Why should anyone care about the AtariBox – excuse me: ‘AtariVCS’?

One thing I have never intended Woodgrain Wonderland to be is a news repository for – to my mind and admittedly little interest – the copyright-hoarding, holding-company entity that jumbles together as modern-day Atari. As far as I’m concerned, save for some reportedly respectable work in the Roller Coaster Tycoon series under the Atari/Hasbro banner (which I know more by reputation rather than having actually played the games) and one or two others, Atari pretty much ended with the Jaguar and even then a shell of what it once had been.

However, recent events around Atari have proven too – for lack of a better term – weird to completely let escape one’s attention. The AtariBox concept (and it still appears to be a concept) has been kicking around for the better part of a year now and slowly gaining traction among the wider video game blog/vlog/podverse. Some controversy erupted recently, however, when Atari announced the official name of its new console: the “AtariVCS.” Yes, that’s right: the name of the company’s first home console in more than two decades is the short version of the same unit that rolled off assembly lines four decades ago.

There’s not much use in hand-wringing over this, but it does not put a lot of one’s faith in the minds behind this enterprise. What’s most frustrating to me personally is I still cannot for the life of me figure out what this thing is supposed to do, and it appears I am not alone in that sentiment. All I know is that it streams Steam (just like your computer), features a selection of tried-and-true Atari-branded 2600 games (just like any of the Atari Flashbacks) and supports HD (just like the Flashback Gold, if not a few other versions as well). I see no cartridge ports in its “sleek, modern” design, so go dash your hopes of playing a ridiculously wide swath of third-party games. So arguably, if you already own a computer, a modern Atari Flashback and a working Atari 2600, you already own an “AtariVCS” and then some. And they want $250 to $300 for this thing?

What galls me though is that yet again – from what little I or much of anyone has been able to gather – the emphasis is on the Atari 2600 rather than the company’s other rich history. I know that’s a little hypocritical considering the subject matter of this blog, but where are the arcade games going back almost 50 years? What about all those dedicated consoles (not just Pong and its variants)? What about the 8-bit era? The 7200? The Lynx? The Jaguar? The late efforts such as Roller Coaster Tycoon mentioned above? There’s a real opportunity here to celebrate both Atari’s stratospheric successes as well as its outrageous blunders, providing a possible jumping-off point to its return as a hardware designer with its own unique vision. But I’m not seeing that from the information the company has offered so far.

It’s a flat-out nostalgia exercise. There’s nothing wrong with that necessarily. Nintendo did boffo box-office with its NES Mini. The difference is Nintendo is still highly invested in these old games as they provide the foundation of so many of the same franchises they rely on to this very day. It’s not a piece they’re going to throw aside with an unfocused, substandard product. But Atari is not going to ignite the same spark after 20 years almost completely off the radar. In my mind, Atari nostalgists who are not already immersed in the hobby would be better off snagging a 2600 off of eBay, buying a few cartridges or a Harmony cart and turning to a helpful fan community with technical issues (including HD connection). That all seems to make more sense to me than plonking down about half the cost of a Nintendo Switch for a glorified Linux box.

2 thoughts on “Why should anyone care about the AtariBox – excuse me: ‘AtariVCS’?

  1. One issue I can see with the AtariVCS is that it will almost certainly have the exact same games that are on every Atari Flashback console and commercial emulated software collection — that is to say, only first-party Atari games, and sans any that might have complicated copyright issues these days, like Pac-Man or Donkey Kong. (I know no-one wants to play Pac-Man on 2600 for anything other than curiosity’s sake, but it’s an interesting historical artifact!) If that’s the case, I really see little value in this system; were it to include, say, Activision’s 2600 library too, I might be interested, as it would be lovely to have those in the same place as the Atari games, but I don’t see that happening. (Also proper paddle controllers for Kaboom!, plz.)

    You’re right, though, it would be nice to see Atari acknowledge the rest of its heritage at some point. All of Atari’s post-2600 systems are underappreciated (with good reason in some cases — looking at you, 5200 controller) and it would be nice to see these games given the same treatment that the popular entries in the 2600 library have had for the last… decade or so now, I reckon? It’d be particularly cool to see stuff like the Lynx and Jaguar resurrected in some form, because although both those systems had their flaws, they also had some great games. I’m assuming this hasn’t happened sooner because of licensing nightmares, but having been an Atari fan since the 8-bit computer and ST days, I know that it’s also entirely possible that it’s simply Atari’s incompetence to blame!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Whenever I read about this Ataribox, the first thing that goes through my head is the Ouya.

    I’ve sometimes felt that the best way to honor Atari’s legacy would be to take a cue from companies like Namco or Nintendo and create games that would expand on classic titles in ways that are fun but don’t alter the core gameplay. Thinking primarily of stuff like the Pac-Man Championship Edition games, as opposed to the Yar’s Revenge and Haunted House “remakes” that have been done in recent years. Get someone like Jeff Minter and let him go nuts (results hopefully more like Tempest 2000 and less like Defender 2000). Probably beyond the capabilities of whatever company is wearing Atari’s skin as a suit these days.

    Liked by 1 person

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