Category: Console Gaming

AtariBox entering “pre-production” phase as architect quits

This morning, my email inbox greeted me with another announcement from Atari, explaining how excited they were that the VCS is “going into pre-production.”

I’m not entirely clear what this means, given that the normal understanding of the term “pre-production” would seemingly cover the entire history of the AtariBox project, given that nothing has gone into production so far.

Some more teaser images showing prototype  hardware in various stages of assembly, and some explanation of the design/layout of the motherboard, apparently in response to the reaction to the first announcement where they showed an image of the motherboard, which lead to speculation about whether it was real, or complete, or might have been  hastily created by a company that specializes in rapid turnaround in order to give Atari something tangible to show backers while they continue to delay more meaningful steps toward release of a product.

There’s some more information in Atari’s latest Medium article — it is capable of running both Linux and Windows (hardly surprising, given the AtariBox is an AMD x64 system); it will have a fan-based cooling system (to me this is disappointing news, as I would have hoped for a silent running system, but again not terribly surprising, given that most computers these days are fan-cooled); default RAM will be 8GB (2×4) and user upgradeable, some frankly boring talk about plastic injection molds… and they’re still working on the actual software that will run on the system, although they had teased something at E3, it’s not ready to run on this hardware yet.  Which is really bizarre — if this AMD x64 system is capable of running Linux and Windows, and if they can tease the front-end that they’ve been working for on some type of computer system, then what’s so different about the AtariBox hardware that Atari can’t run it on the machine they’re designing it for right now?  Why couldn’t they all along, every step of the way? Something is not right about their software delivery lifecycle if they can’t create builds that will run on their target hardware.

I guess if there’s one positive thing to take from this announcement, it’s that Atari are apparently stepping up the frequency of their announcements, which may be a good sign that they are actually making progress with bringing their vision closer to reality.

That is, however…

Today The Register is reporting that Rob Wyatt, the architect of the VCS, has quit the project, and claims that he hasn’t been paid in 6 months.  It was reported earlier that Wyatt was starting a new project, and after Atari’s previous announcement, rumor boards were awash with speculation about whether Wyatt was still on board with Atari.  Atari’s PR deflected questions about it, but it’s clear now that Wyatt is no longer working with Atari on the VCS project.

The Register’s reporting on this project has been very thorough and is to be commended.

Sadly it’s looking more and more like AtariBox has been smoke and mirrors, underfunded wishes, and — let’s be frank — lies, and appears to be increasingly unlikely to launch. And even if it does, there’s no indication that it will be worth buying, due to a lack of first-party exclusive game content.

Intellivision Amico at T-minus 1 year

Intellivision’s revival was announced a year ago, at the 2018 Portland Retro Gaming Expo, and they’ve been fairly quiet since then. But it looks as though, unlike Atari, they have been working steadily toward product viability. They are now a year away from their announced release date, and they actually have some games in the works.

A recently posted teaser video showed a number of games, purportedly being played on Amico hardware, that look like re-skinned versions of popular early-80s classic games such as Moon Patrol, Asteroids, and others, but with modern graphics.

I’m not sure what to make of these games yet, but if they’re merely re-skins of old games, that will not be enough to make the Amico successful.

To be compelling, Amico developers need to imagine (and then realize) an alternative history. In the same way that steampunk is a retro vision of what science fiction could have been from the perspective of the 19th century worldview, Amico games should be an expression of the vision of what videogames could have been from the perspective of the late 70’s/early 80’s worldview.

This is a really difficult thing to envision correctly. There really is no one right way to do it, but its a rich space within which different designers could allow their imaginations to run wild, and come up with better or worse visions of what this alternative history might be. Really, we would not have a single alternative timeline, but rather a seeming infinity of branching alternatives.

There are several interesting main branches for this alternative future history.

Platform Steady State

Imagine that the original Intellivision never stopped production, that a new generation of computing hardware never arrived, but that games for the 1979 INTV system continued to be developed, using the same hardware, and the same constraints.

What would the games being developed in 1990, 2000, 2010 or 2020 look like for such a system? To answer that, we need look no further than the homebrew community. Or more broadly, look at the homebrew community for that generation of systems: Atari 2600, Intellivision, Colecovision. Over time, developers can become very familiar with the hardware, discover programming tricks and techniques to get the absolute most out of the system, and refine the quality of the software to its ultimate state.

