Tag: AtariBox

AtariBox: more prelaunch details emerge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Atari” releases new images of upcoming, mysterious AtariBox console

As soon as I found out about it, I signed up for announcements about the AtariBox. Today, the company currently owning the rights to call itself Atari released some new images of what the console will look like. I think they look quite nice, for what it’s worth. It’s tough to say, but I’m not convinced that these are photographs — they could very well be 3D models from the mock-up phase, that have been approved for production.

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From the announcement:

Our objective is to create a new product that stays true to our heritage while appealing to both old and new fans of Atari.

Inspired by classic Atari design elements (such as the iconic use of wood, ribbed lines, and raised back); we are creating a smooth design, with ribs that flow seamlessly all around the body of the product, a front panel that can be either wood or glass, a front facing logo, indicator lights that glow through the material, and an array of new ports (HDMI, 4xUSB, SD). We intend to release two editions: a wood edition, and a black/red edition.

We know you are hungry for more details; on specs, games, features, pricing, timing etc. We’re not teasing you intentionally; we want to get this right, so we’ve opted to share things step by step as we bring Ataribox to life, and to listen closely to Atari community feedback as we do so. There are a lot of milestones, challenges and decision points in front of us in the months ahead. We’ll be giving you lots more information and status updates as we progress, and we are thrilled to have you along for the ride!

The HDMI is not a surprise, but it’s good to see that the AtariBox will use standard USB ports and an SD slot. Proprietary ports are all too common on game consoles, in order to lock consumers in to buying officially licensed peripherals at considerable markup.

What the console looks like isn’t all that important, but from what I see so far, this isn’t bad.

We still don’t know what the consoles hardware capabilities will be… but what the console’s specs are isn’t all that important, even.

What matters is what games it’ll play, and if they’re any good.

How can Atari create a unique platform for games that is simultaneously contemporary yet pays good homage to the past? It remains unknown.

AtariBox hype, speculation

I’ve been around long enough to know how the Hype Machine works with videogame launches.

First, there’s a teaser announcement. It doesn’t tell you anything, but it’s designed to make you very curious, excited, and speculate about what it could be. The AtariBox website currently has a simple video showing the famous Atari Fuji logo, and the suggestion that a new game console is coming soon.

Next, there’s a bit more information leaked to the right media outlets; Joystiq, Kotaku, Polygon, etc. A few more bare details are leaked, but mostly as unconfirmed rumors. This creates a lot of buzz among the most dedicated followers of games. Gamers are incredibly demanding and fickle, or else ultra-apologist fanboys who will eat up (and forgive) anything. Everyone starts talking about what they hope the new product will be.

Gradually, more mainstream media starts to pick up on the story, and reporting on it. We’re at that point now.

I read the Forbes opinion. The author’s take on it is that gaming consoles have become indistinguishable from each other, there’s too much sameness between Xbox and PlayStation, so (he thinks) maybe Atari can make room for itself in the market by differentiating itself… somehow.

And it’s true. In the old days, there was a lot more variety in game consoles. The hardware developed by various big players and also-rans (alsos-ran?) was widely divergent in its engineering and capabilities, especially in terms of how they handled graphics and sound. Most systems were built around one of two chips: the MOS 6502 or the Zilog Z80, but had vastly different approaches to generating sound and drawing pixels to the TV screen, resulting in characteristics that could not be replicated by any other game console, meaning that each system necessarily had to take a unique approach to implementing a port of a given game design, resulting in vastly different experiences for the same title on various systems (when a title was even released on multiple systems, which wasn’t always a given).

But as engineers iterate, designs gradually converge on what works best. And in 2017 with the launch of the Nintendo Switch, we’re currently at the 9th generation of game consoles.

The thing is, the old consoles were different because their hardware was very different, AND because games were coded in ASM so that they could get every last bit of the very limited hardware’s capability. Neither of those is true now, nor will it ever be again. Computer hardware is extremely expensive to R&D, so open, commodity architectures that are well known to developers will be favored, leading to a convergence in hardware. Games are programmed in high-level languages so that the same code runs on multiple platforms. The result is uniformity.

No new modern console will support some non-standard resolution or unique color palette that will give their games a look uniquely its own. It’ll be 32-bit RGB color, 1080p or 4K, 60Hz or better. Controllers may vary, slightly, but the fact is if a game cant sell on multiple platforms, it won’t get developed (except by Nintendo). So having a unique controller only means you’ll secure a small segment of the market for yourself, while conceding the bulk of the market to games developed to more common/standard controllers. That’s what Nintendo’s approach has been since the Wii. And while NIntendo was successful with the Wii, they stumbled with its follow-up Wii U, and most people believe that Nintendo are only able to continue to be successful on the strength of their first-party IP that they keep exclusive to their platform.

What does that leave Atari? If they think they can go toe to toe against MS and Sony, they’re dreaming. Atari’s R&D and innovation more or less stopped in 1983, despite the last gasps the Lynx handheld and Jaguar console represented. Atari does have some strong IP in their arcade classic titles, but these have been re-released and re-hashed probably on the order of a dozen or more times already, mostly as nostalgia bundles that have been put out for every next-gen console since the SNES, occasionally as “reboots” or “sequels” that never seem to recapture the original magic.

The Ataribox *could* be a cool console, if it embraces retro. I have no interest in a 9th-Gen game system just because it happens to have the Atari name on it. What I *am* excited about is the possibility of a “what if” console, where imaginative game developers do a kind of speculative retro-future take on where 8-bit style games that Atari were known for in the 70s and 80s could have gone — a bit like what steampunk is to science fiction, the Ataribox could be to modern-retro gaming. Think an graphics processor constrained to 8-bit index color graphics, driven by a modern 3+GHz CPU with gigabytes of RAM instead of a few kilobytes, and beautiful (but limited-palette, low-fi) graphics without the sort of severe limitations such as sprites per line, etc.

That’s kind of what I hope it turns out to be. I have no idea, but that would be cool and truly different. Not just another Xbox/PS with a Fuji logo, please.

A Pitfall III that looks and feels like Pitfall I and II, but has all kinds of cool new challenges would be kind of awesome. (Of course, we already have Spelunky… but that’s just it, there’s a ton of retro-inspired modern indie games that could feel right at home on a modern retro console. A few years ago, I had high hopes that the Ouya would be that console. I still think the concept has merit, but whether it can survive and thrive in the market is largely in doubt.)

The thing is, there’s no reason to design special hardware constraints into such a system; a designer can voluntarily impose any such constraints on themselves to produce “retro style” games. That’s what we do now, when we want to.

I’m interested in seeing what the AtariBox is, but my enthusiasm is held in reserve. Why? Simply because at this point we know nothing about it, and because everything about the history of the videogame industry strongly suggests that it’s unlikely to succeed at a level needed to support a large company, and small companies tend to fail.

AtariBox, RetroN 77 teasers 

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.