Let’s Talk About the Coleco Chameleon
This past weekend at the Toy Fair 2016, Coleco (yes the Connecticut Leather Company that was also responsible for the ColecoVision in 1982) announced the Coleco Chameleon. If that shell in the top image looks familiar it’s for several reasons. You may have noticed it’s a re-purposed Atari Jaguar shell, which the manufacturer has legally acquired. You may also seem to remember something that looks like it in the past, which is the Retro VGS console that is the exact same item. Basically the Coleco Chameleon is a failed project from late last year that has been brought back to life in a re-branding attempt that coincides with a Chicago-based firm, River West Brands, to bring back the Coleco name. While the retro gamer in me likes the heart behind it – and trust me, having met and spoken with Retro VGS president Mike Kennedy, his love is legit – the Coleco Chameleon is a merging of nostalgic minds who won’t let go of the past in conjunction with money-hungry corporations looking to make a quick buck off people like us. I haven’t seen anyone cover the actual grassroots concept of the the idea behind the Retro VGS/Coleco Chameleon with any degree of actual fact checking, true helpful information, or even a hint as to what this could be. Even my beloved CNET let me down with this lackluster hype piece from earlier this week (and it’s from my favorite writer, Jeff Bakalar, whom I loved pre-Beastcast). Let’s take a good long look at the Coleco Chameleon, it’s trek to this point, and determine if there’s any reason you should care that on February 26 the Kickstarter gives you the opportunity at one. (NOTE: There is an 02/22/2016 update to this article that appears at the bottom.)
Our Journey to the Chameleon Begins
The start of the Retro VGS is a collaboration with several efforts made largely by Mike Kennedy. If you aren’t familiar with Mike, he stands for all things retro and unlike many enthusiasts, myself most definitely included, he’s figured out how to succeed at getting retro businesses off the ground. I first found out about Kennedy looking for early retro podcasts before launching this site and came across a colorful group of guys about 10-15 years older than me called Retro Gaming Round-Up. These guys are old school. They don’t speak much of the days past the NES and they considered Resident Evil on PS1 a modern game. The shows are SUPER long (>6 hours) because they only release one a month and they have all kinds of crazy sections like world records from the arcade days, how to restore a pinball machine, random MAME games (called It Came From MAME), and even a section I stole for myself where we document the hunt for rare retro games at swap meets. If you’re interested, feel free to give it a listen. The three hosts at the time – Kennedy has since departed – were Scott (from the East Coast), Mike (Kennedy, from the West Coast), and a second Mike from Great Britain dubbed “UK Mike.” Even on these early shows you can see that Mike Kennedy is the weakest link in terms of knowledge or even attention span, he’s always making inaccuracies, leaving the show early, his section is just him booting up an emulator and describing what a game like Rampage is actually doing on the fly. As a person who’s big on context, history, and facts (despite what some of our shows suggest) this normally drove me nuts, but in every episode one thing is clear: he loves the days of gaming in the 70s and 80s. Despite being the weakest content link on the show, his heart and dedication were vast. He didn’t play games much anymore, but he sure remembers the “good old days” and thrives to return to them.
Another thing you’ll learn about Kennedy is that he’s a businessman first. His job was clearly in sales – it was constantly discussed on the show – and his volume/compensation made it clear he was probably in commercial sales of some sort. Within the first 10 shows he mentions Game Gavel, an online auction site that wants to rival eBay for retro video games, that of course he owns. As someone who’s only interested in the truly rare, I didn’t quite like what it had to offer and for some reason it didn’t seem to have the protection that I felt for eBay. In truth, I’m coming to find that recently eBay has little consequence for people who screw you over and Game Gavel may be a safer place to do business. It’s got some cool stuff and far better prices, but much like a local swap meet, after going there a couple of times you start to notice it’s nothing but retro guys who overvalue their stuff or the same used shop posting its inventory over and over. Game Gavel has made news from time to time as some of the biggest collection sell-offs seem to happen on the site and Kennedy gets a chunk of everything sold. I guess you can look at it as the Netflix of used gaming: don’t go there looking for something but rather to see what they have and find a gem. Either way, Game Gavel seemed to do Kennedy good and he looked into other endeavors. One of those was Retro Gaming Magazine in late 2013, of which I am a subscriber, and was successfully Kickstarted (but not with my help) with a rock solid pedigree of content and contributors behind it. It was at this point there seemed nowhere else to go for Kennedy: he was on a very successful podcast, he owned a successful auction site, he ran a successful magazine (to my knowledge). It was his next endeavor, making a retro game console, that he bit off more than he could chew. Enter the Retro VGS.
