Review: ColEm: A Colecovision Emulator

I’ve talked extensively about emulation in the .EMU emulators article and subsequently even looked at other emulators like reicast, the Dreamcast emulator and C64.EMU, the Commodore 64 emulator.  Thanks to top quality physical controllers like the Nyko Playpad – we are no longer forced to play our classic favorites with horrid touch screen D-Pads.

The great thing about emulation is that it doesn’t matter what retro system you loved or what classic era of gaming you were born into; there are emulators for just about every console, handheld and computer out there (within reason of course).  I was personally around when home console gaming was all about chasing the games at the local arcade.  The  accuracy of the ports made all the difference; in graphics, sound and implementation.  Without a doubt, the game console that was first able to really capture the arcade experience at home was Colecovision.

They weren’t afraid to use this in their advertisements.  Check out this commercial about the “arcade experience” and this one where they name the hottest arcade games coming home to Colecovision.  It’s worth noting that the latter commercial was in 1984, the year the video game market crashed – even Colecovision was a casualty of war.

The Basics

Cover Flow Selector

Cover Flow Selector

ColEm comes to you in two forms on the Google Play store; one free (with some nagging and reduced functionality) and one for $1.99 that is fully unlocked.  It is under 2MB installed and happily supports both landscape and portrait orientations.  It supports controllers out of the box without any weird mapping software required and includes useful features such as save states and speed up.  This app was reviewed on the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition and the Samsung Galaxy S4.

For testing, I fired up some of my favorite Colecovision titles such as BurgerTime, Donkey Kong and the amazing port of Zaxxon.

I initially had some issues with the emulator.  The games ran too fast and I couldn’t get rid of the number

Within 24 hours, the developer wrote me back and immediately issued an update which fixed some of my issues and promised to look into the speed issue (which I was able to fix with a little bit of tinkering in the settings ).  Excellent developer support – something I value very highly with the products I pay for.

Advanced Look

Donkey Kong lives!

Donkey Kong lives!

Most emulators have the basic core functionality, but many emu developers have stepped up their game and provided lots of additional features that can make the experience even better.

As you would expect, save states are here – allowing you to save anytime and pick up where you left off.  Slow-mo and fast forward let you tweak the speed the way you want it (I’m a purist; so I don’t monkey with that stuff).  You can even record your favorite Colecovision game ditty and save it as a ringtone.

Those willing to throw the developer a couple of bucks get some even more impressive features.

First up, the ability to share save states with a built in “Exchange” system.  It works pretty well and transparent with the UI.

You also get Network Play (untested for this review).  The ability to play local wifi or across the internet.  I’m not sure how much fun this would be with primarily hot seat gaming, but it’s a nice feature none the less.

Gyruss ... Headed for Neptune

Gyruss … Headed for Neptune

Many emulators still require you produce a BIOS file (the console/computer operating system), however ColEm does not.  However, you can use your own BIOS if you like, by simply creating a folder (/sdcard/ColEm) and putting your custom BIOS (named coleco.rom) in there.  The obvious use for this is to remove the nine second delay imposed by Colecovision’s original BIOS before you can start the game.  If this interests you, here is a link to where you can find some alternate BIOS files.  I personally like to see the title screen – it’s part of the nostalgia), but the BIOS I’m using lets you skip it with a fire button press.

Finally, if you spring for the Deluxe version you also get access to the core emulator’s advanced settings – most of which are exposed by the Android UI built around it.  For most, this won’t be a big feature – but since it includes a debugger, those writing new games for Colecovision (and yes, there are still people doing that) this could prove useful.

There are some very nice little extras in the emulator, too.   You can change virtual button layouts and sizes to tailor your device screen size and needs.  You can add effects line scanlines to simulate a TV picture and a filter to soften up the jaggies.  Again, as a purist, I don’t want much changed (okay, scanlines are always fun) but it is nice to know you can.  There is a lot of little tweaking you can do to make it your own.

The developer even put in a fix for SD card access when using the Android KitKat OS – no special requirements needed.

The Smurfberry Factor

There are no IAPs or Smurfberries to be had here.  The free version has some nagging as well as some reduction in features.  Normally I would give a title like this a Smurfberry Annoyance factor of 1 of 5, but since you don’t even NEED Google’s servers to “restore purchases” later, you really can own this emulator free and clear with the paid version; the free and paid version are fully separate apps.

Because of this, I’ll give this a 0 Smurfberry Annoyance factor rating; the full version is REALLY the full version.

The Dark Side

Gateway to Apshai with key pad overlay

Gateway to Apshai with key pad overlay

No app is perfect.  In this section, we’ll discuss any issues I may have with it.

While the developer hopped on them quickly, the couple of initial issues I had might have spooked the regular user.  Still, how many “regular users” are interested in Colecovision emulation, right?  I think most people interested in emulation (and this platform specifically) are going to be familiar with hand-tweaking settings to get the desired result.

User Interface and User Experience (UI/UX) can be extremely subjective.  I’m very much used to Robert Broglia’s emulators, UI and layout and have grown very comfortable with them.  ColEm offers some UI customization including a nice coverflow version for accessing games with screenshots (these will show up in your gallery, btw – probably would be cool if there was an option to hide screenshots from the Android OS).  It does not follow Google’s Holo conventions, however and I found it confusing that I couldn’t get to the emulator “core” settings until I was actually playing a game (there are different settings on the main game list than there is during game play).  While it might not be the absolute best emulator UI I’ve seen, it is far from the worst; easily above average.  I’ll throw the developer some ideas I have on the UI/UX and see what he might be amiable to changing.

Since I do use Broglia’s emulators for almost everything, I would really like to be able to hide the “emulator launcher” on the bottom of the main screen.  It should TOTALLY be there for the free version, but paid users should be able to get rid of it, IMHO.

People are going to complain and whine about having to (gasp) …. *PAY* for an emulator.  As I’ve said before, I tire of people expecting everything for free.  If you don’t want to pay, and you’re fine with nags and whatever else the developers are willing to do to monetize their “free” versions – great; use the free versions.  But you have very little right to complain, ask for support or feature enhancements.  Speak with your wallet.  As the great Kevin Bacon said, ” It’s the way it was in the beginning. It’s the way it’s always been. It’s the way it should be now.”

Final Words

Zaxxon ... Glorious!

Zaxxon … Glorious!

Colecovision was a game changer in home gaming consoles.  Its legacy was to “bring the arcade home”, and for the most part it managed to succeed where so many others failed.  Android is an ideal OS for emulation.  It is open, accessible to users and developers alike and has little to low cost of entry.  I think a lot of the old timers interested in emulation are probably going to be involved with Android – and with Android’s meteoric rise in both mobile and tablet markets, it is only going to get better.

ColEm represents a fantastic entry into an already fantastic market of top quality emulators available.  It is fast, compatible, well-supported and regularly updated; certainly well worth the measly $2 the developer is asking for the deluxe version.  For you El Cheapos out there, the free version has you covered and you still get top notch emulation and great features.

It is also a lot easier to use and cheaper than the Broglia MSX.emu app that does MSX and Colecovision both – which earns it a permanent spot on my table’s emulators homescreen.

Check out some gameplay on the Android-based Nvidia Shield:

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