Surprise! The Atari VCS still exists. The last time we saw it was GDC 2018, at which time I asked “What the hell is this?” and Atari provided very few answers. As I now know, that’s because the entire project was in flux, a pivot point where one partner left the project and another came on.
Now, more than a year after Atari started raising money, the Atari VCS is a mostly functional product. But will anyone buy it? And really, what the hell is it? We met with Atari behind closed doors at E3 2019 to find out.
Full steam ahead
“Steam Machines are actually a pretty good comparison,” says Atari’s Rob Wyatt when I bring them up. “Everyone always compares us to retro boxes, which we’re not. Or they pick PlayStation, which we’re not.”
Pinning down the Atari VCS is harder than I thought. Atari is happy to say what the VCS is not—but that’s not very helpful, so Steam Machines are as good a place to start as any. The Atari VCS is essentially a low-end PC, built around (I was told by Atari) AMD’s Ryzen Embedded R1606G processor, a dual-core/quad-thread part that clocks at 2.6GHz, with 3.5GHz boost. It’s housed in a box that resembles the wood-paneled Atari 2600 of old, a retro touch for any living room, and then finished with a custom Linux-based operating system.
Valve’s dream isn’t dead, it’s merely found home with a new company.
Of course, Atari believes it will succeed where Valve failed—for price reasons, primarily. The least expensive Steam Machines retailed for around $500 in 2015. The entry-level Atari VCS with 4GB of RAM retails for $250 and the higher-end 8GB model for $280. Atari said multiple times during our demo that “We are the most powerful PC for $250.”
That may be true, but it’s still not much power. And the value proposition gets even dicier when you factor in controllers. Atari’s planning an “All-In” kit, with the 8GB Atari VCS, the Atari VCS Classic Joystick, and the Atari VCS Modern Controller for $390. (You can already preorder the All-In kit at Gamestop or Walmart.)
That’s firmly in actual console territory. Speaking to Wyatt, he acknowledged that even though the Atari VCS is “not a console,” the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are Atari’s biggest competition. You can get an Xbox One S for $225 these days, including a copy of Battlefield V. That’s an established and venerated ecosystem, with nearly a decade of software to experience—two, if you count backwards compatibility.
So why buy an Atari VCS?
Let me serve you up the pitch as Atari laid it out for me. There are essentially two groups the Atari VCS might appeal to.
The first is obvious: Nostalgics. People who love Atari, or loved Atari. People who miss wood paneling, but want an Atari 2600 that can run Netflix or Spotify or whatever. People who care about the brand or the look even though Atari now is very different from Atari in the ‘70s. Turn on the VCS and there’s a nifty startup animation that begins as a game of Asteroids and after a few well-placed shots ends with a vector-styled Atari logo. Cool, yeah?
Atari’s betting big on its back catalog again, but in a frankly kind of bizarre way. Wyatt’s apparently created an entire Atari emulator for the VCS from scratch, which is a good start. Instead of just giving VCS purchasers those old 2600 games though, Atari is...selling them. Piecemeal. We were shown a store demo, and classic Atari games seem to run about a dollar per.
Once you have them, you can pop open the emulator at seemingly any point—even (though we didn’t see this in action) while waiting through load screens for a different game, which sounds smart! I played a bit of Space Invaders, and it played like the Atari home version of Space Invaders.
I can’t imagine spending $280 on a machine to play Space Invaders though, and I definitely can’t imagine spending that money and then finding out I need to purchase Space Invaders for another $1.
Maybe it’s simply Not For Me, and that’s fine. Atari did say “We want to democratize the world of ROMs and emulators,” and that the VCS is for the Atari fan who “doesn’t know how to go find that stuff, who doesn’t know what a Raspberry Pi is.” I’m certainly not part of that group.
But I assume you, a reader of PCWorld, isn’t in that group either—so what’s the value proposition for you?
Again, this isn’t an idea that’s unique to Atari. Really, I’m stunned how similar the Atari VCS is to Steam Machines. Load up Atari’s OS and you’ll find a Games tab with your purchases (both emulated classics and Atari’s modern first-party games). There’s also an Apps page, with placeholder art in our demo for Netflix, Spotify, YouTube, and so on. And then there’s the store, also done in the same tiled interface.
On each tab, there’s a tile dead-center labeled Sandbox Mode. It’s a prettied-up bootloader basically. Select it, and you can choose whether to boot into Atari’s OS or any other OS you’ve installed—including Ubuntu (which we saw running at E3) or Windows.
For better or worse, Sandbox Mode is the reason the Atari VCS price is so high. Via Wyatt, “By not entering the market with a loss-leader product, we can be more flexible.” Sony and Microsoft lose money on consoles for the first few years, expecting to make it up over the hardware’s lifespan through software and licensing fees. Atari isn’t doing that. You don’t have to buy any games from Atari.
“The goal is you’ll stay in the Atari world and use the Atari store and buy games from Atari,” said Wyatt, “But because we don’t have to lock the hardware down, we can open it up to the Sandbox Mode where you can just use it as a PC under your TV.”
Or in other words, “You never have to enter the Atari world again. If you want to pop this under your TV—a fancy-looking box that’s fairly powerful, can do 4K, can stream all your apps—but you want to do it from Ubuntu, you can. We want you to stay in the Atari world, but it’s up to us to create a compelling reason for you to do that.”
Atari’s betting on people liking the look of the VCS enough to want it for custom projects, basically. “Emulation” is usually a dirty word in these sorts of presentations, but it was all over the place during my VCS demo—not just in regards to Atari’s official emulator, but discussions of more gray-area emulation as well.
Put it this way, Atari’s not endorsing you buying the VCS and turning it into a NES/SNES/PlayStation/N64 box with a sturdy case and modern hookups—but it’s also not preventing you from doing so. As Wyatt put it, “You’re not hurting us by buying it.” Atari doesn’t lose money regardless of what you choose to do with the VCS afterward.
Whether that’s enough to entice people? I’m not sure.
If anything, the component I’m most excited about is actually the Classic Joystick. Atari plans to sell it separately for $50, and the Xbox-style “Modern Controller” for $60. Both will apparently work with Windows machines at release.
And honestly it’s the most compelling part of the package. It looks like an old 2600 joystick, with a stick and single button on top. There’s an extra trigger on the side though, plus rumble capabilities inside, and the stick rotates to simulate a flywheel as well. If you’re looking for a cheap and sturdy way to emulate old arcade games, the Classic Joystick might be a solid jack-of-all-trades solution.
The rest, I’m more skeptical about. Admittedly less skeptical than I was coming out of GDC last year, as Atari’s proved the VCS is (probably) a real product and not vaporware. “Most powerful PC for $250” or not though, I’m just not really sure what people will do with it, what niche it’ll fill. Atari clearly believes there is a niche, but so did Valve—and five years after the fact, we’ve never seen a second generation of Steam Machines. I’m no slavish Valve fanatic, but I do tend to think if they can’t pull something off (with more money and connections than god), it’s probably a dead end.
We’ll see though. The Atari VCS is due to ship in March 2020, and is available for preorder at Gamestop or Walmart starting today, with more info on games, apps, and et cetera due later in the year. Keep an eye out.