When Atari announced it was getting back into the gaming hardware business, the move was met with a great deal of skepticism. After all, the original Atari went bankrupt in 2013 and little exists of that company except its brand name. Furthermore, unlike Nintendo, Atari has licensed its game library to multiple other platforms over the years. Classic compilations of games, including Atari titles, have been available for a very long time.
Nevertheless, now we have the Ataribox, a system supposedly designed for and capable of playing both classic and current games. The company will release two different physical editions of the device. For those of you feeling particularly nostalgic, there’s a wood grain option, while a more modern design (vaguely reminiscent of the Atari 7800) is also available.
Behind the system you’ll find USB ports for controllers, an SD card slot, HDMI output, and an Ethernet jack.
Atari is promising that the hardware specs on the console will be “modern,” but hasn’t clarified what that means yet. A sufficiently powerful smartphone SoC could easily emulate classic Atari games and allow for access to Google Play. But the company has been mum on whether it intends to go this route.
Does Anyone Actually Want This Thing?
Before any fanboys attack me, let me make something clear: I started gaming on an Atari 2600, and there are titles for that platform that I would argue still hold up today. Adventure, Combat, Battlezone, Kaboom, Breakout, Haunted House, and even Big Bird’s Egg Catch were childhood favorites of mine.
But the problem with classic Atari games from the 2600 era is that the controls and graphics were so limited, it’s going to be harder for the company to sell them to modern gamers. That’s partly due to clock speed and memory address limitations — the NES ran at 1.8MHz compared with the 2600’s 1.2MHz, had 2KB of RAM versus 128 bytes for the Atari 2600, and could run games that were up to 1MB in size, while the Atari 2600 games topped out at 32KB.
But it’s not just about graphics. Most Atari 2600 games (though by no means all) were play-until-you-die titles with increasingly difficult stages that would eventually either loop back to the beginning or continue until they became unplayable. By the time the NES came on the scene, games often incorporated some concept of winning, even if your win was a shoddy English translation of what happened after or a certain famous image of Samus Aran in a bikini.
Then there’s the controls. While many Atari games used innovative tricks to get around the intrinsic limit of a single-button controller, these didn’t always work well, requiring the player to either use both joysticks simultaneously, or to press the joystick in a given direction while simultaneously hitting the button. Adding a second button to the NES might seem trivial today, but it actually opened up a great deal of potential game complexity that’s become so standard, no one even questions it — in fact, we’ve just kept adding buttons.
Ultimately, whether this console works is going to come down to how heavily Atari leans on nostalgia, what its definition of “modern” games looks like (and where those games are sourced from), and how much it costs. Nintendo sold 2.3 million of its NES Classic Edition at an official price of $ 59.99, but that console was much simpler than what Atari is offering in included ports and hardware.
As a retro console, I can see at least some appeal to the Ataribox. But the microconsole model hasn’t worked very well for anyone, and I just don’t see much room for Atari in an already-crowded three-way match-up between Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft. Atari doesn’t have the expertise in gaming or hardware design anymore, it doesn’t have the extensive longstanding publisher agreements, and it doesn’t have a recent track record in popular hardware that might convince developers to take a chance on the system.
Atari’s spokespeople have been clear that they’re trying to make sure they get the device right and not just stringing people alon. But with the holiday season now less than six months away, and anticipation building for new releases and Microsoft’s Xbox One X, Atari doesn’t have a lot of time to get this right — especially if it’s going to ship against Nintendo’s Super NES Classic Edition (which you basically have no chance of owning, ever, but will still eat up a lot of mind share).
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