The Mysterious Atari VCS
Beautiful isn’t it? Conceptually this is about as slick a promo pic will ever look and the hype video wasn’t bad either, unfortunately digging any deeper is an exercise in insanity.
The PR for Atari’s latest venture is just an ouroboros of generic groomed statements and metaphorical comparisons to other industry staples. It’s hard to even wrap your head around all of it considering how much of it is wishy-washy nonsense. Before we get started talking about the message itself lets set the stage for what they are stepping into.
First off I want to talk very briefly about a collection of games that came out many years ago on Steam called Atari! 80 Classic Games in One. The second I saw that sandwiched between DEFCON and some neon Tron looking tank game that for the life of me I can’t remember the name of. I bought without hesitation and enjoyed the hell out of that fresh influx of nostalgia. Back then I probably had barely double digit games in my Steam library, now ~500 games down the road and I haven’t looked at that Atari collection again. That isn’t to say those games aren’t worth playing or mean any less to me than what they did back when I bought the collection but it’s by way of saying that the gaming industry is a constantly raging run of rapids that hasn’t slowed in decades. In fact it’s only picked up speed to the point that things change weekly if not daily in a lot of areas. Hardware in PCs changes so quickly it’s nearly impossible to stay up to date unless you dedicate a good portion of your free time to staying informed.
I think it’s important for context that this is the game industry that Atari is re-entering with it’s newest hardware offering. They haven’t been entirely out of it as they’ve stuck around as a fairly large publisher and developer but the hardware game left them behind long ago. Hell, even the major hardware platforms we have in this current generation were running behind on the day of their release, not far but enough that the rest of the hardware industry zoomed right by in no time. The first stop on our tour of the available information on this started back up at the top of this article with the hype video for the system. If you take a moment to check around you’ll notice that in 9 months that is literally the only video on that channel with the description pointing you to their website. Not that it means much but it strikes me as suspect that for Atari’s grand return to the hardware scene that the channel isn’t stuffed full of videos for people to gorge themselves on. Every company has their own style of building interest in their gear, I respect that, but it bears noticing I think.
So, when you hop over to their website you see a cheeky 80’s retro styled advertisement for the VCS or Video Computer System which is a name that sounds like it’s straight out of the early game industry. Apparently you should also “Hurry” because pre-orders are coming soon. Below that we see an advertisement with a few nicely coiffed photos and this statement,
Game. Stream. Connect. Like Never Before.
Killer Atari Classic Games. Hot New Indie Titles. Open Linux OS.
Join the Revolution
Nice, quippy and to the point but just beneath that there is a second identical place to enter your email so you can join the waitlist for this system. To say that after a 9 month lead up for a system that has been “Years in the making” that this website is thin on information would be generous. Below the place where I can add my second email address so I’m really sure I don’t miss out on this mystery box with a logo I recognize there are some testimonials that I feel are… well, odd to be honest.
“Sharp and Modern”
“This design is so sharp and modern! I am super excited about the release. Thank you Atari for completely revisiting my childhood.
So generic so as to be meaningless. Their hype video for this system garnered almost 1.76 million views and this is one of the best pull quotes you could find? Who is Monty E? Is he a critic of some kind? Is an intern at the office? The barista at your local Starbucks? I’m not saying you have to be somebody to have your quote pasted on a product page, look at me I’m a nobody and I talk about all sorts of things. For a system like this with the history of Atari I have to think this could be far more substantial.
5 years from today people are going to say come over my house so I can show them this new Atari game… this console is going to be amazing.
Alright, listen, I really am a reasonable person and like I said above there is no reason you have to be a name in order to have a say but what is this? Either the mistakes make it seem more genuine or it comes off like whoever wrote it didn’t care, nor did the people who asked for it. Also, what exactly is this quote based off of? What evidence does this person have to support this quote? Everything I have seen thus far suggests to me that in 5 years this system will be a small paragraph on their Wikipedia page. I desperately hope that I am wrong but again, all evidence points otherwise.
