If can’t read, this article is read out here, feel free to listen to it in the background or watch it as I go through the links!

Here is my analysis about the unfortunate turn of events of the Retro VGS/Coleco Chameleon
Here are my thoughts, not about what happened with the fake prototypes etc but about the hardware and game cartridges.

My background: I was excited about the Ouya when it was kickstarted, but decided to wait for the retail units, I’ve glad I did because the hardware was disappointing, I eventually got a Madcatz Mojo and was excited about it, now the ShieldTV is taking the glory from the hard work of former microconsoles.
I am also an original Net Yaroze Member since 1998.
I’m not some much a game player these days, instead I enjoy the craft of good gamedev, and I don’t mean AAA, stunning graphics.

About the Retro VGS/Coleco Chameleon

The Retro League Podcast EP:328 @9:55 has a good and logical explanation about it.

Basically, it’s a canceled cartridge based game console which used the Coleco brand name.
The hardware was to use FPGA) which allowed games programmed for any retro gaming hardware ie (Coleco, NES, SNES, atari 2600, etc) to run via HDL, this is explained well in their RetroVGS FAQ:

“If a developer wants to make a Neo Geo game, they would include an HDL (Hardware Description Language) file that configures the FPGA to operate like a Neo Geo.
The developer would code their game to run against the Neo Geo platform.
This HDL code along with the actual Neo Geo game will be on the cartridge.
Once that cartridge is placed in the RETRO VGS, it will become a Neo Geo and play that game.
So in this case, the language is: 68000 and Z80 code.

If you wanted to do a new Atari 2600 styled game, you’d include a 2600 HDL file that configures the FPGA to replicate the logic of the original 2600 hardware and then you’d include your new 2600 game on that cartridge too.
These two files are then paired up on the cartridge and when plugged into the RETRO VGS, will turn the console into a 2600.
So the language that would be used in this case is: 6507 (6502 with less address space). “

They didn’t mention old 8bit micros (Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Apple II), nor PC-DOS, Linux, OpenGL, DirectX, PS-X, N64, etc but I imagine it would have worked as all these systems are well emulated and reverse engineered.

Update: In this interview Mike says the HDL files would be licensed from the HDL developers and would have been included and provided to the game developers.

So, basically game developers didn’t have to make much effort to convert their existing game (and working on original hardware (NES, SNES,etc)) to the Coleco Chameleon/RetroVGS.
Not only is the hardware ‘configurable’ it also has an ARM chip, if it’s a System On a Chip (SoC) chip it opens up even more possibilities.

“Oh and we’ll have a nice little ARM chip for some more fun stuff.”


Who would make games for this?

Since the advent of the smartphone, the independent game development (indiedev) scene has exploded!
Thanks to popular titles like angry bird which generated millions of dollars for the creators.
A similar to the phenomenon took place in the early 1980’s with the first home computers (8bit micro’s), many developers became rich, very quickly.
Now a days, the term indiedev is lost, it could be a small company with or without access to a publisher.
Traditionally an indiedev was a bedroom coder, hacking away at a hobby, maybe releasing the game through a publisher.

Most indiedev now target common platforms like Windows, Android, iOS, HTML5 and even Linux as the tools required to produce a game are easy to learn and simple to use, some much so that some don’t even require programming ie Unity3D.

But there is also a strong scene of homebrew developers!

These are enthusiast programmers which target old hardware to produce new games, the Atari 2600 and the Nintendo (NES) being the most popular.
The skilled required to develop for old hardware is more intense as it requires years of hardware and assembly knowledge to get the most out of the hardware. For this reason sometime the person with the idea for a game, hires the programmer.
Here are a few homebrew games:

There are a handful new and exclusive games or ports coming out for old hardware every year.
Commonly, it’s just a free ROM played on an emulator but some are released on physical media (commonly the cartridge) with official looking packaging and manuals, these are often kickstarted like the recent Russian roulette (NES) with help for funding (40+k over funded, totaling 65k).

There’s no lack of new content! And what gamedev wouldn’t want their game on a cartridge?
If you summed up all the homebrew games on each hardware system, it would be a large list! and growing!
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Why cartridge based?

I’m surprised by gamers today wondering why anyone would want a cartridge based console today.
Well, I’ve listed my opinions here:


Cartridges will outlive us all!
Like books, all physical digital media suffers from media degradation.
Magnetic and optic media all have moving parts, this over time slowly degrades and the media gets to a point it’s no longer usable.
The cartridge electronics are protected by plastic casing and it makes it durable against general wear and tear, spills or accidental drops.

Software on a cartridges however is flashed to Read Only Memory (EPROM) chips and is the most reliable media even today.

