Atari VCS: everything you need to know about Atari's comeback console

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The Atari name still carries a lot of cachet with video game fans, given the company's role in creating the home console market – but its last piece of new hardware, 1993's Jaguar, was a massive flop. 

Since then, the Atari brand has changed hands multiple times, emerged from bankruptcy, and been used to market social games and online gambling.

It's been a rough couple of decades for Atari, that's to be sure. 

But that could all change with the company's new, crowd-sourced console: the Atari VCS (the console formerly known as the Ataribox). 

While details are still scarce, the Atari VCS represents Atari's hopeful comeback in the console world, promising both access to original Atari games and new experiences, pairing the classic with the modern. 

The system has yet to be fully detailed and while we're excited about the possibility of the a new console capable of playing Atari's greatest hits like RollerCoaster Tycoon, Driver and NeverWinter Nights, the fact that so little is known about the console is worrying. Atari has yet to unveil a working prototype to the public and, to make matters worse, announced that it would open pre-orders up on December 14 ... only to delay the pre-order process due to "development problems". Yikes.

But, just recently, Atari has re-opened its doors to the public to announce that the Atari VCS will be available to pre-order starting on May 30, 2018 and will be sold at a special pre-sale price of $199. Best of all, Atari says backers who place an order early will receive units by Spring 2019. 

Look out nostalgia, Atari is making its big comeback next year.

[Latest update: Atari has just announced a pre-order date and pricing info for the first batch of backers.]

Cut to the chase

  • What is it? A new Atari console that plays old games and new ones too.
  • How much will it cost? $199 during the special pre-sale period
  • When does it come out? Spring 2019 is Atari's target

What's an Atari VCS?

Atari first teased the Atari VCS back in June 2017 with a pretty lightweight website and a brief YouTube clip, and then finally spilled the beans back at E3. 

Atari CEO Fred Chesnais, who bought the company following its 2013 bankruptcy, told VentureBeat: "We're back in the hardware business." The article also claimed the device would be "based on PC technology".

It wasn't until July of 2017 that we got a better sense of what to expect when an email blast to fans who subscribed to Atari's newsletter answered some questions: The Atari VCS will be available in two models – one with a classic wood grain front, and another that's black and red – with a very slim, streamlined aesthetic that looks a bit like a cable box or streaming set-top box. Both versions share the same, smooth overall design, with ribbed lines and a raised back.

Based on a prototype engineering unit we've seen that the Atari VCS will have several modern ports in the back, including an HDMI output, four USB ports, and an Ethernet cable port for wired internet access. It's also planned to support SD cards, which could make it easy to bring games, media, and other content to your Atari VCS, or perhaps help sustain a homebrew community. Or maybe it'll just provide expandable storage so users can buy as much or as little as they need, rather than Atari packing the box itself with it.

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

Inside the box you'll see an AMD customized processor with Radeon Graphics technology powerful enough to run games like Minecraft and lightweight indie titles just as well as the other consoles can. It will also be able to run traditional Atari games – though it won't take much horsepower to run them.

According to a press release sent out in late September, all this hardware will help the console bring a full PC experience to the TV, including the ability to stream shows and movies, access applications (the console runs on a flavor of Linux), log-on to social networks, browse the web and stream music.

Then there's the controller - well, two controllers to be exact. 

One of the aforementioned controllers is a replica of the Atari paddle you grew up with. It features a singular button and a directional joystick. Also shipping with the VCS is a more contemporary controller - similar to what you'd find coupled with an Xbox One. It has four face buttors, a d-pad and two thumbsticks. 

Which games will it play?

Well, that's the big question. After all, what good is another console if it doesn't have great games to play on it? 

That was one of the most obvious problems with the Atari Jaguar, but that was more than two decades ago in a completely different era for gaming, not to mention on notoriously complex hardware that was difficult to develop for.

Atari says that the Atari VCS will run classic games – digitally, that is, whether they're built-in or downloadable (or both) – which makes a ton of sense. After all, the NES Classic was a big hit, selling out every time it hit stores and leaving a lot of fans desperate and wanting when Nintendo opted to stop producing the box. 

Atari owns the rights to more than 200 different video game properties, including Pong, Missile Command, Asteroids, and Centipede. For a better hint at what to expect from the company, just check out the Atari's Greatest Hits app for iOS and Android: it offers 100 classic Atari 2600 games that you can buy in small bundles, or you can unlock the entire library for $10.

If the Atari VCS is patterned more like the Ouya microconsole, then it could serve as a platform for new and experimental content of all kinds, especially from indie developers.

Obviously, Atari isn't going to release a custom piece of hardware, sell a $10 pack of games for it, and call it a day. That why the company has also teased "current content" for the Atari VCS. Will that mean appearances by other, more modern Atari franchises like Rollercoaster Tycoon, Test Drive, and Ghostbusters? That could mean ports of Atari games we've seen on mobile platforms and other consoles over the last couple decades, or even ported PC games.

Maybe! But it could also mean brand new content. 

If the Atari VCS is patterned more like the Ouya microconsole, then it could serve as a platform for new and experimental content of all kinds, especially from indie developers. That would seem to make a lot of sense, especially if the device ends up being powered by a low-end PC processor, or perhaps even Android with a mobile chip in the mix (despite the "PC technology" suggestion). But for now, it's all just speculation. We know nothing for certain.

When will the Atari VCS come out?

Atari has been a bit vague around this topic but, so far, it looks like the company is targeting Spring 2019.

"We know you are hungry for more details; on specs, games, features, pricing, timing etc," read the company's July 2017 email to subscribers. "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 Atari VCS to life, and to listen closely to Atari community feedback as we do so." 

But we do know one critical detail: the Atari VCS will be crowdfunded. Atari doesn't seem to be quite as flush with cash it was back in its early glory days, plus the Atari VCS is a huge risk and will require ample investment. 

This is obviously a bit of a double-edged sword: If the box gets all the funding it needs within a matter of days – it'll be clear that Atari has a potential success on their hands. If they don't, well, it could be an early death for a neat idea.

It wouldn't make sense to crowdfund a device that's already manufactured and ready to hit retail. Also, the email said there were still decisions to be made "in the months ahead."

But hopefully we will see it in 2019, then, or beyond. However, even if the console makes its way to the mass production stage, crowdfunded consoles haven't had a great run so far in terms of longevity: the Ouya ended up being a short-lived phenomenon that yielded rough launch hardware and few essential games you couldn't play elsewhere. Meanwhile, the PlayJam GameStick landed with a whimper and the Coleco Chameleon flamed out before it was even built.

But if Atari can successfully trade on its classic brand, deliver an authentic old-school 2600 experience, and offer enough compelling modern content to justify the price, then maybe the Atari VCS can succeed where other microconsoles have failed. As with most of the hard details here, we'll just have to wait and see – and we'll keep you updated.