Ever since the Atari VCS was announced, there have been questions about who, exactly, the system was intended to appeal to. The original Atari is long dead, the games in question are widely available on many platforms, and games like Pong, Adventure, and Combat, however worthy they may be in terms of video game history, have not held on to the long-standing popularity of Super Mario Bros. or even Sonic the Hedgehog.
To its credit, the Atari VCS project has long realized that it wouldn’t be able to market its hardware as a pure retro box the way Nintendo, Sony, and Sega have to date. Instead, the company is trying to emphasize the openness and flexibility of its system. The Atari VCS will use a Ryzen 1606G. That’s a dual-core/four-thread version of Zen, clocked at 2.6GHz and capable of boosting as high as 3.5GHz. It’s paired with a Vega 3 CPU core (192 shader cores, 1.2GHz). This is not a heavy hitter, as far as CPUs or GPUs go. It has a custom Linux OS (not much word on its capabilities in that area yet) but supports Windows 10. FreeSync, however, is not supported.
Reading over recent reports, it’s hard to see how this product actually finds a market. Ars Technica noted that “Atari’s provided example of a ‘modern’ game running on the system was a Linux version of Borderlands 2, a 2012 title that frankly chugged along at a pretty choppy frame rate in our hotel suite demonstration.” That’s not surprising, considering it’s running on a 2C/4T embedded CPU with 192 GPU cores and DDR4-2400 RAM. It might be possible to run a streaming service like Stadia or xCloud on the Atari VCS, but why would you buy one for those services, specifically?
Atari wants to emphasize that the VCS is open to tinkering in ways that other consoles aren’t, and it’s true — you can swap out the RAM and SSD, you can install other operating systems, and you can even develop games on the VCS to submit them to Atari’s own store. These are pretty good ideas, and the idea of being the “Raspberry Pi” of the living room even has some appeal — but didn’t Ouya try to bring something very much like this to market in the first place? According to VCS executives, the problem Ouya ran into was that they were locked into the Android ecosystem and this brought a whole bunch of problems that doomed the console. That’s an interesting take.
THG has information on the product SKUs. The 400 Onyx will have 4GB of RAM but lack an internal M.2 drive (all versions of the VCS have USB 3 drives to connect external drives). The 800 Onyx base has an internal M.2 drive, while the 800 Onyx All In will actually include joysticks and an SSD (size unspecified). Controllers are extra unless you buy the top-end retail bundle.
Oh, and the whole thing is arriving in Spring, 2020.
I’ve been pretty hard on the Atari VCS over the years. I’ve got to give the company credit for coming up with a vision for a semi-unique product — it’s got elements of the console space, with some additional flexibility. But at the end of the day, the so-called “Raspberry Pi” of the living room has a really critical problem — it’s 10x the price of the original RBP. Between a VCS and a PlayStation Pro, you’re going to almost certainly have a better time with the Sony system. Or a Switch. Or an Xbox.
It’s undoubtedly been genuinely difficult to resurrect a system and a brand like this back from the dead, but it feels like there’s still something badly missing from this bundle. Atari brand nostalgia isn’t going to bring a wave of homebrew coders swarming in to write software for a badly underpowered embedded chip. I’m not going to preemptively say it’s bad, but it’s very difficult to understand who would want this product and why.