“Atari” has finally shipped a physical product to its Indiegogo backers.
I didn’t back the campaign, because I didn’t have faith in the company calling itself “Atari” these days to deliver value. One of the backers received theirs already and has published an unboxing/review on YouTube.
And there’s a lot of rough edges. The controllers work differently, depending on whether they’re connected via USB cable or by Bluetooth? Hitches in the e-commerce experience, getting double charged for a failed download? You have to pay for Atari Vault Vol 2, a collection of 30+ year old games? Browser accounts aren’t properly connected to the local user? Really? I wish I could say I am surprised.
The launch library is, as expected, sparse and uninspiring, offering nothing new beyond a warmed-over Missile Command remake. I haven’t seen the new Missile Command in detail — it looks OK, I guess — but having participated in numerous game jams, and knowing the original Missile Command, I know enough to say that a Missile Command reboot could be tackled with a game jam’s worth of effort — in other words, 2-3 people, 1 weekend, bam, playable new Missile Command game. Realistically, to be completely generous, a game like that could be developed in a month or so.
“Atari” have spent $3 million and 3 years creating a cool-looking case and joystick for a commodity PC that runs a Free OS and have developed a front-end for it that could be used to deliver new original games, first-party exclusives, if Atari had them. but all they currently offer is Google Chrome browser, Netflix, and a couple bundles of emulated games that have been available for 30+ years, and absolutely don’t need a new console to deliver them.
Atari failed to respond to a May 13 deadline to a court summons in the Rob Wyatt/Tin Giant lawsuit for nonpayment on their contract to design the VCS console and hardware, further bolstering their image as a fake company that exists mostly on paper and in the minds of the fraud purveyors who claim to be employed by them.
While they had promised earlier this year that the consoles would be shipping to backers in March, this date has been pushed back, this time to 11/27, according to the product info listed on walmart.com.
I won’t link to it, lest anyone actually try to pre-order the thing, do not waste your money and time on a pre-order from a fly-by-night company operating on a shoestring budget. If you buy it at all, wait until after launch. But seriously, don’t buy it. If this ever does launch, the reviews are sure to pan the system for its price:performance ratio and utter lack of any new games.
If you’re a disgruntled backer who would like to get your money back: too bad, that ship has long sailed. You’ll never see a dime. We told you so.
The business entity currently calling itself “Atari” published a new tech blog today, to address their current status with delivering the long-overdue Atari VCS systems. As usual, things are not well.
At the time of this writing, the world is in the grip of a global pandemic of COVID-19, which originated in China, and has lead to major economic disruptions as authorities in China have shut down entire cities in an effort to contain the spread of the virus. Under such circumstances, it’s entirely understandable that this could cause delays.
Rather immediately, though, we see the usual disturbing signs that not all is well with the project, beyond these circumstances that are beyond anyone’s control:
…We have confirmed delivery of enough parts by the end of March to build our first 500 Atari VCS production units. A good portion of these first Atari VCS units are earmarked as dev kits for developers.
Four things leap out about this revelation:
One: Previously, Atari had been targeting March 31 for when the VCS would be available for purchase at retail, through GameStop and Wal Mart.
Two: Indiegogo preorders topped out around 10,000, and presumably Atari must have been intending to supply additional thousands or tens of thousands of units to stock retailers. But now they say they will have “parts” for 500 units by the end of March, well off the numbers needed to fulfill even the pre-order.
Three:“a good portion of these first Atari VCS units are earmarked as dev kits for developers.”
So… to be clear on this. Atari’s business plan is to:
Sell consoles through pre-order.
Design the consoles.
Build the consoles.
Provide the consoles to crowdfunding backers and retail and developers all at the same time.
Now developers start working on software for use on the console.
I don’t need to spell out why this is the wrong order to do things in, do I?
Getting “dev kits” into the hands of developers early so that there can be launch titles available when the hardware reaches consumers is vital to the success of the console. Games take months and years to develop. They’ve been working on the AtariBox project for a good 3 years now, they should bloody well have games on it when they release it to consumers.
But given that this is just a commodity Linux box in a fancy looking shell that is “certified” to run Unity engine games, what exactly does anyone need with a “dev kit” anyway? The only thing I can think of would be that the VCS’s classic joystick is different enough from a standard gamepad (which they also have for the system) that there’s some need for a dev kit. That’s plausible, but it still doesn’t excuse Atari from not getting dev kits into the hands of developers partnering with them well in advance of the console’s expected release date, which I will point out again is already about two years later than they promised during the crowdfunding campaign.