The Console No One Asked For
As I said before, Kennedy’s heart is in the right place, but even he has had to admit certain truths in his past endeavors. It’s ironic his first project was a podcast, because for all the retro they spout I would have taken the show for being a Ham Radio broadcast. I’m sure they chose podcasting because it’s new, hip, it was with the very popular iPhone (which all hosts had). There’s an acknowledgement that while radio was amazing, there was no market for this product in this time. The same is true for Game Gavel. It wasn’t some Southern California auction held every 2 weeks in a warehouse like the pathetic arcade one I see here in Kansas City, it was an online marketplace to bring multiple people together. There’s an understanding that classic auction styles were pointless (and Kennedy made a lot of money on the site grabbing up the rarities from SoCal and selling them to people like me stuck in the barebones Midwest). The same holds true for Retro Gaming Magazine, which does have a tangible form (that I receive), but probably does much better numbers in its digital PDF format. With all this in mind, the decisions of the Retro VGS is an anomaly to me.
I get the Atari Jaguar shell because it’s recognizable, especially in the retro world. Furthermore, while the Jaguar isn’t widely regarded as a great system, it is a piece of hardware that was impressive for 1993. In addition the core of Atari goes all the way back to the early days of the arcades and of course the powerhouse that was the VCS/2600 for console gamers from 1979-1983. The use of the Wii pro controller also makes sense given that it covers all the bases of most retro style games, the SNES controller is widely regarded as one of the best in history, and there are tons of third parties that make knock-offs to get your supply from. Even the ports make sense and follow the path of all retro-focused modern consoles with the compatibility with 9-pin controllers (basically all microcomputers, pre-NES consoles, and the Sega Genesis used that format). The same is true of having output to all major video types (RF, Composite, S-video, RGB, Component, and HDMI). The part that baffles me, and probably the biggest reason people don’t want to buy in, is the choice to use cartridges only and not have the device patch-able.
This decision, much like the recent decision to announce the Chameleon at a toy fair, is indicative of decisions from people holding on to the past. Kennedy has shown an ability to go where the audience is and make exceptions in the interest of the business, but somehow he’s adamant to abandon that this time around. Perhaps the problem is finding the audience. Who is this for? If you don’t make it cart only, no patching, and no load times then the Retro VGS/Coleco Chameleon is nothing more than another Ouya or similar Android-based microconsole. If they decide to go retro/multi-cart machines like the Retron 5, then they end up in a world of cheap hardware, knock-offs, and competition. It makes sense that if you’re going to embark on this venture you will need to differentiate, but this product just doesn’t seem to be going at it with the right focus.
The Ouya people, frankly, just want emulators and freebies. The Retron 5 people want to be able to buy from a robust library of existing titles and play games on their new HDTVs from the “actual” carts, which I use air quotes because the ROM is just being ripped and dumped into an Android emulator. Many of the sales from both consoles were people who wanted to basically pirate the entire library of cartridge games on the market once they figured out how. The Coleco Chameleon doesn’t do any retro console playing, puts $5-$20 mobile games in cart form – but to be fair the mobile games of today are yesterday’s console games – and wants $150 for it. This is a higher price point than both the Ouya ($99.99) and Retron 5 ($129.99) and you have to buy cart games for it that will probably be at least $20. This was even more obvious and disappointing when you cast your eyes on the failed original IndieGoGo before Kennedy got Coleco involved. They wanted $350 for a console and only managed to raise a paltry $81,158 out of the goal of $1.95 million!
The market has spoken and no one wanted that item despite how nostalgic it seems. I think the same is true of the Coleco Chameleon. The price is too high, the concept that I’m buying a locked Android (at least based on the original Retro VGS hardware) device that can’t go online or patch is absurd, and that carts are the vehicle is even more shocking. Looking at some of the games they want to offer like Shovel Knight, Read Only Memories, and even Double Dragon Trilogy I have a sad reality to point out: these games all received online patches on their other respective platforms! Of most of the remaining ones: Pier Solar, Last Hope Pink Bullets Edition, and Jeffrey Whittenhagen’s Black Box Challenge, these have already been released in cart form on other consoles. Yep, Pier Solar is on Genesis in a cart (I have it), Last Hope is on the Neo Geo (Pink Bullets was an update that you would have to re-buy because of lack of patching, I’ll let that irony sink in), and Black Box Challenge is a Jaguar cart. Aside from all of this, I think 100 percent of these games are either available on PC or other modern platforms as well. So there is, frankly, nothing that you gain from owning this machine. Look, I get what Kennedy and team are trying to do, really I do, but the reality is that games were on carts and not patched because the technology didn’t exist and not because of a design choice. Also, side note, apparently the team was going to go through an approval process to make sure the games were of quality to release on the console. What developer is going to do that when patches are possible everywhere else? Who’s going to pay the people that certify? How are these people going to do a better job with the complex games of today when a crack shot team at Nintendo couldn’t catch everything back in the 80s and 90s? I think I’ve made my point clear.
