Today, UK news source The Register published an article on the new Atari VCS, formerly known as the AtariBox. I refuse to call it the VCS, because that name is already in use, so I’ll just stick to calling it the AtariBox, to avoid confusion.
I love the URL for the story. “Atari Lempty Box” has such a nice ring to it. Like a French existentialist “L’empty Box” that smokes cigarettes in Parisian cafes, complaining bitterly about the meaninglessness of life.
Lol. OK. Here’s CNet’s slightly more forgiving coverage.
The Atari fan communities that I follow on Atari Age and Facebook have been roasting this system for months. There’s so much to signal that this is going to be a disaster. The biggest is the lack of any hard information about hardware specs, developers, games, capabilities, etc. What has been announced is either vague or very uninspiring.
And now this article. After months of feeble, empty pre-launch hype, and an aborted attempt at a crowdfunded pre-order, “Atari” shows up at GDC 2018 with an inert piece of plastic shaped like their new console, and no new information. The CNet article at least explains why — according to Atari, they couldn’t agree on the controller, and ended up rethinking the whole project, which is why they canceled their crowdfunding campaign last year, and why they still don’t have a lot to show for themselves yet. But that’s still not a very good sign.
Putting aside the obvious con job that this is turning out to be, let’s look at why AtariBox is such a bad idea. Let’s take a look at AtariBox’s selling points:
OMG the case! It has real wood grain! An Atari Logo! And lights!
By far, the biggest selling point that Atari have presented was the attractive design of the case. It looks nice, I’ll give it that.
But that’s it. It has an Atari logo on it, and real wood grain. I’m pretty sure the original Atari used fake wood grain. The hardware inside the case is what matters, though, and we still know nothing about that, other than some very vague mention that it’s going to be AMD-based.
It looks like an original woodgrain Atari 2600 was crossbred with an old cable TV channel selector boxes they used to have in the 80s.
I’ll grant it does look nice. But, I don’t really care that it looks nice. When I play a game console, I’m looking at the screen, not the case. I play the console for the games it can run, not for its brand. A game company creates a good brand by consistently creating great games.
Focus on the games. AtariBox has revealed almost nothing about the games it will run. Over a year of hyping the new console. That’s troubling.
We’re teased that they’re talking to developers about creating new games based on classic Atari IP. We’re told that AtariBox will run hundreds of “old games”. We’re told it will run “new games” too. We’re told it will cost ~$300, so we don’t expect it to be capable of running cutting edge games, at least not at high framerates with all the bells and whistles.
It runs Linux!
Nothing against Linux, I love open source software. It’s a good choice. But so what? In 2018, anything can run Linux. It’s not a big deal.
The real selling point of a game console isn’t the OS, it’s the Games.
IT’S THE GAMES, STUPID.
A nice Atari-themed desktop environment would be cool, but inherently whatever they build to run on Linux could be run on any other hardware running a build of Linux compiled for that hardware. Thanks to the GPL, Atari is required to make available the source code for this Linux build.
Like, I could take a commodity AMD PC, slap AtariBox’s Linux distro on it, and then I could run the same software on it.
But perhaps they’ll keep their applications that run on top of the Linux layer proprietary. (Of course they will, who am I kidding?)
In that case, what do I care that they made use of some open source stuff? As an open source proponent, I like when open source propagates and begets more open source. Open source being leveraged as a platform from which unfree software is sold isn’t exciting if you’re attracted to the openness aspect of the system.
It streams video as well as plays video games!
Yeah? So does my TV. So does my phone. So does my car. So does everything.
This is 2018. Streaming video over the internet is not amazing anymore, it’s basic. And just like how every home appliance in the 1980s had to have a digital clock, which no one cared about, because they already had a dozen appliances that all had digital clocks built into them, not including it would be weird because everything has it.
But do you need to buy another thing that streams video?
No, you don’t.
It plays old games AND new games!
I like old games. I’m glad new devices can play old games. If you didn’t have that, old games would die off. So I’m glad there are new devices that can play old games.
But here’s the thing: This is another solved problem. We have Stella. In fact, it’s pretty much guaranteed that the old games that you can play on an AtariBox will be played through Stella. After all, why would they bother to develop a competing system to run Atari games, when Stella is stable, mature, open source, and amazing?
