Can the long awaited Atari VCS take Atari back to its heydays, or will it be the company’s doom?

I was absolutely sure I’d posted about the new Atari VCS in the past. Since I couldn’t find the post, I though that perhaps I’d shared an article about it on my Twitter feed. But I couldn’t find it on Twitter either! Then I realized I’d shared an article on Facebook, and that post was deleted with my Facebook account. So let me tell you about the Atari VCS right here, right now!

If you’re a nerd of the late 70’s and early 80’s, there’s a good chance you remember the Atari 2600. The 8-bit home video game console was the first commercially successful unit with microprocessor-based hardware, and games stored on ROM cartridges. Atari, Inc. sold over 30 million units during the console’s 14 year lifespan.

Quite a lot has happened to Atari, Inc. since the Atari 2600 was released1. The company was split up into a software and a hardware company, which were then sold, sold again, and sold some more, before going bust, then being re-born with another Atari-name.

Today’s Atari is a mere shadow of its former self. But perhaps the planned re-issue of the Atari 2600 can take the company back to its heydays?

Project AtariBox.

Atari first teased the then-titled Project Ataribox in June 2017 during E3. They released images of the exterior but did not call out any technical specifications. Because of Atari’s size at the time – they had around 10 employees – the press deemed it very unlikely that the console was meant to compete with the likes of PlayStation and Xbox.

It was more likely that the Ataribox was an emulator system with the ability to run classic Atari games. The previous year, Nintendo had launched the NES Classic Edition console. The tiny thing made it possible for retro-gamers to play 30 classic Nintendo titles on modern TVs. The NES Classic was a raging success, and sold more than 2 million units during the first 6 months. It would not be totally shocking if Atari would try to replicate that success to bring in some much needed cash.

The Ataribox announcement didn’t bring with it any practical information, however. No hardware specifications, no software details, no price, no launch date. Basically no nothing. It wasn’t until September, 2017, that Atari released a little more details about the Ataribox. It would be powered by a custom AMD processor, have Radeon graphics technology, and run Linux. The price was expected to be between $249 and $299 depending on specific editions, and memory configurations.

A computer generated image of the front of the Atari VCS with a white, glowing Atari logo.

Atari VCS.

Pre-orders for the Ataribox was expected to start in December, 2017. But at the last minute, Atari decided to temporary delay the everything, stating that “it is taking more time to create the platform and ecosystem the Atari community deserves”.

The Ataribox didn’t resurface again until March 2018, at the annual Games Developers Conference. The console was now known as the Atari VCS, and was displayed with a classic Atari joystick, and a more modern games controller. But the console was no more than an empty shell. It contained no hardware. The modern controller was a block of plastic. And Atari couldn’t say anything about launch date, the graphical interface, hardware manufactures, or games development partners.

Against all odds, however, Atari opened of for pre-orders of the Atari VCS on May 30, 2018. Two models were available. A great looking collector’s edition with a wood-front finish was available for $299, and a black Onyx edition, priced at $199. Atari had finally been able to cough up some actual hardware specifications as well. The Atari VCS would run a custom Linux OS on a AMD Raven Ridge 2 APU, have 8GB RAM, 32GB internal storage, support HDMI, wireless, Ethernet, and Bluetooth, and have 4 USB ports.

The console would ship with Atari Vault, featuring over 100 home and arcade classics that could be played out of the box.

Great Success! (For Atari)

Within the first day, the Atari VCS saw more than $2.25 million in pre-orders. When the Indiegogo campaign ended, it had brought in over 3 million dollars from 11,622 hopeful buyers. In the Indiegogo campaign, Atari estimated that the pre-ordered consoles would be shipped in July 2019. But in April, they moved the shipping date to December 2019. The reason behind the delay was that the planned APU was to be replaced with an all-new AMD Ryzen embedded chip.

Fast forward to a few days ago. At the dawn of the 2019 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), Atari published a press release stating that the Atari VCS is available for pre-order from both GameStop and Walmart. Could it really be happening? Was the Atari VCS raising from the depths of vaporware?

The most basic version, 400 Onyx Base, retails for $249.99. If you want the 800 Onyx All In package – the 8GB RAM version with two controllers – you have to shell out a whooping $389.99. The units pre-ordered through GameStop and Walmart will ship in March, 2020.

The original Atari 2600 with one controller.
The original Atari 2600.

The Atari VCS is Doomed.

A basic Atari VCS will set you back $300 dollars; $250 for the console, and $50 for the classic joystick. A PlayStation 4 Slim with one controller also retails for $300. The Xbox One S will set you back even less. The hardware in the Atari VCS is greatly inferior to that found in the PlayStation and the Xbox. In addition to the classic Atari titles that are included with the console, the Atari VCS will be able to play PC titles a well. But in a demonstration at E3, it struggled with the 2012 title Borderlands 2. Also, it’s important to remember that the Atari VCS is running a Linux-based OS, limiting its potential games library to titles that are Linux-compatible.

I’m sure the Atari VCS will sell a few units to hard-core Atari fans, and people who generally have too much money. But the console will never become a commercial success with that price tag. In an interview with Ars Technica, Atari systems architect Rob Wyatt told them that “we want to be the Raspberry Pi of the living room.”

But there’s already a Raspberry Pi for the living room, and it’s the Raspberry Pi. And it sells for $35.

Footnotes

  1. If you enjoy computer history, you should definitely read the history of Atari. It’s a fascinating one.