In short, I won’t be participating in Coleco Chameleon’s upcoming Kickstarter and I sure as hell am not shelling out $150 to play mobile games on a closed, cart-only platform. I love the sentiment and believe me the person behind most of this, Mike Kennedy, has his heart in the right place. Unfortunately his usually business savvy mind doesn’t seem to be along for this ride.
This article is an opinion piece by the writer, Fred Rojas, and does not necessarily reflect the views of Gaming History 101 or its other contributors.
Normally I do not do update pieces on an article of this type. The reason is mostly because lofty promises and pitches will consistently change and my article was triggered by press releases that were sent out during the week this article was written. If new features or compatibility is announced, we simply wait until it releases. That said, the articles written and released the same day as this piece broke the fact that the Chameleon will be compatible with Atari 2600 games and that Retro VGS managed to nab the licensing on 300 titles is significant. It was also announced that the console’s FPGA chip can emulate actual consoles themselves including the 2600, Intellivision, and Super NES with a promise of unreleased Genesis (Mega Drive) titles as well. Presumably this means that not only can the Chameleon release cart versions of the old school games for these consoles but that they can also support new games programmed for these older systems as well. With all that in mind, here are my additional thoughts.
First of all, it doesn’t change my opinion or the theme of this piece in the least. In fact, it somewhat re-iterates my point. Let’s start with the 300 Atari 2600 games. That’s a large library and surely many games within it are classics that older gamers will enjoy, but unfortunately that need has been met. I introduce to you the Flashback line that encompasses as many as 100 Atari 2600 (Flashback 6) games in a chipset, original design and controllers from the VCS/2600, and the same treatment to Intellivision and Colecovision as well. These looked promising when introduced at a price of $60 and demand has been a bit weak, prompting the actual selling price of more like $30-$40. The only one that fetches a pretty penny is the Flashback 2 and that’s purely because it contains all the Activision titles (that have since been yanked back by Activision) and can be modified to support actual Atari 2600 carts because it still has all the internal components of the original console. The same is true for any of these built-in Genesis and other such consoles, usually priced around $50 at the start and ending up selling on clearance at $20-$40. Basically, a bundle collection already exists and sells much lower than the Chameleon’s asking price of $150. In fact, if you took $150 and hit the Internet and swap meets, you can make a pretty rock solid Atari 2600 console and collection that don’t care about licensing rights.
Next is the FPGA chip that allows the console to basically become an Atari 2600, Intellivision, Super NES, and presumably Genesis (and probably Jaguar given the shell and Jaguar homebrew release slated). It’s interesting at face value until the conceit that this is emulation. Don’t get me wrong, the emulation is quite good I’m sure and most people won’t notice the difference, but the select group that will care are the exact audience for this console. No one who collects and remembers the good old days of the 2600 wants some fancy all-in-one chip pretending to be one. The same is true of the games. I’m betting that the Chameleon will not support 2600, Intellivision, SNES, and Genesis carts all in that single slot. If this is the case then they will all have to be re-housed in a new cart type – which ironically enough will probably be Jaguar carts – and thus re-purchased. So for your $150 it’s not even a Retron competitor unless of course they offer a cart adapter but then you’re adding more cost and more anger from fans that will find the one single game (or few games) that this thing won’t support from back in the day. Finally there is the most interesting prospect of this console, which is that of making actual games from the past. I love seeing, playing, and picking up games from older hardware released nowadays. This is true of Pier Solar, Battle Kid, and many others. The problem is that most people don’t buy these games. I have seen too many instances where a game that had to be programmed in assembly language (which any 2600 or Intellivision game would definitely have to be, if not Genesis/SNES but C can work as well) and then the market didn’t care about buying the game because it was “too expensive.” That’s why these people move over to a more convenient language from today, make it on today’s consoles/computers as an indie retro throwback, release it digitally for $10 and turn a profit like Retro City Rampage. In fact, that last sentence wraps up my point and concludes why even with this new information, I’d love to see the Chameleon bring back development on console’s from decades passed, but it more realistically just continues to prove that the retro style is going to be stuck as indie digital titles indefinitely.