Chameleon

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The sum of three failed systems.

The Chameleon (formerly known as the Retro VGS then Coleco Chameleon, and now retroactively called the Chameleon or Retro Chameleon for legal reasons) was a scam based around the alleged creation of a retro-based console, largely the creation of Retro Magazine owner Mike Kennedy along with a team which consisted mostly of marketers. It was supposed to be a call-back to the old days of gaming; the console would play cartridge ROMs and have no online features whatsoever to ensure there would be no DLC or Microtransactions.

The Retro VGS

When it was announced as the Retro VGS, it was claimed that the console would use a field-programmable gate array (FPGA) core that would allow it to switch modes in order to emulate various types of console hardware. It was claimed that with this feature, the system would be able to play authentic cartridges for classic systems (using port adaptors so they would fit) as well as having modern indie games on ROM cartridges. This would not only be legally very problematic since it would require bypassing manufacturer lockouts, but also practically impossible from the point of view of designing an FPGA core that could do it. This was all tied to a time when games were never buggy or unfinished (spoiler: they were) when the reality would basically have been "Steam games that are 10 months late and $40 more expensive." A ridiculous list of other features included 9-pin Genesis-style controller ports, and the result was a $300 price point.

He has an oscilloscope, that's supposed to show he's a smart science man and not just shoving dev boards in a plastic case.

The Retro VGS was going to be crowdfunded on Kickstarter, but at the last minute, the project was switched to Indiegogo, suspiciously right after a message board post reminding the Retro VGS team that Kickstarter campaigns for products require a working prototype and do not allow the use of realistic 3D models.

The Indiegogo campaign raised $81,158 out of a $1.95 million goal before it was abandoned, Mike Kennedy claiming he had found private investors. The planned hardware was going to use Atari Jaguar shells cast using tooling that Kennedy had purchased, as a cost reducer (there is evidence that after some creative accountancy by Kennedy involving siphoning money to Retro Magazine, they did not reduce costs for the system at all), and the controller was discovered to be a shoddy third-party Wii U controller. The system was heavily criticized for its rose-tinted view of the cartridge era, implausible promises and high unit price, with detractors saying that even if it were made, it would basically be a cartridge-based Ouya and any program that worked with its FPGA could be dumped to a flash cart and run on the original hardware, which the target market, retro gamers, would be practically guaranteed to already own.

Discontent had increased when the list of stretch goals was published and it was revealed that the full promised FPGA function would only be achieved at the highest stretch goal. The lack of pictures of prototypes and sudden shift to Indiegogo led to many allegations of the system being an outright scam, or at best that Kennedy and the team were hugely overestimating what they were capable of. This was not helped when team member John Carlsen displayed a "prototype" which was clearly just a bunch of off-the-shelf dev boards inside a transparent Jaguar shell, running off-the-shelf dev software. His attempt to take down this video and DMCA anyone who put it back up did not exactly help with the perception that the Retro team was up to no good.

Coleco Chameleon

Around this time, the Retro VGS team managed to get the holding company that owns the Coleco trademark, Coleco Holdings (a subsidiary of Riverwest Brands) to approve its use for their console, which became known as "Coleco Chameleon." This was immediately advertised with the claim that "The creators of the ColecoVision are back with a new cartridge-based console," an outright lie since the company that created the Colecovision is long dead and the modern Coleco, like the modern Atari, is just a brand name owned by a holding company that licenses the name out for money. The Coleco Chameleon abandoned many of the original ideas of the console: it would no longer have adaptors for playing classic console cartridges and would only play flash carts with games dumped to them, would not have the 9-pin controller connectors (meaning the system could not actually accept a Colecovision controller and making the new branding a bit pointless) and would not have the composite out, instead having only HDMI-out. This was stated to be in order to bring the price down to $150. Kennedy's bizarre technical statements about FPGA cores led to a meme about him "going down to the core store to buy himself some cores."

