We’re only three months into 2016, but it’s been a pretty bad year so far for people’s lofty ideas about launching new game consoles. First there was the Dreamcast 2 hullaballoo, which turned out to be a lot of hot air. Now we’ve got the Coleco Chameleon—an ironic name, given that the console’s creators are accused of having something to hide.
But let’s go back a bit, to September of last year. Mike Kennedy, proprietor of numerous classic gaming-themed ventures like Retro magazine and GameGavel.com, launched an IndieGoGo for something called the Retro VGS. The idea behind this console was relatively simple: a cartridge-based console that would play retro-styled games. It’d be a throwback to old consoles that didn’t need firmware and software updates, and everything would (supposedly) work perfectly right out of the box. Optional adapters would be sold later to let you play other systems’ games on the VGS.They even used the casings of the old Atari Jaguar console for maximum retro appeal. All this for the low, low price of, at minimum, $300.
Wait, what? You’re expecting me to pay the price of a modern console for something that has “retro” right in its name? The team behind the console pointed out that it had a ludicrous amount of extraneous bells and whistles to justify the price, but retro game collectors—a type not exactly known for frugality—quickly called foul. The other shocker was that the team was requesting almost two million dollars for this project, mainly because they didn’t have a working prototype when the IndieGoGo campaign launched. The hardware specs seemed to keep changing at the drop of a hat, going from a unique Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) -- a versatile chip that can be reconfigured to suit different hardware and software needs, including mimicking CPUs of legacy consoles -- to a vaguely defined ARM processor system, causing potential backers to lose confidence in what they’d get for their money. It didn’t help that what they did show looked flimsy. Literally.
A picture of an alleged Retro VGS prototype board layout. Look at the bottom of the printed circuit board… or more like cardboard. Credit: Keatah on AtariAge
Undeterred, the developers of the Retro VGS decided to rebrand, redesign, and relaunch. Out went Retro VGS hardware designer John Carlsen, with Mike Kennedy putting the onus on him for the bloated design. The new team contacted the current holders of the Coleco brand name to get permission to slap the brand on their console. Coleco were the manufacturers of the Colecovision console, a popular system among retro gaming collectors. They announced their plan to the world in January: A new name, a better and cheaper design, and a much better Kickstarter campaign that’d launch late February. They’d debut a playable sample at the New York Toy Fair in January.
And here a new set of problems began. Coleco Chameleon did exhibit at the Toy Fair as promised, but skeptics immediately noticed something strange in the photos and video footage: why was the game’s cartridge and the console back covered in black electrical tape? And why was it using hardwired Super Nintendo Entertainment System controllers for a demo?
A theory soon arose in the retrogaming sphere: they were actually using the guts of a model 2 SNES and a flash cartridge rather than an actual prototype board. As more pictures—and comparison pictures, with someone putting their model 2 SNES guts in a jaguar shell—emerged, the evidence looked more and more damning.
Things only got worse when the promised Kickstarter was delayed. Conspiracy theories flew about—since Kickstarter requires a working prototype, observers believed that this was proof that the Toy Fair showing was the sham they suspected. To rebut the rumors, the Coleco Chameleon team released a series of photos on their facebook page of the system’s supposed hardware in a clear case, to show people that they did, in fact, have something to show as a genuine prototype.
Unfortunately, it turns out that something may, in fact, be an old PCI card used for capturing videos on PC.
Credit: Playswithwolves on AtariAge
Playswithwolves on the AtariAge forums found and compared the layout of a HICAP50B CCTV DVR Capture Card to that of the picture shown here, and they’re basically identical. (This picture has since been removed from the Coleco Chameleon’s Facebook page.) Moral of the story: if you’re already under scrutiny, don’t try to fool people, because they will do everything they can to find out if you’re telling the truth.
Wednesday, things got even more serious: Coleco issued a statement that, if its independent engineer can’t verify a working prototype within 7 days, it's revoking the name, potentially putting the whole thing on ice yet again.
Is the Coleco Chameleon a scam? Going by the evidence so far, things don’t look good. At best, it’s a bunch of folks who desperately want to make something happen, trying to get funds and support however they can, but don’t seem to understand that at this point they have to be completely transparent. But even if the development team’s intentions aren’t totally malicious, if it’s just people desperately trying to make a pipe-dream come true, there’s still the fact that the Retro VGS/Coleco Chameleon is a really bad idea.
The developers of the console want to attract folks who make retro-styled games to put their titles on cartridge. They claim the cartridge games will devalue less and be more appreciated by buyers than cheap downloads, but the tune smaller publishers sing when they get featured in a Steam sale tells a different tale of profits entirely. Sell a cartridge to a potential audience of a few thousand collectors for $50 a pop with smaller margins, or sell a download to exponentially more for $10 each and be able to update your game if necessary? It’s not hard to see what’s the better choice.
And would collector's even care? Collector markets can and do thrive—see the market for vinyl among music buffs, for example. But the collectors and retro-game folks I know are already laser-focused on building collections for particular favorite systems—they’re not super keen on pursuing something new. Homebrew efforts—where passionate programmers create new games for old consoles like the NES, SNES, and Genesis—are alive and well, and already have a much bigger base of console owners to sell to.
At this point, the Chameleon’s a punchline. Its reputation is shot, and it doesn’t look like any amount of retooling, rebranding, or even solid proof that this thing actually works can save the product. It’s better to let this beast fade into the mists of vaporware than continue to ruin reputations.