Now try to envision the present day homebrew community, with the approval of copyright and trademark holders, creating authorized works. This gives us sequels to our favorite games, not just original new games, or thinly veiled “homages” or “parodies” of our favorite games.

This is one potential alternative history, and since it is one that we already have, in large part, in the form of the homebrew gamedev scene, it’s certainly viable. But it’s probably not the most interesting branch. The homebrew scene is awesome and it would be great to see it promoted on a modern platform that has mass appeal. But my hunch is that the appeal of the homebrew scene is narrow and niche. That is to say, the homebrew audience today is limited to a relatively small number of enthusiasts who have an old system that still works, and this number is most likely to dwindle as the enthusiasts die off and as the hardware breaks.

Unlimited Budget, 1979 tech

Now let’s go a bit further, and envision an Intellivision-like system that has just a little bit more capability. Not enough to put the system into a “next generation”, but more like what Intellivision could have been with an unlimited R&D budget and no compromises, subject to the limits of 1979’s tech. Whatever that tech is, it still has to fit inside a console-sized box, but it can be a no-compromises design within that box.

To properly envision this, we’d need to know the internals of the INTV rather intimately, as well as what other components were around at the time that could have been chosen for the system instead, but weren’t due to, primarily price considerations.

I don’t really have such an understanding, but imagine that we had a computer and electronics catalog from 1979, and it had all the components that went into the production of the INTV. Most likely, these parts were not the most expensive available, but the cheapest that could still do the job. Maybe in some cases they had to drop features entirely, in order to get the design to fit within a price point.

But you have unlimited budget, so you can select the top end parts, and include all the features. So maybe your CPU is speedier, maybe you have a bit more RAM, and the RAM is faster. Maybe this gives you the capability to do slightly higher resolution graphics modes, or more colors on screen from a larger palette. Maybe the IntelliVoice expansion module is built-in as standard equipment, and maybe it’s capable of speech synthesis that’s a little better. Games can have more sprites on screen without flicker, larger sprites, more animation frames, bigger levels, more items, etc.

Essentially this describes something like an “Intellivision III Plus” — the INTV3 was a backward compatible system released in 1982, which had a faster CPU, better graphics chip with double resolution capability and more sprites and colors, and yes, integrated IntelliVoice.

So this branch of alternative history more or less actually existed, but its life was cut short when Mattel canceled the INTV3 in 1983 due to the Crash. As such, we didn’t really get to see the full potential of what the INTV3 could have delivered. I’m not familiar with the homebrew community centered around the INTV3 hardware — most homebrew development focuses on more popular systems, such as the Atari 2600 or the NES, but to the extent there is one, the games it’s producing are essentially what this branch of alternative history might have looked like.

Moore’s Law Goes Linear

Let’s envision a future world wherein Moore’s Law failed early, and computers grew slightly more powerful, rather than exponentially.

Imagine that Mattel released a new system in 1983 or 84, and again in 1988, and then in 1993… and so on, until today. But rather than each generation of hardware roughly doubling in speed, memory, and so forth, the advances were merely linear. So, imagine that 40 years of integrated circuit micronization R&D results in a CPU clock speeds increasing from 1MHz to 40MHz instead of 4000 MHz. RAM increases from 2 KB to… just a few megabytes.

This is basically what personal computers were in the early-mid 1990s, only it happens 30 years later in the alternate history than it did in the real world. I had a Macintosh Centris 610 purchased in 1993, which had a 20MHz Motorola 68000 series CPU, 4MB of RAM (upgradeable to 16MB or so), and an 80 MB hard drive. A game console in the mold of the Intellivision likely wouldn’t have had a hard drive, so swap it for a cartridge slot, but let each cartridge hold ROM images of around 1-4MB on average, with maybe a spectacular, premium game topping out around 12-16MB. Graphics on my system were limited to 8-bit or 16-bit color depth, depending on resolution mode, and I think my 14″ monitor did 800×600, but maybe it was only 640×320.

If you programmed a system with specs like that at the bare metal, in assembly, dedicating the hardware fully to running the game, and not an operating system with layers of services for applications, that’s actually quite a powerful system, which would be very capable, even without hardware accelerated 3D graphics.

