Do you miss the days when a home console was nothing more than a slot for cartridges, a device that immediately played games as soon as they turned on? Well, someone is trying to make those days come back.
Mike Kennedy is the publisher of Retro Magazine, so he obviously loves old games. However, he thinks enough people share his passion that the world is ready for a new cartridge-based system, which he’s working on right now. It’s called the Retro VGS (Video Game System), and he’s hoping to launch a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for the device this summer.
I talked to Kennedy about the system, what kind of games he wants on it, and the unusual way he created the console’s shell.
GamesBeat: It seems like most people who cover games media focus on new or upcoming releases. What is it about retro gaming that attracts you?
Mike Kennedy: I’m in my mid-40s. I grew up with the retro-retro games, back in the ’70s and ’80s. Like many of us, you get some disposable income and you go back 15 or 20 years and start collecting the things you either had when you were growing up or wish you had. I’ve made kind of a hobby/career of it.
I was part of a podcast, Retro Gaming Roundup, which we started back in 2008. That show got me acquainted with a lot of the industry icons that started the industry back in the ’70s and ’80s. Now they’re all friends of mine. That’s where the relationships started. Then, in 2008, I started Game Gavel, which was like eBay but just for video games and other geeky-inspired things. Then I’ve been just adding more things to this business model surrounding the whole retro genre.
Then we did the magazine Kickstarter back in 2013. We sold about 2,500 subscriptions in that 30-day period, which launched Retro magazine, a print and digital magazine. Again, just trying to bring back a little piece of that culture with a print magazine. There’s Game Informer and a few other magazines that are still out there, but I think what’s really special about Retro is that it’s not time-sensitive relative to what’s coming out on the market right now. Although we’ve changed our model a little bit starting with this latest issue. There’s just a lot of history in there. We have original illustrations and artwork. We have a cartoon in the back like a lot of the old video game magazines did back in the day. Just trying to emulate those magazines in the modern day, with a bit of a more modern look.
The magazine’s been super-successful. We’re now part of Arcade Block. They’re inserting our magazine in all of their boxes. Our circulation is up over 30,000. We’re in Barnes and Noble, starting with this month’s issue. We have Mortal Kombat on the cover, celebrating Mortal Kombat and fighting games in general. That should be hitting the shelves today, hopefully. The magazine’s been great. We work with a great team of writers I assembled: Jeremy Parish, Chris Kohler, Kat Bailey, Seanbaby, Andy Eddy’s in there. Alexander Hall does all our copy editing. It’s just an all-star cast of writers, all reminiscing and writing about the games they grew up with, the franchises they love. It’s just all about celebrating the history of games. How did we get to where we are today.
GamesBeat: The magazine is definitely cool, but it’s kind of a big leap from a publication to making a console.
Kennedy: Well, yeah. When we started this magazine everyone thought we were a little nuts. Actually, before the magazine was even an idea that we had had, Steve Woita and I were kicking around the new console. This goes back probably two and a half years. The timing just wasn’t right, I didn’t think, at that point, for the console I wanted to bring out, which was going to be a cartridge-based console to play new games on cartridges. It’s not like the Retron 5 where you can plug in your old NES carts. There are lots of ways to play your old carts on a variety of other clone systems. What I wanted to do a couple years ago was make a brand-new console that just ran off carts again. It’s all solid state technology, right? A cartridge-based system, just like the Atari. You can still find Ataris at the swap meet, cartridges, 30 years later, plug them in and it all works. To me that’s the coolest technology out there, with that longevity. A lot of us grew up with it. The kids these days are going to miss out on that.
You’re going to be hard-pressed to find a working original Xbox in 25 years. I just think that’s terrible for the kids these days. I don’t know if they realize that. Maybe it’s not a big deal to them. But we can preserve some of that for them with these retro-style games, which are making a huge comeback right now. Like I said, three years ago, I didn’t think it was possible.
