Michael Arzt, chief operating officer of Atari Connected Devices and designated ambassador for Atari’s rapidly approaching (and moderately controversial) VCS 800 console, is, it’s safe to say, frustrated. The VCS 800 is not, he says, a retro console. And he wants to set the record straight on that.
To be honest, I can’t really blame him. If you Google the VCS 800, you’re going to get a lot of results that flat out state that it’s a retro console — even in pieces that go on to acknowledge that it’s not really that kind of thing!
In the interest of fairness to other games writers, we live in an era of retro box madness, as practically every gaming device from the ‘80s and ‘90s is being reborn in miniature, stuffed with an emulator and ROMs of games that are often debatably referred to as “classic”, and sold to a public that, well, may or may not want them. It’s honestly weird to see a box that says “Atari” on it and realize that it isn’t a collection of classic games in a tiny container made for easy, impulse purchase. But then, Atari already does that, and it’s been doing it for years now, over a variety of editions.
So the VCS 800 isn’t a retro console. Instead, as Arzt and the rest of Atari is selling it, it’s a new, family-friendly “future-facing” console, which in all honesty seems like an even stranger decision. It was something of a sensation on the crowd-funding site Indiegogo, raising several million in funding and moving 12,000 pre-orders in just a few days, crashing the site in the process, but 12,000 customers isn’t an install base that builds an ecosystem of players or developers, at least not yet. Video game consoles frequently depend on a rapid snowball effect in order to establish a foothold and continuing business model, and while Atari does seem to have the machinery in place to allow that to happen, I don’t know how it will do that. The VCS 800 is not a powerful system compared to the existing generation of Xbox and PlayStation consoles, which are themselves now six years old. Given the environment that the VCS 800 will launch into at the end of this year, I get why people think it’s a retro device, because it’s the only thing that seems to make any sense at all.
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However, there’s more to the VCS 800 than its console aspirations, namely its Sandbox. Sandbox is a bit of a misnomer because what the feature really allows for is dual-booting the device, and running an entirely different operating system on top of it — including Windows or Linux. This isn’t a virtual drive or install, either. If you insert a bootable USB storage device into the VCS 800 with Windows or Linux on it, you’ll be given the option to select that other drive. Atari’s box runs on an AMD system-on-a-chip designed for laptops, and the hardware and memory configuration is very favorably comparable to a decently capable laptop — albeit one with a decent AMD GPU onboard that includes support for HDMI 2.1 and 4K/60 video.
Without selling it that way, Atari has created one of the most appealing set-top PCs I’ve ever seen.
There’s nothing to stop someone from setting up Steam on their VCS 800 (on a Windows or Linux install) and using it to play some light indie titles or using it for Steam in-home streaming at a full 4k60, assuming their main system can handle that. The VCS 800’s hardware could easily run just about any media center suite for Windows, or whatever Linux-based set top suite you might choose, and for a fraction of the price of anything that anyone might try to build on their own. And Atari is doing it at a profitable price point, available from at least one major retailer (the VCS 800 is available at both Walmart and Gamestop, but the latter’s retail presence is under severe duress at this time).
I believe that Atari wants the VCS 800 to be what they’re saying the hope for it to be, but the climb toward that point seems precariously steep. In the meantime, at least it can say there’s more to the device than just retro games — which, by the way, are included on the device, so maybe it’s just a tiny bit retro — and an unproven console environment.
The Atari VCS 800 will begin shipping to backers in December 2019.