I think that this is definitely what the market needs – something new and fresh with a slice of retro.
Again, it’s nice to be optimistic but realistically is this actually true? Every system has embraced in some fashion downloadable indie games, every system has a slice of retro that plays like new. Nintendo nailed their retro offerings with the NES and SNES Classic systems and the Switch Nindies are booming. So far I can’t see an unblocked or unoccupied avenue for the VCS to drive in on.
Also, just to top this section off if you scroll just a tiny bit below the three testimonials you will see a third place to enter your email for the waitlist. I don’t sign up for a lot of these so maybe this is S.O.P. of the stench of desperation is a bit overwhelming. Now moving away from this website let’s check on some of their latest press and see what has been revealed.
We’ll start real quickly with the guts of this new set-top box and Atari originally told us that it would be housing some custom AMD tech which was very cool given this has been a very strong couple of years for the folks in red and black. Nintendo scored huge partnering with the green giant nVidia on the hardware for their Switch, an endeavor that was touted to have taken “500 man years of development time”. Plus the modern consoles also use AMD hardware so it’s not a bad place for Atari to start. However a bit worryingly it’s an APU and not a particularly powerful one either which makes their claims of it also being able to handle more modern games a statement in desperate need of specifics. It carries a Linux OS which is great, it’s modifiable and open source with a lot of potential for industrious go-getters in the modding community plus a lot of room for developers to work in as long as they want to.
Actually… this entire setup is starting to feel a little familiar, almost like a Steam powered machine from our past. The reality is that for every aspect of this system that seems unique or interesting has generally been done better elsewhere or at the very least the concept exists after a fashion. That isn’t necessarily a reason to not try something new but it definitely means that a profit seeking enterprise should think twice before moving ahead in a crowded marketplace. On the subject of the Steam Machine comparison Atari Connect COO Michael Arzt had this to say, “I don’t think it’s as ambitious as a Steam Machine.” You can’t help but appreciate the honesty but again it raises the question, what is it? He also helpfully described it as, “A good laptop without a keyboard.” which is looking to be priced somewhere between $250-300. It may seem snobbish of me to say but I’m not sure a laptop in that price range can really be considered “good” for things like gaming above a certain basic tier. Artz also commented that, “It’s a much more casual device.” which again is great but Atari’s description about wanting moms to be able to turn on the VCS to easily get into their Netflix or other entertainment services isn’t as complicated on modern devices as Atari seems to think.
Back at the beginning of this I talked a little bit about how the industry isn’t in the 70s anymore and is in fact moving away from its roots at lightspeed. Everything I’ve read about this new venture makes me think this device and the company making it are about a decade late to the show. The optimistic side of me says that they can’t possibly be that out of touch in the industry which they help birth but it still leaves me scratching my head. What do they have up their sleeve that sets them apart from the pack? Not to mention there are a variety of other questions like what sort of third-party support is possible for this system? Are they planning to carry it solely on the strength of their own catalog and licenses? Whats the lifespan of this console they have branded a PC? What app support can we expect beyond Netflix and Hulu?
9 months at least since the teaser. Vague promises, fuzzy details and broad descriptions on this devices future and it’s purpose. I want so badly to be excited for this, for a new player in the market to light a spark under the incumbents and get them really pushing to innovate again. It was one of the biggest tragedies when Sega exited after the Dreamcast because for all the things that system did wrong it did a lot of things right and did them before anyone else. If Atari can turn this bizarro experiment into a true contender I’ll be ecstatic but I can’t help but feel like they’re coming unprepared to a new and much changed game.
Thanks for listening to me ramble a bit about this while I try to figure out exactly what it is that Atari is up to. I’ll be back later this weekend with another post and hopefully some gameplay videos up on YouTube for MTG: Arena and Ni No Kuni: Revenant Kingdom which I’m looking forward to playing some of tonight.
Have a great one, folks!
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