But at E3 last year, I really thought that now was the time. At Microsoft’s booth and at Sony’s booth, which are super-expensive as we all know, they dedicated half of their floor space to showing off indie titles. Most of those titles had some retro influence, or were just flat-out retro-looking, classic-looking. The light kind of went on and I said, OK, they’re taking this genre seriously, the big boys. They have all these games at their booths. That’s when I thought that now is the time to bring out this console. We have the games coming out. We have tons of indie developers, and even mainstream developers, dusting off old IP and polishing it up. I think retro gaming is kind of an art form by itself at this point. It’s being taken seriously as a genre, at least for digital and streaming. Some of these games like Shovel Knight — don’t you want to play Shovel Knight off a cartridge 10-15 years from now?
GamesBeat: It’s funny. That’s the first game I thought of when I heard this whole idea, how cool it would be to have a Shovel Knight cartridge.
Kennedy: We’re talking to Yacht Club. It looks like there might be a chance — not 100 percent — but we’re talking about Retro City Rampage coming out on it, hopefully for launch. We’ve talked about some games already. The point is, there have been some great digital mobile games, retro mobile games, and they’re just lost in time. Some of these deserve to be preserved. Again, going after games that are super popular in the digital, mobile, or streaming world and bringing them to cartridges to preserve them, to give gamers the opportunity to play them years down the road on original hardware, not having to emulate them, with boxes and illustrated instruction books. All these things people love collecting today. All of us that grew up with Atari and Genesis and NES — we’ve got walls of games. It’s a huge pastime. If you’re 15, 16 years old today, what are you going to have on your wall in 10 or 20 years? But I don’t know. I’m hoping there’s still time to show the younger gamers that, first of all, these classic games are still fun. At least for these types of games, if you enjoy them, you can buy them on these cartridges and play them for most of your life.
GamesBeat: What exactly makes a new game a retro game? Is it just about graphics? Is it more about how it plays? Can a game still have a more 3D look, something like Ori and the Blind Forest — is that a retro game?
Kennedy: I’m going to tend to say no on that one. There are some retro games coming out, but the graphics are just way too polished. A 2D sprite-based — I think that’s pretty much where we’re at. For our console we’re really zeroing in on that 16-bit era. That’s sort of the sweet spot. Although we’re working hard on making this console — giving the ability to developers to take it further past that. We’re in this area of, where do we draw the line? What style do we want developers — do we want them to be able to make a PS2-style game, going back to Atari and everything in between? Do we want to draw the line at the PSX?
Originally, I just wanted it to be a 2D machine. But if we spend an extra five, ten, twelve dollars, can we beef it up enough to go to that next generation? We’re sort of playing that game with ourselves right now, where we want to draw the line for developers and what kind of games we want to see on this thing. Really, it’s just coming back to cost. We’re trying to cost-justify everything, keeping in mind what we think people will spend on a console like this. I’m really excited to just to see 2D platformers, 2D fighters, driving games, puzzle games. The standard 2D 16-bit fare is what I’m most excited to see as far as what developers are going to make and what we’re going to bring out.
GamesBeat: It’s weird. We’re now in this age where the PlayStation and PS2 are becoming retro in their own way.
Kennedy: It’s getting there, yeah.
GamesBeat: The PS2 is 15 years old now.
Kennedy: Yeah, it’s crazy. But again, it’s important, I think, in this day and age. We can have solid state flash RAM cartridges. That’s getting a lot cheaper than it used to be. We don’t have to have moving parts in this thing that are going to wear out over time. We’re working really hard to build longevity into this. The flash technology that we’re going to use for cartridges — we’re trying to find technology that can be guaranteed for 40-50 years or more.
GamesBeat:That’s interesting, because that’s why cartridges were dropped in the first place. They couldn’t hold as much data as a CD. Now a cart can hold a lot more. We all use USB sticks now, which are basically cartridges in their own way.
Kennedy: Right. To me, this seems more technologically advanced than the PS4 in some respects. It won’t wear out and die years down the road. It’s weird to think about. 100 years or 200 years from now, when people are digging through all our stuff, they’re probably going to find some old Atari or NES systems and some games, and they can put them in and play them.
GamesBeat: You’re using the shells of Atari Jaguar systems and cartridges. I really enjoyed the story about how you came across all of those.
