of this will be straightened out. A great deal of progress has already been made in the accuracy department.
Mysterious, rumored games like Crazy Climber were never found on any directly compatible Emerson system, but they were definitely made for the internally compatible MPT-03 system. This explains what happens to the games that Emerson announced early on, but seemingly never made. Emerson was not lying when they said they intended to make these games. Most of them were already made, or were in the final stages of development, when Emerson found out they could not release them.
Understanding this history even led to an increased understanding of a few unclaimed "pirate" games for the Atari 2600 system. It appears that at least a small number of previous Arcadia 2001 titles were ported over, sometime in 1983, after the Arcadia had faded. Cat Trax was one of these; see also Funky Fish and Pleiades. A number of other games with Emerson-sounding names are being looked at more closely, in an effort to find out more about their history.
Does any of this really make the Arcadia 2001 a more interesting video game system? For myself and a handful of other gamers, yes, it does. Does this mean that the Emerson should enjoy "mainstream" status, within the retro-gaming community? That's a personal decision that each of us has to make. But at least you can make an informed decision.