Regular readers may remember a strange little story we told back in May about the Retro VGS game console project. With a plastic shell made from the genuine original Atari Jaguar molds, the new system was designed to support new games created with an old school, 16-bit aesthetic. Strangest of all, those games would be distributed on old-fashioned solid-state cartridges built to last for decades.
Just over half a year later, the Retro VGS console is no more (although the company behind it still carries the same name). It’s been replaced by the Coleco Chameleon, a rebranded version of the same idea that brings up a familiar name from gaming’s “ancient” past.
That rebranding is somewhat necessary given the bad reputation the Retro VGS had built up in the classic gaming community during its short pre-life. The system didn’t get much buy-in during an aborted Indiegogo crowdfunding effort in September, raising just $80,000 of a hefty $1.95 million funding goal. For context, the Ouya only asked for a minimum of $900,000 in its first Kickstarter (although Ouya shot past that number to receive $8.6 million in crowdfunding).
Mo’ hardware, mo’ problems
A big part of the problem, as those behind the Retro VGS will readily admit, was the price they asked for the system: from $300 for an “early bird” edition to $500 for an “Elite backer edition”. At those prices, the system was in direct competition with the Xbox One and PS4, despite only having hardware more comparable to systems that came out more than two decades ago.
“From the moment we announced the award at the Game On expo in Arizona [in August]everything went downhill,” Mike Kennedy of Retro VGS admitted to Ars in a recent interview. That may be putting it mildly: this sprawling 186-page Atari Age thread gives an idea of how quickly people in the classic gaming community soured the concept after the big reveal. Other threads on the forum and YouTube videos across the community have expressed similar skepticism. realm.
“Where I thought I’d get the most support is from cartridge-based communities. It’s the exact opposite,” Kennedy said. “These communities are the ones that are most opposed to it, at least the ones that talk about it publicly.”
Kennedy said he took on the responsibility of letting John Carlsen, the head of hardware for the old incarnation of the system, lead the team to bloated features and a skyrocketing price. “[Carlsen] has priced us out of the market,” Kennedy said.[He made] a Rolls Royce of a system that no one would pay for.” In October, Carlsen also worked alone on a mind-boggling demo video that showed off what appeared to be a barely functional prototype of the system that failed to win over many fans. community.
While the FPGA core power supply in the original Retro VGS design was quite affordable, Kennedy says, Carlsen insisted on burdening the system with costly and unnecessary design quirks that quickly drove the price up. Those include a hidden six-layer circuit board that costs $100 to $150 on its own — a “monstrosity of a board that filled a Jaguar shell,” says Kennedy — internal hardware that converts an HD signal into optional analog output (for old-fashioned TVs) and a $14 AC adapter to power everything.
“It got blown up, it got expensive, then we started adding bells and whistles to this thing to add value to this ridiculously high price we got,” Kennedy said. “We have a reputation for trying to cash in on retro and that really wasn’t what we’re trying to do. We’re cashing in on it just as much as anyone making retro remakes or retro compilations or old school homebrew games that play on old systems. For some reason we get picked for trying to bend people. And I can see where they get that impression from. Really.”
“You can’t please everyone, and we tried to go down that path and found we couldn’t do that at a price anyone would pay,” Kennedy continued. “Now we’re going to do what we said from the start, only with a lower price and a much smarter designed system.”
New design, new beginning
With Carlsen out of the picture, a new hardware team largely went back to the drawing board and created a new interior design for the Coleco Chameleon that halved the cost of the old Retro VGS, says Kennedy. Kennedy promised a price of less than $200 for the Chameleon, saying he would “like to get in the $150 range if possible”. The new system will be refocused on the original vision of playing 2D sprite-based games like the ones you’d see in the “8-bit to 32-bit” days. A new crowdfunding effort will likely ask for a more reasonable $250,000 to $300,000, Kennedy said, before debuting a prototype at the New York Toy Fair in February.
Distributing games on cartridges is more expensive than simply printing a DVD or putting downloadable bits on a server, but Kennedy says they can get cartridges that retail for between $20 and $30 (perhaps a bit more for a game with a major license). “No one is going to pay $100 for a cartridge,” Kennedy said. “[but] it doesn’t cost as much to make a cartridge these days as it did 20 years ago. The costs are minimal, unless the game becomes huge.”
That brings up the specific storage capacity for those cartridges, which is still up in the air. While Retro VGS originally talked about games up to 1GB, that has now been narrowed down to get closer to a 100MB range, says Kennedy. That should be plenty of room for 16-bit style games – SNES titles topped out at around 48Mb in the ’90s. But it can be a tough constraint for games built in inefficient environments like Game Maker and Unity, which can feel bloated even for simple games.
Then there’s the physical medium used for storing games, which is also still debated. Adding extra storage isn’t difficult if you’re using cheap SD card storage, but untouched data on those cards will only last a few years before deteriorating. Kennedy says he’s looking for much longer shelf life for Chameleon cartridges, which should last for decades as a collector’s item.
“If [older systems] If we had a retention time of 20 years, they would all be unplayable by now,” Kennedy said. ‘Whatever modern technology can offer us for the best price, we try to build up the longest possible retention time. That’s hugely important to [co-founder] Steve [Woita] and me, because everything we play is over 20 years old now. No one today builds a product that will last 20 years. When Atari built these things back then, they probably had no idea people would be playing them now.”
By pressing the reset button
Time and again, in our interview, Kennedy tried to emphasize how much he and his team have learned from Retro VGS’s recent issues. “I think of the last three or four months as market research,” he said. “We listened to the criticism. We are aware that we put ourselves through a lot of that. But we learned. We are going back to get out what we wanted to get out before all the feature creep started.”
However, after months of false starts, Kennedy says he hopes people interested in the golden age of gaming will give the newly rebranded Coleco Chameleon a fair shot. “We know we’ve stirred up a hornet’s nest with this concept. There are people who are passionate, like you wouldn’t believe they want this product, it’s crazy. Then there are people who ask, ‘Why are you bringing back cartridges? is pointless.’ And then there’s everything in between.”
“Clearly it struck a chord. Positive, negative, whatever, it struck a chord.”