Kennedy: Yeah. Love it or hate it, it saved us a ton of money. That’s the biggest thing. Just the tooling alone — the injection mold shop that currently has them — I brought them from San Francisco down to Orange County — they told me that would have been at least $300,000 in modern-day tooling costs. That doesn’t even count the design work that has to be done. If you’re paying a design team to come up with a whole new look. That’s probably half a million dollars in the end. Again, with the Jag tooling — it’s really the reason this is possible, at least for me to be able to do it. If it wasn’t for that, there’s no way this could be done. Like it or don’t like it or whatever, if you like this idea — this new life for the Jaguar console shell is really what’s making it all possible.
GamesBeat: And they were being used as camera mounts for dental equipment?
Kennedy: It was a dental camera, yeah. The dental company bought it directly from Atari somewhere around 1998. Then they repurposed it. All the documentation from Atari, releasing all the titles and rights and interests in the Jaguar — I got all those letters when I bought the tooling, all the blueprints for the Jaguar, like 20 different prints. The release forms. But yeah, they repurposed it as a dental camera for many years. Then their technology moved on to the point that that particular product, they didn’t make it anymore. They put them up on eBay when they were done with them for, I think, six grand? And they never sold.
This was maybe four or five years ago, something like that. So I’ve just been following them. Then, last December, I called Steve at Imagine and said, “I want to come up and check out the tooling.” I met with Steve and saw the tooling for the first time. What’s amazing is that these tools, these punch-out molds, they still look great after 25 years. It’s pretty amazing. We got the tooling for the console shell and the cartridge shell. That’s what we’re going to be re-using. But that’s sort of where the similarities will end. Everything else, all the system architecture inside, is new. We’re using a different controller. Obviously, a Jaguar cartridge won’t play in the Retro VCS. But yeah, it’s really neat. I just love it. I’m a huge fan of Atari, old Atari. It’s so neat that we’re able to repurpose this shell. Honestly, I think the Jaguar was a pretty attractive-looking system. It’s not real big. It’s pretty sleek. I think it’s going to look really nice. We have a team working on rebranding everything. We’re building some different options for branding the console and the controller. It’s going to look unique to us after we’re done with the rebranding of it. I hope, anyway.
GamesBeat: What are you trying to do with the controller? Are you trying to get the basic D-pad, four face buttons, kind of like the Super Nintendo?
Kennedy: Right now, again — keeping this thing viable — we could have gone out and created a brand new controller. I’ve talked to a lot of developers and it’s important to them to have the dual analog sticks for twin-stick shooters and a variety of things. The reason we’ve kept those is — even though they aren’t really that retro, there are some great advantages to those sticks in retro games. We wanted to leave those on at the request of the majority of the developers we’re talking with. And then I also wanted to have your classic D-pad in there. One of the issues –I don’t know, issue 3 or 4 of Retro magazine, we do a swag-bag spread, a feature on retro video game merchandise. We had a short blurb on Interworks Unlimited’s controller for the Wii. Now, I looked at that and I thought, in my head, that’s exactly what I have envisioned for this thing. It has the dual analog sticks mated up with a classic SNES-style controller.
We went to Interworks and talked to them, and at least at this point, it appears that we’re going to be working with them. They’ll be creating a new USB controller for us that’s going to look like that one, but branded for our console. That controller is classic. There are some concerns with it. They’ve given me some. The quality of it feels great. It doesn’t feel like — I’m not going to name other manufacturers, but it feels like a really nice, sturdy controller. People have had issues with the connectivity to the Wii on that particular controller at times, but we’re not wireless, so that shouldn’t affect us. I don’t mind. I think it’s going to be a great controller for developers to exploit. It has everything they’re going to want. It has everything the younger modern-day gamers will like and it has everything the classic gamers will like. It has the D-pad. The buttons are all oriented properly. I just think it’s going to be a really good controller.
The plan is to pack in two controllers in each box. We’re also going to, I think — again, this is a little tentative because it hasn’t happened yet, but we’re planning on putting two nine-pin connectors in front as well, so that people can plug in old Ataris or any other classic nine-pin old-school controller. We’ll make sure that developers can exploit that as well. Gamers can use our factory controllers, or their favorite USB controllers, like a trackball. It fits with a nine-pin if they want to. But the USB gives us tons of flexibility. You can put a USB multitap on there and add more players. We’re taking it back. We don’t want to have any network connectivity, any of that stuff. We just want to plug in a cartridge, flip the on button, the game works out of the box. It’s not going to require patches and all this stuff. Hopefully people are ready for a kind of return to this style of gaming.
