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.
Atari’s crowdfunding campaign for the AtariBox (VCS) launched earlier today. [Editor’s Note: I am refusing to call it the VCS in order to avoid polluting the namespace with the original Atari VCS, launched in 1977.] With a fundraising goal of just $100k, by 10AM they had already exceeded their funding goal by almost 8x. $100,000 is barely one full-time employee salary for a project like this.
Despite the lack of detailed information about what the AtariBox is, and the loud skepticism of most of the gamer community, it seems that thousands of suckers are eagerly lining up to pre-order a videogame console that Atari don’t plan to release until mid-2019.
The announced specs for this system are more than adequate to serve as an emulation box for vintage 80’s game systems, but that’s hardly surprising, considering that emulation of the Atari 2600 has been around for at least 22 years (Stella was released in 1996, when computers were considered fast if they had 133Mhz CPU and 16 MB of RAM. The MOS 6507 CPU that drove the Atari 2600 had a 1Mhz CPU and could access up to 128 bytes of on-board RAM. That’s bytes, not kilobytes.) But as to its “modern” gaming capabilties, thehardware specs of the AtariBox is about on par with a high end gaming PC from 2006 (4GB RAM, 32GB onboard storage). The AMD Bristol Ridge CPU and Radeon R7 GPU — I would have to assume based on Atari’s form factor this will be an R7 240 — are obviously more current, but still old (AMD’s Bristol Ridge was launched in 2016, so still pretty current, but the Radeon R7 line dates from 2014, and is decidedly midrange and budget at a sub-$100 pricepoint today).
It appears that coincident with the launch of the pre-order, Atari is also, only just now, starting to work out a process for game developers to submit titles to Atari for publishing on the AtariBox platform. This gives the console a distinctly OUYA-like feel. I liked the idea of a console that was open to publishing for any indie developer, but in practice this strategy proved unsuccessful as Ouya attempted it, with hordes of low-quality shovelware published to the system by developers who weren’t yet ready for prime time.
This seems rather vague and “to be determined” for getting third-party developers on board, and they’re ALREADY taking pre-orders?
This gives me the feeling that Atari have no real clue about how to successfully launch a console in 2018.
Still, you can pre-order just the controllers, and I do kindof like the design of Atari’s contemporary take on the classic CX10/CX40 joystick. If the build quality is good, and if it will work with any PC over USB or Bluetooth, then it might be worthwhile to get one. But putting $$$ down on a pre-order and then waiting at least year for it, if they are able to launch on time, is definitely a gamble.
Beyond that, I can’t recommend pre-ordering anything. Wait for launch, and see whether Atari has any decent first-party launch titles supporting the AtariBox, and if there are any killer exclusive titles that make the console a must-own device. It seems unlikely to me — pretty much any game developer wants to maximize sales, and you do that by publishing to any and every platform that you can, not by going exclusive. Exclusive titles tend to happen only when the owner of the platform wants to pay the developer a mountain of cash to keep the title exclusive. Think Microsoft buying Bungie in order to keep Halo exclusive on the XBox. I haven’t seen any indication from Atari that they have the inclination or the deep pockets to do this.
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.
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.
In a move that endears me to the new gaming console not the slightest bit, Atari has announced that they are re-naming their upcoming AtariBox console to the already-taken name, “Atari VCS”. Henceforth, people who want to search for the 1977 Atari VCS, later renamed the Atari 2600, will have to wade through hits for the modern AtariBox-Atari VCS that will be released sometime in 2018 (maybe). And vice versa.
That won’t be completely annoying to fans of either console.
In the past few days, I’ve become aware of chatter about two potentially exciting new bits of hardware for Atari 2600 fans: Atari’s AtariBox, and Hyperkin’s RetroN 77.
Atari (well, the company who now owns Atari’s trademarks) has scant information about the AtariBox. Beyond the name, we know basically nothing about it so far.
RetroN 77 is a new console from Hyperkin, which is designed to play real Atari 2600 carts, apparently through emulation via the excellent open source Stella emulator, with real controllers, using the same ports as the original, so compatible with 3rd party Atari controllers, and outputting 1080p over HDMI.
Since I know nothing about the AtariBox yet, my early excitement is for the RetroN 77, but that could easily change. Hopefully Hyperkin will do the venerable VCS justice for the HDTV Age.
My hope for the AtariBox is that it will be a retro-inspired platform that caters to indie developers who want to make games in an old school style, that look like they could have been at home in the late 70’s/early80’s, albeit not strictly constrained by the hardware limits of that time. Think what Shovel Knight was to the NES; I’d love it if AtariBox were a platform for the equivalent of such games for the Atari 2600/5200/7800/400/800/Intellivision/Colecovision era of home videogames.