It seems like everything old is new again. Stranger Things has brought the ’80s back to life on TV. Eighties properties like The Terminator and Ghostbusters are releasing new sequels. And in the gaming world, devices like the NES Classic and Sega Genesis Classic have everyone tapping that nostalgia vein.
On paper, this seems like the perfect time for an Atari comeback. And a new console inspired by the original Atari system is coming soon. Called the Atari VCS, the console is listed for release on March 31, 2020. Whether or not it makes that release date, however, remains to be seen, with the coronavirus being the latest threat to its release.
The Atari VCS is being marketed as a way to bridge classic and modern games as well as casual and serious gamers. However, skeptics maintain that this thing is more of a scam than a gaming revolution. Here is a handy breakdown of everything you need to know about the Atari VCS and the controversies leading up to its release.
What Is the Atari VCS?
The most basic question would be “what is the Atari VCS?” Despite the popularity of devices like the NES classic, the VCS is more than just an Atari machine (despite originally having the name of “Ataribox”). And it’s allegedly not just Atari’s version of the ill-fated Ouya.
This is Atari’s version of a Steam machine that uses Linux. It is a cheap, streamlined PC that will allow gamers to download new and old games for digital play. The name “Atari VCS” and its design are based on the original 1977 Atari Video Computer System (VCS), which was renamed Atari 2600 in the ’80s.
At launch, the console will come preinstalled with 100 Atari Vault games covering Atari’s arcade, 2600, and 5200 releases. It also includes access to 1,000 more Atari games through the Anstream streaming service.
The following specs have been released for the console, which will have a 400 system and an 800 system. The 400 system will be 1030p, while the 800 system will support 4K resolutions, HDR and 60fps gameplay.
- CPU: AMD Raven Ridge 2
- GPU: Ryzen
- RAM: 4GB DDR4 (400 System), 8GB DDR4 (800 System) – both are upgradeable
- Storage: 32GB eMMC and support for external HDD
- Connections: HDMI 2.0, 2.4/5GHz Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, Gigabit Ethernet, 4x USB 3.1
- HDCP: HDCP 2.2 compliant
- Operating system: Linux OS based on Ubuntu (Linux Kernel 4.10)
- Power: Low TDP architecture
- Weight: 1.36kg
- Dimensions: 312.42 x 149.86 x 50.8mm
Pre-orders for the Atari VCS Onyx 400 list the retail price as $249.99. The Atari VCS Onyx 800 goes for $279.99. And the Atari VCS 800 Onyx All In System Bundle, which includes a wireless controller and joystick, will set you back $379.99.
Not Actually Atari
The system says Atari. And the company has the Atari name. But here’s the thing: this isn’t actually Atari.
For better or for worse, this is not the same company that you remember from the ’80s. Instead, it’s a newer company that simply has the rights to the name. On top of that, they have already had their hand in multiple Atari-themed products. This includes 2017’s Atari Retro (a bland portable device) and the disastrously cancelled Atari Gameband that never refunded its Kickstarter backers.
To a cynical mind, it seems like the VCS may just be another way to make money from the Atari name.
There have been critics of the Atari VCS since it was announced as an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. Some people suspected it was a scam because the company didn’t seem to know what they were doing. For example, in a 2018 interview, Atari COO Michael Arzt didn’t know whether or not this device could interface with a computer. He also implied that Atari didn’t know what chip they would be using.
Considering the major crowdfunding success of the VCS, most backers would likely prefer that Atari have their major details locked down. Instead, they have been historically fuzzy about details.
To their credit, “Atari” struck when the iron was hot. They raised $2.9 million in Indiegogo funds, proving that the public is hungry for the Atari brand. The company gets points for capitalizing on gamer nostalgia at just the right time.
Unfortunately, this silver lining for Atari comes with a pretty big cloud. And that cloud is the number of weird scandals they caused during and after their crowdfunding.
During the campaign, backers discovered Atari showing off fake prototype systems. They also had a trailer showing a game running on the VCS (Tempest 4000) that is not even Linux-compatible. Heck, that game’s creator didn’t even know what VCS was until he heard his game was being used in a trailer for it!
Quality products tend to speak for themselves. That’s what makes these bizarre scandals for the VCS so strange: why not just show the world a working product?
So, has the press gotten hold of the Atari VCS?
Outlets such as IGN were able to check out the alleged hardware at GDC 2018. But it wasn’t actually playing anything: reporters could simply see the product and talk to company representatives.
Based on those conversations (in which exec Michael Artz didn’t seem to know much about his own product), reporters from IGN and The Register were very skeptical of the final product. This demands another question: why bother showing off a system to reporters when there is almost nothing to show and almost nothing to say?
But the press finally got to try out the Atari VCS at CES in January 2020. PCMag actually wrote a fairly positive review, though they said the console is primarily for “enthusiasts.”
Publicly Called Out
Why did it take so long for the press to actually get to handle the console? Apparently, the Atari VCS executives do not like bad press coverage. After The Register published their coverage of the system in 2018, Atari claimed that the newspaper was making up quotes in an attempt to make Atari look bad.
The Register turned around and published audio logs verifying all of their quotes. After calling Atari out in this fashion, the outlet dropped this perfect line: “Atari is so full of crap that it should be designated a hazardous waste zone.”
Even if they weren’t on the stock market, it would now be safe to say that Atari is publicly “owned.”
Chief Architect Quits
Did you think it couldn’t get worse? Sadly, friend, there’s no real bottom to this particular pit.
To help design the VCS, Atari hired Rob Wyatt and his company Tin Giant. But in October 2019, Wyatt walked away from this project entirely. Why? He told The Register that Atari had not paid his invoices in six months.
Originally slated to release in March 2019, and then pushed back to late 2019, Wyatt’s departure delayed the release again.
While there is no word on Wyatt suing the company, the sight of a cash-strapped company losing their chief architect does not exactly inspire trust.
Coronavirus Causes Another Delay?
On February 4, Atari posted an update on their blog announcing that their Chinese production factory would be closed until Feb. 10 due to the national emergency in China surrounding the coronavirus.
“We are in close contact with our teams in China, and when the factory reopens, they will gauge the impact that the Coronavirus may or may not have on the next few weeks of production,” Atari wrote on Medium. “We remain dedicated and determined to do whatever is needed to drive the Atari VCS project forward to a successful delivery and will continue to provide updates as we get them.”
So, it seems unclear whether or not the Atari VCS will actually make its release window. For now, retailers such as GameStop are still listing a release date of March 31.
The Final Verdict
Is the Atari VCS a scam or the real thing? Atari has posted manufacturing photos and dashboard tests like the one above. So, at least it looks like we will not have another “Atari Gameband” situation where crowdfunders don’t receive the product they paid for.
It’s not impossible that the system will come out and blow everyone away. But Atari’s whole campaign has been one of confusion and frustration.
What do you think about the Atari VCS? Sound off in the comments below!