Keep in mind that software developers would have a very strong incentive to push hardware to its limit, and much more time to perfect performance optimization techniques for a stable hardware platform that doesn’t fall into obsolescence after 18 months. There wouldn’t be the mentality of just making software that’s good enough and shoving it out the door, and trust that next year’s computers would be powerful enough to run it acceptably. In such an alternate history, software craftsmanship would be highly advanced compared to in our world, and developers would work in low-level languages.

The thing is, I feel that a few generations advanced version of what Mattel could have evolved the Intellivision into doesn’t really feel like an Intellivision. It feels like… well, like an early 1990’s pre-PowerMac Macintosh. But it’s not really what Intellivision would need to be going with the Amico for if they wanted to tap into nostalgia for what Intellivision was in 1979-1982.

Something else then?

To do this, we need to understand the resource constraints of the Intellivision in a bit more detail, and then come up with some way to relax only one or two of them, in just such a way that it enables some new possibilities for games that are similar to the games that typified the Intellivision era, yet were just out of reach of what the console was actually capable of.

As an example, we might look at what sort of games we could have seen with twice the resolution, or an extra color per sprite, or removing the limitation on the number of sprites per horizontal scan line. Or ROMs that could be an extra 4KB in size.

Another way to think about it would be to think about ways we could augment the Intellivision by granting one capability from present day systems. For example, what sort of games could an Intellivision have played if it had always-on, low-latency network connectivity, that enabled it to connect to the internet and communicate high scores or enable online multiplayer? But (since the games are still based on EEPROM technology that is not re-writeablee) cannot apply updates or patches (other than new content). Or what would an Intellivision game look like with WSVGA resolution and thousands of sprites instead of NTSC resolution, but the same color palette?

We’d want to remember that these are not actual limitations we’re designing into the actual hardware, but rather artificial limitations we pretend to exist, accepting them as design constraints, in order to force us to come up with creative solutions for the problems that would arise in game development as a result of them, so that we could end up with games that have a distinctive flavor to their style that evokes an Intellivision aesthetic.

So summing up:

Do I want a game that plays exactly like Astrosmash, but has 4K resolution graphics, with 32-bit color depth, and the sprites look photorealistic, but it’s just a re-skin of the original Astrosmash? Nah, I’d probably rate that about a 4/10 (and the original Astrosmash is easily an 8/10). You don’t get a better game just by multiplying the graphical output.

What I would be excited about is a spiritual successor to Astrosmash, with extended play mechanics, and blocky, low-res graphics that evoke the original, but have enhanced effects, maybe some trails or motion blur, some neon glow, something like that. Something like what Tempest 2K was to Tempest.

A retro-inspired game like Geometry Wars would be a good fit for the console.

I’d also love to see a game that looks like it could have been drawn by an INTV or Atari 2600, but which is much larger in scope than what those games were capable of. Think Pitfall 3, and it looks like Pitfall I and II, but it has a larger world, more variety of obstacles and creatures, and additional play mechanics that weren’t possible on the original hardware.

Intellivision’s FAQ on Games suggests that this sort of thing is pretty well what they have in mind for the console, although what the games actually end up like obviously remains to be seen. They are looking to launch with a catalog of about 40 games, which is a respectable number of exclusive titles to start out with.

It is still a very difficult market to establish a new console in, though. Intellivision’s approach is to target a different market segment, rather than try to compete directly with Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, and Google, and this seems smart, but whether it will succeed is up to Intellivision’s execution, and the market to decide. The casual/family gaming market is already pretty well served by mobile devices, and it’s difficult to say whether the Amico will appeal enough to consumers to get them to buy enough to make it a commercial success.

Atari: We now have games for the VCS! (Not really…)

After being stung recently and repeatedly for their lack of progress on the AtariBox project, Atari released their Big Announcement about the games that will be available on the console.

TL;DR, the announcement is very underwhelming. Atari is packaging a bunch of old classic games for streaming to your AtariBox. They’re not even doing it themselves; they’re partnering with another company.  

That’s right, they still have ZERO new exclusive launch titles for this system. You know, the thing that tends to drive people to buy new systems? They still don’t have that.

Let’s be generous, the three word elevator pitch for this is: “Netflix for videogames”.  Only, no Netflix Originals, just re-runs of games you’ve played a million times already, and already have access to through a variety of other platforms. If you aren’t lucky enough to have lived through most of the history of video games and have a library devoted to that history, you might find this enticing.