Which if for whatever reason the chip fails it can be re-flashed or replaced with another similar chip.
Because the programs are burnt into the chips, the software will last longer then any other physical media alternative.
Also consoles run the cartridge software at bootup, when the system is turned on.
There is generally no loading time, although some larger games do take a few seconds to uncompressed art assets from the ROM to the console’s system RAM.

If books have lasted 100’s of years, then I would expect cartridges to last even longer, nobody really knows just how long the chips will last.

Like a durable time-capsule, it will out live the original creators, leaving a legacy of their work that will live on.


Digital is not permanent
We live in a world were our media is mostly digital now.
Purchasing physical media (movies, music, books, games, etc) at a store, opening the packaging and reading the printed material and enjoying the artwork all seems so old fashioned.

With convenience comes a cost, and that is all digital media is disposable!
Whether it’s an iOS/Android/Steam game, you can lose your hardware, replace it and have your purchases reinstalled within minutes!
But because we have gigabytes of storage, media generally gets a burst of attention, then it’s forgotten in an avalanche of mass digital content.
This obviously doesn’t happen with physical media, your music CD storage is limited, your bookshelves have limited capacity etc.
Physical media made you think about what you wanted.. because you literally may not have the space for it!
How many digital photos have you lost, wishing you had printed them?

While digital is convenient, it’s not permanent


Non online connectivity
Before the PS4/XboxOne came out, there were rumors of both not having physical media and requiring online connectivity, there was a lot of backlash!
Eventually when servers are retired and turned off it will effect a game’s ability to be played!

Because of the large complexity of games today game publishers are eager to get product out.
And software development tends to run over budget and over deadlines, this means a reliance on patches, upgrades and Down Loadable Content (DLC).
The game on the disc, may not be installable in 20+ years, will be buggy or limited compared to how it was played at the time.

People go on about the lack of updates being an issue, it really isn’t.
It’s still a relatively new idea (PS3/XBox360), and one that we haven’t seen the lasting results of!
In the history of consoles games up to 2006, all games were finished, manufactured and sold at retail without requiring updates.
Sure, there were a few bugs here and there, but that’s life in the publishing game!
Movie studio’s and book author’s can’t provide their audience with a digital update, but gamers demand it? to their detriment I say!
People who say that lack of updates is an issue don’t realise the labor of love homebrew games actually are!

The fact is that online consoles rely on a server for console firmware and game updates, which sooner or later will be turned off


Shelf collectors - the primary market
When we buy something new from a manufacturer (ie, Nintendo) we buy it via a retail broker (ie, Kmart) this is an primary market.
But when we sell it second hand, it goes to a secondary market exchange like ebay, gamegavel etc.
This is exactly the same for traders who trade money for stocks, currencies, commodities, bonds, real-estate, motor vehicles, etc and vice versa in the hope of generating a profit.

It might seem funny to think of games cartridges as an exchange traded asset, but it’s true.
Watch any popular Youtube video about retro games and you’ll see their wall of games! Wow right, it’s impressive sure!
I call these people retro hoarders or retro investors, their money is invested in retro games and non more popular then cartridges! coincidence?

Do they actually play on the original hardware? or is it kept in a box, on a wall?
The reality is 20+ years ago, they would have been living at home with their parents, going to school and with only a small collection of games.
And they would have played the crap out of it, trying really hard to finish them, because games were hard back then!

In any market, the price of an asset is dictated by the perception (the moods of the seller and buyers) and liquidity (quantity available in the market, generally the low the quantity (scarcity) the higher in price and vice versa).
Investor sprucing is rampant on the internet, compelled to advertise their investments in a favorable light in the hope of motivating others to do the same, creating a bigger market, new collectors means more buyers and more buyers mean ever higher prices.

Listen to the pro ‘Shelf collectors’ talking about the pros ‘Shelf collectors’, this is a must watch:

Today’s purchase may become future a rare, exclusive or sought after game.
I’m not saying these people are bad nor what they do is bad, but I think they’re not honest or transparent enough about their investment, instead portray the collection as a hobby.

I think like any investment, they take a risk and are dedicated to it, and they also preserve the hardware and document it via videos.

People invested, will always be committed to growing their investment, thus creating an primary market which supply’s the secondary market


Nostalgia
Life was simpler back in the day of cartridge games, no mobile phones, no internet and most things were cheaper, we were all a lot younger and healthier.
Game magazines were the only source of reviews, cheat codes and what new games were coming out, they were the information gate keepers.
Reminiscing about the old days or fantasizing about a generations past.

Psychology, we seek good feelings and nostalgia provides that in droves



Piracy
Of all the good reasons to use cartridges, there’s only one good reason for the developers, to reduce piracy.

