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AtariBox: more prelaunch details emerge

According to VentureBeat, the AtariBox will cost between $250-300, be powered by AMD hardware, and run Linux. Out of the box, it will come packaged with some collection of classic games, playable via emulator, and be capable of playing “midrange” games but not the high-end AAA titles that sell on XBox and PlayStation. No word as yet how the hardware specs compare with Nintendo’s Switch, or really any specs.

According to Atari, AtariBox will be an open system, meaning the end user will be free to customize the Linux environment and install whatever software on it they like, including existing games that run on Linux. This means that games for AtariBox need not be purchased solely through a gated community marketplace, unlike similar app stores offered for Microsoft Xbox, Sony PlayStation, Apple iOS devices, and Windows 10.

As much as I love openness, this seems like a questionable business decision on the part of Atari. Those who remember history will recall that the original Atari 2600 was a huge success when launched in 1977, but eventually 3rd party software developers figured out how to make games for it, culminating in a glut of shovelware which brought the videogame industry to its low point in 1983. Atari was powerless to prevent third parties from flooding the market with crapware, nor were they able to earn revenue from any third party releases.

When Nintendo revived the North American home videogame market in 1985, they did so by launching more powerful hardware than existing previous-gen consoles, and by locking unlicensed third parties out of development with the 10NES chip.

AtariBox will do neither of these things. While the move to lock out the hardware was controversial, and resulted in Nintendo holding monopoly power until the 16-bit era — which they abused — locking out did help Nintendo to establish a level of quality control with the software that could be published for the NES. (Although, to be fair, there were still a lot of terrible NES games — but importantly they did not glut the market and result in a crash that also bankrupted companies that produced high quality games, and the licensing program enabled Nintendo to generate revenue from 3rd party games.)

The ability to play already-released games is nice, but doesn’t seem likely to drive hardware sales. Presumably if you already have games that could be installed on an AtariBox, you also already have some other device already to play them on.

In order for AtariBox to have a hope of being successful, it really needs to have some new, original games, ideally exclusive to its platform, and ideally tied to classic Atari-era properties.

To date, we’ve still seen nothing of this. 2017-style reboots of classic titles like Adventure, SwordQuest, Pitfall, Space Invaders, Crystal Castles, Dig Dug, Pac Man, Frogger, Galaxian, Tempest, and so on, might make the console attractive to old school gamers. But to be honest these old games have already been re-released, sequeled, and rebooted numerous times over the decades since they were originally released, and usually to diminishing returns, failing to capture the magic that made the original game a hit.

Nevertheless, I believe that, if done well, rebooted classics could sell enough to sustain a business. A perfect example of a well done reboot would be the outstanding Pac Man Championship Edition, released some years ago on XBox Live Arcade.

Atari cannot rely on 3rd party developer support to provide AtariBox with exclusive titles, however. There’s zero incentive for studios to produce exclusive content, and sacrifice the entire rest of the market, unless they receive a cut of hardware sales, or are otherwise compensated for the favor they’re doing for the platform. Developers want to release their games everywhere, if possible, and will release games on every platform they can afford to reach. For AtariBox to attract gamers with exclusives, they need to do first-party development.

The console looks nice, but I’ve still yet to see a compelling reason to buy one when it comes out. Atari, heed me: Announce some new games, and make sure they’re good.

We still haven’t seen the controller for the AtariBox, but I’m expecting a modern-looking gamepad rather than the traditional Atari CX40 joystick or paddles. Perhaps these will be options. Certainly the AtariBox would be smart if it had a couple of DB9 ports to accommodate original controllers. As it is, a USB-to-DB9 adapter is perhaps feasible, but not as slick as I’d like for a brand-specific console like this.

(For that matter, it’d be cool if they put a cartridge slot on it, and allowed you to either play your old games on it, or rip them as ROM files to play through emulator. Obviously that’s not a part of the physical product design, but that would have been on my wish list for such a console.)

I would also like to see emulation of games for consoles other than the Atari 2600. The Atari 5200 and 7800 are not as well known, but had some great games, and deserve to be included.

As well, classic Atari coin-op emulation would be a great idea. Real arcade games are a big part of Atari’s legacy, and deserve a showcase. An AtariBox plus authentic controller decks replicating classic arcade controls would sell.

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