In a way, this is cool.  For only about 25 years now, gamers have had to resort to piracy and emulation to play thousands of arcade game titles for free.  Now, they can pay $10/mo + $350 for the console for the privilege of doing it guilt-free, albeit restricted to just those titles that are available through Antstream.  And that’s something, isn’t it? 

No, I know that sound sarcastic, but it really is.  For only 25 years or so, the problem of preserving historic videogames has been ignored by the industry that created them, and was left to be solved by dedicated fans who recognized the importance of such an effort. But this was always an ethical quandary, and enthusiasts were forced into a dilemma:  literally preserve history before it was too late and games were lost forever, and violate copyright for a bunch of outdated products that companies refused to continue to produce or make available in any format?  Well now for just $10/mo our consciences can finally be clear.  And our reward for this will be that only the games deemed worthy of preservation for their long-tail commercial potential will be preserved.  Shut down the MAME project, everyone, and rejoice:  we’ve won.

OK, ok, that’s unavoidably sarcastic, but it’s true.  This service creates value by ripping the hard work of emulation preservationists, and by graverobbing what rightfully should have by now been the public domain, to provide games-as-a-service to  you, so that you can pay for them forever, without ever owning them. Because in the new economy, ownership is theft.  There’s literally no reason you would ever want to own anything anyway, this is a post-scarsity economy, after all.

Antstream itself kickstarted into existence in April of 2019, and, well, isn’t it telling that a physical “not-a-console” gaming system that kickstarted TWO YEARS earlier and STILL doesn’t have any exclusive launch titles lined up, kept silent about this deficiency for all that time, until fed-up backers had a mutiny about it on Reddit, and so had to run out and find something, anything, so they could claim that they will have games, and picks something that only became a thing this year?

It makes you wonder what the hell Atari have been up to for the past two years, apart from rendering the shell they’re putting their components into, and re-releasing the same empty hype announcement every 6 months or so. According to their Kickstarter page, Antstream have been developing their service for four years now, so the Kickstarter is more an effort to do viral marketing for the launch of the service rather than a no-product preorder like Atari’s VCS Indigogo was. Yet, if Atari had planned all along to make use of this service, and had to remain quiet about it all this time, one wonders why they couldn’t have said something around the time that Antsream launched their Kickstarter campaign. Why the need to remain silent for another 6 months?

Still unanswered: Is anyone actually developing any games that will run only on this system, so that there will be a reason to buy it? Any first party game development, at all? (Well, it’s a silent NO, that’s the answer.) Atari 2019 is a brand name only, not a developer of anything substantial. In trying to establish a platform, they’re leveraging the work of others and passing it off as their own. AMD for the hardware. Antstream for the content. Maybe there’s some internal work being done to create the GUI to do configuration management and launch apps, but that’s not exactly exciting, now, is it?

It’s worth mentioning that around the time Antstream announced itself — about a month before, actually — Google announced Stadia, and there’s literally no reason any of the games that you might have access to through Antstream couldn’t also be streamed to your screen through Stadia.  Other than, I guess, some exclusive rights deal that would preclude availability on other platforms.  But then, Stadia is still in pre-order, too. Sigh.

So for the time being we’re still safe from the future hell of games-as-service, that you can never own, and which will be preserved for all time only to the extent that a company decides to preserve them.  Which is to say, any old versions will be superceded by the latest patch, even if earlier releases are historically relevant.  And games that aren’t attracting sufficient interest will be dropped unceremoniously, and probably not many people will care, except the small audiences for games who really love those games even though they’re part of a small audience not big enough to be considered commercially viable.  But who cares about them, anyway?

Even if Antstream is great — no, especially if their service is great– it’ll be available on all platforms that its client can be ported to, there’s still no compelling answer to the question, why get an AtariBox?

Atari attempts to answer this by assuring us that:

When Atari VCS users log in or subscribe to the Antstream service using their Atari VCS, it will immediately unlock an exclusive and enhanced version of the Antstream app engineered specifically for the Atari VCS. The Atari VCS Edition of the app will house the largest collection of Atari games available anywhere and ready for immediate play. This enhanced collection will be exclusive to the Atari VCS at launch and will not be available on other Antstream platforms without an Atari VCS account.