GamesBeat: When will the Kickstarter launch?
Kennedy: Our plan is to launch it this summer. If I had my way we’d launch it right before E3, but it could be June or July. Honestly the hardware is taking us a while. Originally I wanted to launch the thing in February. It’s difficult to create a retro system with modern-day televisions and modern-day technology. You’d think it would be easy. It’s probably easier to make a PS4 these days than a true retro console to play new games. It’s all high-def TVs. Some people want high def. Some people don’t. But we’re sort of forced into it. If I want this console to last for 10-20 years or longer, you pretty much have to go HD with it. But we’re going to have S-Video and composite as well, I think. If you have an older TV — we’re still trying to figure out how that all fits together resolution-wise, playing with all the different types of televisions out there. It’s tough. But I have a couple of great hardware guys working on it.
One of our guys did some work for Sony. Steve, my partner on this, worked at Atari, Apple, Sega. He’s the software and hardware guy. I’m up here in San Francisco. I had dinner with him last night. We spend probably 10 or 15 hours a week, and we’ve been doing this for about six months, just nailing down hardware specifications and build materials. We decide one thing, and then we change something else. We don’t want to screw up. It’s a big undertaking. We want to make sure this is the best, most awesome system, if you’re a retro gamer, whatever. This thing is going to be a love letter to every cartridge-based system that ever came before. We want to do it justice. If we miss the summer, hey, we miss it. If it goes to this fall — we don’t want to launch until it’s right. We want to have a working prototype for the Kickstarter. After the Kickstarter, once we’re sure that it’s going to be fun, this thing is probably going to go through another two or three levels of prototyping before we even get to a consumer version. That’s the progression.
We’re trying to talk to some big-name publishers about bringing back old fan favorites on this thing, or sequels. That’s actually why I’m up here in San Francisco, meeting with a third party developer that’s done a lot of third-party development work for Sony and Capcom and Konami and Sega. We’ll be partnering with this group to lead our charge into those types of companies to work out licensing deals for some of these games that they haven’t monetized in 10-15-20 years. As you know, there’s a lot of games out there that people would love to see brought back. A lot of these games wouldn’t come back and play real well on mobile. You play retro remakes on mobile, right? The touch screen is horrible. There’s just no way around it. For retro-style games, you need precision control. You don’t want any controller lag. You need that zen-like experience that a wired controller can give you. There’s a lot of these games that we think, with the right treatment and the connections involved — it’s possible we might be able to go out and bring back some of your favorite NES-style or Super NES or Sega Genesis games as sequels. We’re putting down our wish list of what titles we would like to see brought back.
The neat thing about this Kickstarter is that we’re not only Kickstarting the console, but we’re also going to Kickstart about a dozen games right along with it. Something like this has never been done before. When the Ouya launched it was Android. They were going to have games on it no matter what. There were only a few that they ever really mentioned. For us, we want to say, when this thing launches in April of next year or whatever, it’s going to have at least these 12 titles, if not more. We’re going to have a bunch of indies on board and stuff. We want to be able to tell everybody in the Kickstarter, here’s the pack-in game. We may have two or three pack-in games for the Kickstarter. We’ll probably do cartridges just for the Kickstarter backers or something.
There’s been no major discussions with Sega about this, but this is an example of what we’re looking for: let’s say we hit $5 million or $6 million and that stretch goal is a new Fantasy Zone or a new Ghosts ‘n Goblins from Capcom. That’s what we’re trying to nail down. If we can get some of these big-name titles and use them as stretch goals, and then have various reward tiers where you can pick one of the stretch goal games, or two or three of them, to add to your box — this is an opportunity for developers who want to bring back an old title. They can bring it back as part of our Kickstarter.
There’s a lot of moving targets. We don’t have it all planned out. But we have really high expectations for it, as you can tell.