How to make your own Coleco Chameleon "prototype."
A new "prototype" was shown at the American International Toy Fair in New York in February 2016. Questions were quickly raised because the device was perfectly "emulating" the games playing on it (while an FPGA system only two and a half months old should have a few games that barely functioned with most not working at all), and visibly did not fit in the Jaguar shell: a projecting portion was covered in electrical tape, with a bare portion that was mysteriously the same color as a SNES.

Suspicions grew as it was quickly discovered the console didn't even have a working power light and was using a 3-in-1 Genesis / NES / SNES power brick, the proprietary Nintendo AV-out connector used only by the SNES, N64, and Gamecube (even though the Chameleon was supposed to use HDMI only), the console used SNES controllers with the wires disappearing into the Jaguar case's controller port holes without connectors, the cartridge was the front half of a Jaguar cartridge casing electrical-taped to an SD-to-SNES flash cartridge, and the cartridge connector looked exactly the same as the SNES connector. Amazingly, this device could only play SNES games, and the video presentations never showed switching games or the system starting up. It was nothing but a SNES Mini motherboard shoved into an Atari Jaguar shell (hence the lack of a power light, as the SNES Mini does not have one), running games off a flash cart.

They had been so lazy in creating this "prototype" that they had not even rigged up a power switch, and so had to unplug the machine entirely to change games.

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A second Kickstarter was announced (with some truly bizarre errors in the rewards such as having all higher-tier rewards reflect the retail price of the system, so they would be more expensive than getting the low-tier "early bird" reward and then buying the game separately). This Kickstarter was rather shamefully reported on as completely legit by the tech press, who did no research into the system at all and parroted Retro's PR materials. However, after a huge push on social media Retro suddenly went completely silent on the day it was supposed to start, banning users on their Facebook page instead of answering them. It was then claimed that this delay was "to improve the product."

Photos of a third "prototype" were then posted, which showed a clear case with a large "motherboard" inside and an enormous white "Coleco Chameleon" watermarks which were certainly not trying to obscure the board. Once again the device was discovered to be fake: it was quickly determined that the board had no cartridge slot and the system was not plugged in, then that nothing on the board would reasonably belong in a console and it was almost certainly some sort of PCI capture card. Within three days, the owner of the site Atari Age identified the board as a HICAP50B CCTV DVR capture card. The photos were taken down from Retro's Facebook page literally minutes after this post was made, but it was too late, the internet had already spread the evidence.

Demise

At this point, even its remaining supporters had largely realized the Chameleon was a scam, and within days of the demonstration that the "prototype" was a capture card, Coleco Holdings threatened to revoke the right to their trademark unless the team presented them with a prototype for examination by independent engineers within 7 days. Predictably, no prototype was shown and Coleco Holdings revoked all rights to use their trademark in connection with the Chameleon on March 8th, 2016. At the same time, it was revealed that Retro did not have and never did have a contract with Atari to release Atari 2600 games, and had never tried to acquire one.

A series of bizarre details came out in interviews at this time, including a developer from Piko Interactive (one of only two developers who expressed interest in publishing for the Coleco Chameleon) saying that Mike Kennedy had claimed the prototypes were made by a mysterious figure called "Mr. Lee" who only spoke to him by phone.

Retro VGS pulled down all their social media the same day Coleco withdrew their trademark, and with this the project was terminated for good. The system was never actually called the "Retro Chameleon," since Retro shut down without announcing a name change: it has to be called this retroactively for legal reasons. It is still unclear whether the Retro team always intended the system as nothing but a scam, or just took "fake it 'til you make it" much too literally. While the end result was a scam through and through, there are several aspects of the story, such as scaling back the planned console's capabilities between the Retro VGS and the Coleco Chameleon, which would not really have been necessary if the intention was to just take people's money and run.

StopDrop&Retro's Retro VGS / Coleco Chameleon playlist

Pat the NES Punk Retro VGS / Coleco Chameleon playlist

Comments


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Superpan21

3 months ago
Score 0
This is something I like to call "Retrogate".

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