Atari

Re-read that last sentence.  You can stream Antstream’s exclusive AtariVCS content to any Antstream-capable platform, provided you have an Atari VCS account.  My guess is that you’ll be able to get one of those without buying the AtariBox hardware, if not immediately then eventually. No word on whether that will cost a monthly subscription on top of whatever Antstream will cost.

But this leads me to wonder what’s up with Atari’s earlier announcement that the Atari Vault would be available to VCS owners?  I mean, I don’t really wonder, because who cares.  The AtariVault is on Steam and I can buy it and play it right now through my Steam account on my PC, and I don’t have to pre-order and then wait 3 years for some outdated low end PC in a pretty case to do it, either.

But lets say I did decide to wonder.  Well, is the Atari Vault still going to be part of the picture, or did they just shitcan it and replace it with a subscription-based streaming service?  

Oh, and there’s a picture of their motherboard.  Suck on that, haters!  I bet everyone who doubted that AMD Ryzen board could have an Atari Fuji logo custom silkscreened onto its PCB are all eating crow now!

Well, it’s something, anyway. Not enough. But at least it’s something.

The AtariBox story continues to be dismal

Update from the Register… It’s sad that this is the reality but it’s about exactly what I expected, and have been warning the public about since the crowdfunding campaign pitch.

Don’t give these people money until they have a product. Promises and hype are nothing. Shame on the people who continue to abuse the Atari name for continuing to string gullible fans along with so little evidence of any actual work happening toward delivering on the vision they pitched over 2 years ago.

Meanwhile, in the real world, Collectorvision’s Phoenix console is shipping in October, and was announced after Atari first announced the AtariBox concept. The Phoenix not only plays ColecoVision games through a cartridge slot, it also has an FPGA core to play Atari 2600 cartridges as well. It’s not trying to be a next-gen console or a brand reboot for a dead company, but it exists, it works, it plays classic games with incredible fidelity to the original hardware, and I’ve touched one.

Book Review: Arcade Perfect by David L. Craddock

An interesting thing happened to me few months ago.  

I was reading Shovel Knight, by David L. Craddock, published by Boss Fight Books, and thoroughly enjoying the ride, when I received an email from none other than… David L. Craddock. Craddock had found my contact info through this website, and he wanted to know if I’d be interested in reading a pre-release copy of his latest book, Arcade Perfect, and publishing a review on it.

I thought that the name sounded familiar, so I looked him up, and found that he’d written the book that was in my left hand, as I read the email on the smartphone in my right hand.  I wrote back, asking him if he was indeed one and the same.  He was.  I felt oddly watched.

Shovel Knight was a fantastic read, a detailed history of Yacht Club Games’s origins and how they came to create one of the best videogames of 2014. It was well paced, thorough,, interesting, and covered the human side of the story as well as the technical.

Of course I said yes.

I also offered to provide feedback on the manuscript, as I have helped several other authors in the past with technical review of their manuscripts. Craddock appreciated my offer and offered me an acknowledgement in his Foreward. I say this not as a brag, but for transparency’s sake, to say that this may not be a review completely free of bias, although I’ll strive for that anyway.

Arcade Perfect is a collection of histories on over a dozen popular arcade games, and the story of how they were ported to home consoles. If you’ve read Racing The Beam, or The Ultimate History of Video Games, this book will be of interest to you.

The book is long. At nearly 600 pages, it will take you a while to get through. It spans almost the entire the breadth of video gaming history, starting with Pong and going through about 2015-17. Golden age titles Pong, Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Ms. Pac Man, Missile Command, and Donkey Kong are all given treatment, as is Tetris, and the 90’s are represented by the games NBA Jam, Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Each of these games has an interesting back story of how it came to exist, and how it was brought from the arcade to home consoles. The challenges the developers faced are many. Most if not all of these games were ported to other platforms not by the original developers, but by another talented programmer or team. Oftentimes, no original project documentation was provided to the porting effort, and developers had to “interpret” the game by playing it until they knew it backwards and forwards, reverse engineering to the best of their ability, and working within the constraints of the target platform’s hardware, dealing with hard deadlines and high expectations to deliver an acceptable translation of a very popular title eagerly anticipated by a rabid consumer fanbase.

The last 150 or so pages of the book are devoted to full transcripts of the interviews that Craddock conducted with various creators who worked on the games. This is primary resource material and very nice to have in its entirety.

