In another sign of just how crazy and wild the components world is right now, it’s worth pointing out that a) we have a new Atari console in 2021 and b) Atari is charging $100 more for their last-gen hardware than the PS5 or Xbox Series X.
Writing about the back-in-time Intellivision Amico reminded me of this crazy pitch that some retro consoles have had. The original announcement for the Amico hit nostalgia and collectors, but the actual E3 2021 pitch was a family friendly console that would appeal to the non-gaming audience.
The Atari VCS has had similar issues. The retro console was announced back at E3 2017, ditched the much cooler name of Ataribox, launched its own crowdfunding campaign, created a PR nightmare for themselves, delayed the console’s launch to include a newer Ryzen APU, announced a November launch that was delayed by several months (which was likely down to a lack of supply for a sensor in the controller), and then the console finally launched worldwide.
For $849. $100 more than the PS5 or Xbox Series X.
The one saving grace for the Atari VCS here is that it’s functionally a mini-PC. You can upgrade some of the memory modules and if you want to install Linux on the box, you’re free to do so. It’s still running relatively ancient hardware: it’s a dual-core R1606G AMD APU from 2019, built off the 14nm architecture and process behind the original Ryzen CPUs.
So while the official trailer advertises the ability to play modern games, don’t expect to do so particularly well. It can run games like Skyrim at 60 FPS … if you’re happy tanking all the settings to low and running at 720p. A test run by ETA Prime on YouTube found Fall Guys suffered from plenty of frame rate drops at the same resolution, and GTA 5 (at 720p) ran between 40 and 50 FPS for the most part. Even Overwatch and DOOM were surprisingly playable. And if you dropped the resolution scale on Overwatch, you’d probably get 60 FPS fairly consistently.
None of this makes the Atari VCS worth it exactly. But that extra functionality does mean that there’s sort of a reason to grab the Atari VCS that isn’t just for pure nostalgia. You’re basically paying for an mini PC with a classic shell with some emulation software, which can be extra tricky when dealing with the Atari and its notorious flickering.
But hey, if the Atari means something to you and you don’t mind transplanting a Windows install onto the hardware (or another Linux distro), then maybe the $849 will be worth it. It’s not as if the games aren’t already accessible. Older Atari Flashback consoles are available for much cheaper. You can get the games themselves on modern platforms, including the Switch if you want. And there’s always the Internet Archive, which has been archiving Atari 2600 games (and other Atari games) for years now. Those are completely free to play, they run in your browser, and there’s even access to unreleased Atari games like The A-Team.
So there’s that. Credit where it’s due, at least the Atari VCS is widely available in Australia. They’ve followed through on what they promised to do eventually. You could (and should) build a mini PC for far less, and you’d probably be able to install Windows more easily and then have a more versatile emulation box to go with it. That’d give you more storage too; the Atari VCS only has 32GB of storage, so if you actually wanted to play Fortnite or any other modern games, you’ll have to factor in the cost of more storage.
But at least the company has followed through. It seems like those who originally backed it on Indiegogo got the best possible deal. At $849, that’s a tough swallow for Australians. But hey, if you want it, it’s out now. (You can also just get the base console, without either the classic or modern controller, for $699. But that goes against the whole point of the console.)