Four: Why are they receiving parts? Why aren’t they assembling everything in China? What the fuck?
The blog post goes on from there to go into minute details of manufacturing defect tolerances, for some reason. I guess to show that they have a lot of problems building defect free cases for the thing? That’s reassuring!
I guess they want us to believe that they are working hard with manufacturing to get the details right, but that this hasn’t been easy, and this has been part of the reason for all the delays.
And from there, some footage of people playing emulated Atari arcade titles such as Asteroids, Crystal Castles, and Centipede. And a video of someone playing Fortnight, allegedly on an Atari VCS system. Which, hey, great, but that’s something anyone can do right now, on a computer they already have.
“Atari” then go on to mention that their planned schedule of events has been disrupted as events such as GDC, SXSW, and E3 have been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Which, given the history of “Atari” attending these events in the last 2-3 years, maybe just means that the there wasn’t any point in them renting a hotel suite across the street from the convention and inviting attendees to swing by while they’re in the neighborhood, riding the event’s coattails.
Will “Atari” be at Pax, or Comic Con? Who knows? Who cares?
The bottom line is: You ain’t seeing your Atari VCS pre-order at the end of March. Surprise, surprise. And if you ever do receive your system, it’ll be around the same time that developers receive their dev kits. So while you’re waiting breathlessly for the next 2-3 years for them to crank out games that were actually designed for this system, you’ll be able to enjoy a library of existing games, many of which are already available elsewhere, and have been for literally the entire history of video games.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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, firstname.lastname@example.org. 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?
Atari announced updated designs for their joystick and gamepad peripherals for the AtariBox (now called the Atari VCS) today. Allegedly, these are about to go into production soon, but are still subject to change and are not final.
I have to admit, I do like the design of the joystick, and wouldn’t mind owning one if they ever do get manufactured, assuming they will work with generic PC systems and aren’t tied exclusively to the AtariBox console.
One neat thing about the joystick that they revealed is that the stick will rotate, enabling play of paddle type Atari games. This answers a long standing question I’d had about whether/how the new system might support paddle games. I don’t know that this will feel as good as the old-school paddled did in their day, but it’s good that they’re at least supporting them. As well, it means that spinning stick arcade games, like the Ikari Warriors series of top-down run-n-gun games, might be decent to play with a stick like this.
The joystick will also have rumble and LED lighting features. Wireless, it will be powered by lithium ion battery, with a life of about 15 hours per charge. No word on how easily replaced the battery pack will be, or if replacement batteries will be available. I wouldn’t count on it, although of course it should be possible to hack them and replace with any third party battery of the correct spec, which is what I imagine owners will have to do once these things are a few years old and no longer can hold a charge.
The gamepad, I’m less interested in, as it seems less special, not different enough from an XBox gamepad to be worth buying. Since Xbox gamepads are already very good, the AtariBox gamepad would need to outshine it in some way to be worth my attention. I haven’t seen any indication that it might.
If these start shipping, and the initial reviews are good, I’d order a pair, but I’m still wary enough about the reputation for the current company using Atari trademark that I don’t want to go in on a preorder.
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.
Bad news for AtariBox fans: Tempest 4000 was released today. Why is this bad for AtariBox? Well, Tempest 4000 is the one new modern launch title that Atari has announced for the doomed console, and the game is available today on XBox One, PS4, and Windows. Anyone who’s excited to play T4K can play it now, and will not have to wait a year plus and buy a $300 console for the privilege. Well, at least T4K is still published by Atari SA, so whatever platform you might buy it for, they’ll get some money.
Hey, Atari, congratulations on launching a product! I’m glad to see you were able to play nice with Jeff Minter and work together to put this out.
So what else does AtariBox have up its sleeve? Any exclusive content? A second launch title? An Q&A article published on Medium on July 13 is the only new PR that I’ve seen from Atari SA since the close of the campaign on June 30. Atari SA remain very quiet about it, and have not put much information out since the close of their IndieGoGo campaign, which raised just short of $3M in pre-sales for the system — well short of the amount raised in 2012 on Kickstarter by Ouya, which raised over $8.5M and had 6 times as many backers, yet struggled in the market and failed to gain marketshare due to a lack of compelling exclusive content.)