The book is illustrated, although in the advance copy I saw, the image layouts were still rough. I would hope that these issues will be addressed before the first edition of the book goes to print.

Arcade Perfect is available today. Follow the author on Twitter @davidlcraddok.

Atari taking pre-orders for VCS console. But where are the games?

Atari made another announcement about their upcoming console, formerly known as the AtariBox, today.  They are now taking pre-orders, through their website, as well as GameStop and Wal-Mart, and expect to be shipping orders in early 2020.

I went to Atari’s website, AtariVCS.com, to see what other information I might find about upcoming game titles, and found… no further information.  

Well, nothing beyond what they’ve already announced months ago, about making old classics available through the “Atari Vault”. Which, given the existence of 9 previous generations of Atari Flashback consoles, which have sold for less than a third of what the Atari VCS will sell for, doesn’t make me feel too excited. The “Atari Vault”, which seems to echo Disney’s marketing with the “Disney Vault” of old re-releases that they would only put out once in a while, to ensure demand for them when they did, isn’t really an apt metaphor, considering that Atari IP has constantly been repackaged and made available with every generation of new hardware, from the NES to Now. This is simply the latest such repackaging.

Atari have a section of their site devoted to game developers, with an email link for interested developers to contact Atari for more information about developing for the system.

I make games, so I tried sending an email to their address, devs@atari.com.  The email bounced.  

Not a great sign.  Even if there are developers interested in working with Atari on games for the new system, they can’t contact them, because their email server isn’t configured correctly. 

Something tells me that if they can’t even be bothered to verify that their mail server is working before they launch their website, they aren’t exactly doing the best job with running the company.

It may be that this is simple incompetence on the part of whoever set up the site and didn’t bother to test critical functionality, and this will be corrected quickly. Or it may be that they didn’t bother setting up their email server correctly because they don’t have a product, or are so far behind in having a product ready that they’re not really able to field inquiries from would-be developers.

It’d be rather surprising if this were true; it’s one thing to scam backers on Indiegogo, but GameStop and Wal Mart would certainly file expensive lawsuits if Atari failed to come through with a product, wouldn’t they?  One would expect so. But I think unless Wal Mart and GameStop actually advance any money to Atari, they wouldn’t have any reason to do so.  Pre-orders don’t always mean that the product gets released after all, and retailers don’t have any control over that. Products often get canceled and delayed, and it’s almost a routine thing these days. Being partnered with two major retailers really doesn’t mean anything for Atari’s credibility.  If Atari did end up failing to deliver and canceled the new Atari VCS console, GameStop and Wal-Mart already have returns departments that would reimburse customers.  Meanwhile, they can sit on the money and allow it to collect interest from now until release day.

As usual, until Atari does more than show digital renderings of the case and controllers, and actually show working hardware, and announce a game lineup that is more than just repackaged old content, there’s no reason to recommend anyone buy this console.  While I’d love to see the Atari of Old return and become a vibrant and relevant force in the industry again, the Atari of Today isn’t that company, and hasn’t yet shown the world anything to get excited about yet, a few pictures notwithstanding.  I’m still skeptical that Atari is capable of successfully launching a new console in 2020.

To have any hope of  being successful, Atari needs to bring exclusive new games that provide a compelling, refreshing vision of what their original intellectual property could have become if it had continued to be developed and evolve from the 1970s to the present day. 

Their one title that they announced when they first pitched the AtariBox concept to crowdfunders about a year ago, Tetris 4K, was released last year — on other consoles. Consoles that actually exist. No other titles have been mentioned. Atari only makes vague statements about “talking with developers about some exciting things” and that they “can’t reveal more information at this time.” That’s hardly confidence-inspiring.

So, Atari, where are the developers?  Where are the games?

From what Atari have been able to tell us about the upcoming hardware, it is a generic AMD x64/Linux machine with their branding and front-end, and will run games that run on standard Linux. Which means, a pretty big library, potentially, right out of the starting gate, but also means little reason to expect any games released for the Atari VCS will be exclusives that would draw gamers to buy the hardware. And why own an AtariBox if you can buy the same games for the conole(s) you already own?

Analogue Mega Sg arrives a week early

Analogue was announcing that their new Mega Sg, a FPGA-based Sega Genesis clone, would be shipping in April. But I was pleasantly surprised to receive mine, preordered a few months ago when they were announced, early last week, only a day or two after early bird reviews started hitting my favorite YouTube channels.