It’s remotely conceivable that rather than emulating the Atari 2600 in software, they could have their hardware include an FPGA implementation of the Atari 2600 hardware, which would be pretty cool, since it would be that much closer to the original hardware, and could perhaps do things that Stella can’t do. But I can’t think of anything that Stella can’t do. I’m sure Stella must not be 100% perfect, because nothing is, but I have been using it since at least 1996, so 22 years, and it was pretty damn good even back then, and I couldn’t tell you something that I wished it did, but doesn’t do as well as I want it to. Granted, I’m not a hard core user who deeply groks the hardware it emulates and can discern imperceptible differences between original hardware vs. emulator. It’s possible that there’s something Stella can’t do, or can’t do well, that would make an FPGA Atari worth it.
But it’s probably useless to speculate about it, because it’s all but given that the AtariBox isn’t going to be an FPGA system.
Even if it was, AtariBox almost certainly won’t be selling you every ROM ever released. No single entity, not even Atari, owns the IP rights to the entire Atari 2600 library. At best, they’ll be offering a good chunk of the total library. And granted, out of the 700+ titles developed for the Atari 2600, a huge proportion of them are not good enough that anyone is going to miss them. Still, the entire library is under a megabyte. So what the hell, you might as well include everything.
But this is where “abandonware” (software “piracy” of “dead” systems) shines.
(Of course, Atari never died, if people never stopped playing it, did it?)
But it did exit the market, and that’s what I mean by a “dead system”. Even notwithstanding a brilliant homebrew community continuing to publish new titles for the system, I still think it’s reasonable to consider the Atari 2600 dead, and not just dead, but long dead.
Once it was no longer viable to sell in the mass retail market and sustain a company, if our copyright laws were just, old obsolete games should have been ceded to the public domain, say abandonware proponents.
Of course, legally, that never happened.
And so, year after year, we see various attempts at re-incarnating Atari’s classic library of games. This never really stopped happening. NES killed Atari, but many classic titles of the Atari era have NES ports. And SNES. And anthology collections on every generation of game console since then, until now.
See what I’m getting at? Why do we need an AtariBox to “bring back” the classics, when this stuff has never gone away?
But the thing is, these commercial repackagings that we get re-sold again and again, are always inferior to what you can get if you aren’t encumbered by intellectual property laws and can treat 30-40 year old software as having entered into the public domain. Go to a ROM site, download 700+ Atari 2600 ROMs in one click, unzip, launch Stella. You’re good to go.
I like new games, too! But there’s no shortage of platforms to play them on already! What does AtariBox offer that’s new or different from XBox, Playstation, Switch, PC, Android, iOS? What could it offer? The company calling itself “Atari” doesn’t have the deep pockets of Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, Apple, Google.
Exclusives? Nobody wants to be exclusive on the smallest upstart competitor’s box. Successful games that people want to play are generally ported to as many platforms as possible.
Nintendo doesn’t port their first-party titles to Xbox and PlayStation, but that’s because they’re very well established, and well-heeled, and they can afford to. That’s what it’s like when you never went bankrupt.
Atari has some very iconic, classic IP, which they could conceivably bring back, but it’s not nearly as attractive as Nintendo’s A-list. Tempest 4000 looks pretty cool, but Tempest is not Mario, Zelda, or Metroid caliber, not even close.
Various incarnations of Atari already have re-packaged and licensed that IP to anyone and everyone over the last 20+ years. They could try to create some brand new titles inspired by their old IP, and keep it reserved as exclusive content to help sell their platform. This is probably what I would be most interested in. Not playing “new games” from a couple years ago, like Skyrim or Hotline Miami on AtariBox, but playing an all-new Pitfall! that looks and feels like the Atari 2600 game, and just has some more to it. Give it to the guy who did Spelunky, maybe. Let him see what he can do with it. Or maybe bring back David Crane if you can get him, and see what he can come up with now.
But the thing is, if those games are any good, they would sell far better, wider, and more copies if they were made available on every platform. We learned this a few years ago from Ouya. Ouya courted indie developers, but indies released anywhere and everywhere they could, and in the end no one gave a shit about Ouya.
The AtariBox hardware is all but certain to be less powerful than the XBox One, PS4, or even the Switch. So it’s not going to play cutting edge new games, but will play “new-ish” games from 2-5 years ago that we’ve already seen and played through. Why would we want to buy them again, just to play them on a box with a Fuji logo on it?
As much as I would love for there to be a viable Atari console in 2018, I just don’t see what possible niche they could occupy that would work for them well enough to enable the company to compete in today’s market.