Most of the worlds population now live in capitalistic societies.
Which means we all do activities (often called a job) in exchange for payment (often with money).
You might like where you work, but you only go to work because you get paid, so you can keep paying your bills.
Indiedev’s maybe doing a game for fun initially, but if it turns serious (ie kickstarter) then it would be good to do it on a full-time capacity or hire the right people with skills, and bills still have to be paid, so money has to exchange hands somewhere.

In the late 1980’s the tapes and floppy disk were pirated rampantly, however the cartridges could not be copied and this made the console games industry thrive.
Today, ROM’s are dumped to a file and easily distributed, which then can be played via emulation.
However if a cartridge is made, this process would take time as homebrew games aren’t mass produced and aren’t cheap, the primary buyers wouldn’t be the ones dumping the ROM files and distributing them.
And if the game is bought mostly by “Shelf collectors”, it will take even longer for the ROM to be leaked.

Even today, cartridges can not be easily dumped or duplicated and this gives the developer time to recoup costs and hopefully more.


Console Cartridges are to Games what Vinyl records are to Music

Like vinyl, cartridges were the first (modular) games media and important to the gaming heritage.
While they are generally more expensive to manufacture and bulky to store, the cartridge format today still has a lot of life.


Similar to the Ouya and the Sony Playstation: Net Yaroze- the first and last hobbyist console development system opened up the endless possibility for the bedroom gamedev’s to put out something new and creative.

The RetroVGS/Coleco Chameleon would have been a dream for hobbyist console developers and game developers in general, setting a defacto standard and a level of quality (packaging, printed manuals,etc).
From the RetroVGS FAQ:

The indie developer would use a regular RETRO VGS out of the box, with a USB cable & free downloadable software that could be downloaded from the RETRO VGS’s website. The plan has always been from day one to support indie game development and what I mean by that is that if you’re a game developer you’d have as much info, tools and help as possible and not be closed out of the system. This is not a closed console, meaning If you make a game for the RETRO VGS, and you wanted to order 50 copies of your own game to take to PAX and sell them on your own, you could! The plan is to be able to submit your box, cartridge & manual artwork, game code (for the cartridge), instructions and how many you’d like to order and you’d get your 50 shrink wrapped plastic cases with your awesome game cartridges all professionally packaged and sent to you. That still is the plan.

And especially for the fans of true pixel-Art (with hardware pallets) and true LowPoly-art (with poly budgets), sadly these are now just buzz words in today’s industry with few actually knowing what they mean.

Yes, It wasn’t a cheap budget system but owning several different retro consoles, controllers and a few original games isn’t cheap these days either.
But the RetroVGS/Coleco Chameleon would have given many people access to games they would have never played/owned/experienced otherwise.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be, maybe it was just over ambitious and too good to be true to begin with.

If you’ve read all this, contact me via twitter @xpcoin or youtube!

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Update:

Interview of John Carlsen, the original hardware engineer.

After I had researched the best (and lowest-cost) solutions, put together initial designs, and estimated costs and a target price for what he and Steve required, Mike wouldn’t believe me when I told him how much it would cost. He still wouldn’t believe me when I compared the prices and apparent manufacturing costs of products that would do similar things, including the FPGA Arcade Replay.

Using an FPGA for hardware-based emulation and the 50-year data retention requirement were the major cost adders, and the cost of building modern hardware into the Jaguar shell was also significant. In the Ars Technica interview, Mike had overstated the PCB cost I had given him by about three to five times.

It turned out that we might have been able to release a system for $150, but we wouldn’t make any money and it wouldn’t include an FPGA.

Good interview with Mike Kennedy
FPGA Arcade Replay: Has the FPGA hardware and a lot of cores in development!
And here’s a video review of a 2014 version, running several FPGA cores

The retro roundup mentioned the retroVGS in hardware flashback and News.
And also on the forums.

This article was mentioned on atariage and enoofu commented:

Yeah that article is a joke, DLC’s were common, buggy games, and Piracy was somewhat common even with carts in the 80’s

I grow up in the 80’s - 90’s I had access to most of the popular consoles/micros at the time.
DLC was either cheat codes or manually written programs from magazines or friends.

There’s more bugs in software now then back then (I’m a software programmer).
Automated testing wasn’t feasible on 80’s & 90’s hardware, and even still it’s next to IMPOSSIBLE to test every possible scenario.
Cartridges would have been tested to the best of the abilities of the developers, publishers and manufactures.

The copiers came later in the console’s life and they only existed because of the huge user base, this would have been very niche so nobody would manufacture a cartridge copier for a system which has small manufacturing runs?