It’s pointless for me to do a review after GameSack and My Life In Gaming so thoroughly covered every conceivable aspect of the system, but I’m pleased and impressed that Analogue delivered this not just on-time, but a week early. And really, when they told me April, I was expecting it would be more like mid or late April, which makes this about a month early. In an age of crowdfunded preorder projects that are always later than projected, this impresses me. Kudos to Analogue.

Atari VCS hardware refresh announcement… lol

So, Atari… remember them?

Yeah, they’re still at it. After about a year of relative silence from the VCS project, the other day they made a Big Announcement, which is that they are delaying the project to late 2019.

Surprise! No, not really. Everyone pretty much called this before they finished their initial round of crowdfunding.

But, so as to be able to spin this delay as a positive thing, they are changing the hardware specs to a more powerful system. Still not world beating hardware by any means, not that it ever needed to be. And more is always better, I guess. But I don’t think the actual hardware is all that relevant to this product. Really, it’s just taking a commodity small form factor AMD64 architecture system, and putting it in a nice looking case that evokes the classic, original Atari VCS. Basically, Atari can place an order with AMD to produce the boards and chips, and install them in custom designed cases that they can pay an injection mold company to manufacture, and pay someone else to assemble them.

Atari’s real job is to focus on the software, the operating system, user environment, and the games. Especially the games. And their announcement was, again, suspiciously silent on these topics.

We know the OS will be a linux distribution, with some kind of customized desktop environment designed to provide a good user experience as a game console.

We know that they will include some emulator(s) to enable playing of classic Atari-era games. We know that there are already dozens of platforms that already do this, so while it’s nice, and to be expected, it doesn’t seem to me that this is a compelling reason for anyone to buy an Atari VCS. Atari Classics have been repackaged and resold on every platform for decades, since the NES and Game Boy. While keeping these games around and still available is great, if you already have them on an older system, Atari have to do something extra-special to make them compelling to consumers to make them want to buy them again, like online leaderboards, social media integration, video streaming integration, something. And we’ve heard nothing about it for about two years since they made their crowdfunding goal.

We know that Atari wants to provide modern reinterpretations of classic Atari games. Apart from Tempest 4K, we haven’t heard anything. And Tempest 4K is already out, and has been for about a year now, on the PlayStation 4 and other platforms. Non-exclusive updated classics will not move units. Why would anyone spend $300 on yet another console when they can just buy the game for a console they already own?

We also know they’re supposed to be shipping modern reinterpretations of the classic Atari CX40 joystick, a modern-looking gamepad with Atari aesthetics, and (one would hope, but I have yet to see anything about this) some kind of paddle controller, but there’s been no mention of these either.

So, another year has gone by, and Atari just announces that they’re revising the hardware specs, before they even got the original hardware specs out the door. And we still have no idea what’s going to run on this system, beyond vague “It will run Linux” and barely anything, really next to nothing, about the actual games. Which is the whole reason anyone buys a game console, to play the games.

This is sad, and exactly what I expected from the beginning.

I would have really enjoyed a resurgent Atari with new games based on classic IPs, too.

Google Stadia: impressions

Google recently announced a new game platform, called Stadia, at the 2019 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, CA.

It can run though any device that is capable of running Chrome, which means that they already have a huge install base ready to consume. This should make the service very lucrative, potentially, as there’s almost barrier to trying the service out. It streams over high speed internet, meaning that there’s no need for any hardware beyond what is necessary to run a web browser, nothing new to buy, well, except for the gamepad. Which, see below.

Streaming

I’m immediately disinterested in any game platform that I can’t own in the traditional, tangible sense of own. Streaming games do not appeal to me. I like physical media, I like the ability to go back and play old games that I own, whenever I wish. Streamed content is always in the control of the vendor, and is subject to updating, being discontinued, and so on. There’s no guarantee that streaming resources will continue to stream forever, and it’s virtually certain that at some point the stream will either “run dry” or stream something different than original.

The downside (I guess) of traditional owned-media is that over time you accumulate a vast library which becomes difficult to store and manage, and may deteriorate over time. If you don’t like it, you can always sell it, trade it in, give it away, or throw it in the trash, so I don’t really see why that would be a downside, but if you’re a collector like I am, you like the fact that you can keep old tech and go back and use it 10, 20, 30, even 40 or more years after it’s no longer being supported, as long as the devices that drive it continue to function or be repairable.

But that’s just me. There seems to be a lot of evidence to suggest that a convenient, well-managed service would be popular and profitable with consumers who don’t all care about history and preservation as much as I do. Look at Netflix. They are doing very well, and while people are occasionally bummed out when Netflix drops a movie from its offerings, that doesn’t seem to stop them from having a profitable business selling subscriptions to a service. If Google nails the execution, there’s no reason to believe they won’t likewise be as successful, if not more.

The controller

A very standard, generic looking dual analog stick gamepad. Initial impressions are that it doesn’t look especially comfortable in the hand compared to the competition. Google didn’t need to innovate here, gamepad design is pretty mature today, even if companies like Nintendo continue to dare to try new ideas (Switch, Wii U, Wii). Still, I’m not sure why Google would emphasize their controller given that it is so very unremarkable in its design. Given that the controller appears to offer nothing new, one wonders why Stadia wouldn’t simply leverage any/all existing “standard” dual-stick gamepads.

To answer that question, there are two additional buttons: a youtube integration button, and a help button. The help button enables gamers to request help with overcoming some part of the game, somehow, without having to leave the game. Which, I guess is appealing, but man, I’m gonna miss the brutal, unforgiving difficulty, and the completely arcane hidden secrets that you can only figure out if someone tells you what to do, so you had to go buy a book or magazine that made you want to kill yourself from the NES and Atari era. I guess the help button takes the place of the magazine, but it’s just not going to be the same. The youtube button makes it so easy to set up a gamer streaming channel that everyone in the world can do it, which means billions of youtube channels that no one will be able to wade through to find the good ones. Probably. This will likely also kill the professional youtuber/patreon beggar gig that so many of the popular streamers have been doing for the past few years. I guess that’s maybe a bit harsh, naive, and premature, but the bottom line it will become very competitive and difficult to differentiate yourself from other random streamers, so the ones that will stand out will have to be unbelievably good and work very hard to attract and keep an audience.

Do we need another gaming platform?

I’m intrigued by anything Google does, and they have the resources and innovative thinking to do things that few other companies can. That said, I’m not really seeing a need for yet another new game platform. Whether Google can differentiate itself from Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, Steam, etc. remains to be seen. While it’s hard to bet against a company with the resources that Google has, they’ve had notable failed ventures in the past: Wave, Plus, etc. and have been known to discontinue even popular projects (Reader) leaving fans with little recourse. Will it work? Probably. Even if it doesn’t, it’ll probably be a few years before Google pulls the plug on it or pivots to something else. But it seems like they’re serious about competing in this already-crowded sphere.

It will be interesting to watch.

The Writing on the Wall

What really strikes me about this is, if Google can stream applications as powerful and resource hungry and demanding as videogames, instantly, anywhere, they can do that for any software. What does this say about IT departments in every other company on the planet? We’re pretty much obsolete at that point, aren’t we? It might be a good time to think about early retirement, and finding a second career. Maybe a livestreaming channel.

Collectorvision Phoenix demoed at Portland Retro Gaming Expo

I attended the Portland Retro Gaming Expo this past weekend, and enjoyed myself very much.

One of the many highlights of the show was getting to try out the new Phoenix console from Collectorvision.

Having seen it in person and tried it firsthand, I can say that it is the real deal, and is absolutely worth the money they’re asking for it on kickstarter.

The campaign is a bit behind the pace with their funding goal, and they need and deserve support. Just 1000 pre-orders are all that’s needed to successfully fund the project and make the system a reality.

You can back the project here:

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1408938247/collectorvision-phoenix-an-fpga-colecovision-conso/description

For just $200, you get an enhanced, 100% compatible, 100% accurate ColecoVision with HDMI output, built in Super Game Module and FA-18 mods, cartridge slot and SD card slot, original and SNES controller ports, and a ps2 keyboard port. Collectorvision announced Atari 2600 compatibility, and plans for supporting other vintage game systems such as the Adam and MSX.

ColecoVision is an underrated and underappreciated console, both in its heyday and today. With graphics capabilities between the Atari 2600 and the NES, it has a small but very loyal following, and a decent library of original games and an active homebrew community releasing new games. It’s a great time to get into the system if you are vintage gamer.