Atari VCS (2020 console)
|Also known as||Project Ataribox|
|Type||Home video game console, microconsole, home theater PC|
|Release date||November 27, 2020|
|Operating system||Ubuntu-based (Atari World)|
|CPU||14nm AMD Ryzen Processor based on Ryzen 3 2200U (2 CORES 4 Threads)|
|Removable storage||USB storage|
|Graphics||Radeon Vega 3 APU architecture with 4GB DDR4 VRAM|
|Controller input||Classic Joystick, Modern Controller|
|Dimensions||11.6 in × 5.9 in × 1.9 in (29.5 cm × 15.0 cm × 4.8 cm)|
|Mass||3 lb (1.4 kg)|
Atari VCS (codename Ataribox) is a home video game console and Microconsole produced by Atari SA. The system was first revealed in June 2017 and pre-orders began on May 30, 2018. After several delays, the console was expected to ship in March 2020, but was delayed again due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was later announced that the console will be released on November 27.
While its physical design is intended to pay homage to the Atari 2600, the new Atari VCS is expected to play modern games and streaming entertainment via a Linux-based operating system that will allow users to download and install other compatible games onto it. The system shares a name with Atari, Inc.'s 1977 Video Computer System, usually shortened to VCS, which was renamed to the Atari 2600 in late 1982.
Atari Corporation left the hardware business around 1996, after it released the Atari Jaguar CD video game console, and was liquidated in 1998, with Hasbro Interactive purchasing the intellectual property of the brand. In 2001, Infogrames Entertainment SA purchased Hasbro Interactive.  Infogrames would later rename itself Atari SA, while the Hasbro Interactive subsidiary was renamed Atari Interactive. Atari Interactive provided licensing for the various Atari Flashback dedicated consoles produced since 2004.
The concept of the Atari VCS came from Feargal Mac Conuladh, who joined Atari and became general manager to oversee the Ataribox release. Conuladh said that he was inspired to create the unit after seeing players connect laptops to televisions to play games, that had were not available for consoles, on the larger screen, and then use social media platforms outside of the games, but via the same laptop, to communicate with friends. He also saw that Atari's game catalog had a good amount of brand recognition. His design goal was to feed nostalgia for the old Atari consoles and allow players to enjoy indie games without a personal computer. Processor maker AMD provided custom componentry for it. While Atari made most of the decisions on the unit's hardware, they have also kept open to suggestions from Atari fans on the unit's aesthetics and other visual features.
The console in its current rendition would function as a sort of hybrid between a home video game console and a gaming PC, two branches of electronics Atari has operated in previously. Conuladh took lessons learned from the commercial failure of the Ouya, a similar crowd-funded microconsole. One was to use the Linux operating system directly, rather than through the limited version offered through Android, as to be able to provide more capabilities and a more open system to developers and users. Conuladh did not want to restrict what users could install on the device; while the unit's operating system will have a storefront feature, he wanted users to be able to add software by any means possible. He also decided to use a higher-performance laptop/desktop APU than the smartphone/tablet APU used in the Ouya. Conuladh also wanted to steer away from problems encountered by Valve's Steam Machines, which provided a minimum set of specifications for hardware that Valve expected other vendors to build towards, but ultimately never took off. Instead, the Ataribox hardware configuration will remain fixed and controlled by Atari. Additionally, Atari will contract for the manufacture of all the consoles themselves, rather than relying on third parties to manufacture their own systems based on the Ataribox specifications.
In December 2017, just prior to opening for pre-orders for the Ataribox, Atari recognized there were still several issues they needed to address with the hardware, and decided to postpone the pre-orders. At that point, Michael Arzt, the head for Atari Connected Devices, took over production while Conuladh left Atari, though the two had been coordinating on its development previously. According to Atari CEO Fred Chesnais, this period gave them time to review what they wanted the Ataribox to do, and revise the unit's specifications and hardware without sacrificing the core elements of being a Linux-based system that would be able to run classic Atari games along with newer titles.
Atari first teased Project Ataribox in June 2017 during E3, releasing images of the box but did not call out any technical specifications. As this followed Nintendo's November 2016 release of the NES Classic Edition, a dedicated console that supported a number of pre-loaded Nintendo Entertainment System games, journalists believed that the new Atari system was developed in kind, to provide a way to play classic Atari games on a dedicated platform.
Further information released in September 2017 provided more technical specifications, details on the software approach including the plans to use Linux and provide an open platform for other compatible software to be installed, and a planned release in the second quarter of 2019. The price is expected to fall between $249 and $299, based on configuration options. The announcement also stated some of the funding for the unit will come from a planned Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to be launched before the end of 2017. Conuladh said they chose Indiegogo to help with international sales and hardware support, including a close relationship with Arrow Electronics, an electronics components company, that has supported past Indiegogo projects.
Pre-orders for the system were expected to start on December 14, 2017, but Atari announced a temporary delay that day, stating "it is taking more time to create the platform and ecosystem the Atari community deserves".
During the 2018 Game Developers Conference, Atari announced that the unit would be called the Atari VCS. Pre-orders for the console and controllers started on May 30, 2018 exclusively via Indiegogo, with shipping expected in quarter 2 of 2019; the configurations included the wood-veneer front panel "Collector's Edition" model, and an all-black with red-orange highlights "Onyx" console model. A base system, consisting of a console and joystick controller ran from $279 to $299. Within the first day, the Atari VCS saw more than US$2.25 million in pre-orders, far exceeding the anticipated US$100 thousand they were seeking to start production.
On June 27, 2018, Rob Wyatt, system architect for the original Xbox and designer of PlayStation 3's graphic systems, was announced as part of the VCS team. Wyatt and his company Tin Giant had been working with Atari for months to define hardware and operating system requirements. About joining the project, Wyatt said, "Who wouldn't want to be part of bringing Atari back? From the moment the AMD team introduced me to Atari and the VCS project, I have been intrigued and inspired by the opportunity that it represents." The announcement came only days after British technology news website The Register and Atari faced off after an interview between a reporter and Atari COO Michael Arzt from March 2018 resurfaced. In the article, The Register reporter questioned the VCS project's legitimacy after Arzt was unable to answer certain questions about the project.
In March 2019, Atari announced that they would be delaying the launch of the VCS to the end of 2019 and announced that the system has upgraded to an unannounced embedded 14 nm AMD Ryzen processor with Radeon Vega-based graphics and two Zen CPU cores. The new AMD processor supports native 4K video playback with modern HDCP, has built-in Ethernet and a secure framebuffer.
In July 2019, Atari announced that they would be providing more information about the product's mass production and game content to be available for the system in summer 2019. By the end of summer 2019, no functional version of the AtariVCS meeting the product description has been shown publicly, and additional details of gaming content have not been forthcoming.
On October 4, 2019, Wyatt stated that he resigned from the project in a statement to The Register. Wyatt cited non-payment by Atari as a key reason for his departure. In wake of this news, several of those that had backed the Indiegogo campaign took to the project's Reddit forum to ask about the state of the project, but Atari subsequently took down these posts. In April 2020, Wyatt filed a lawsuit against Atari to recover payment for his design work.
Atari VCS's COO Michael Arzt stated in December 2019 that they were in the final stages of pre-production of the unit, with plans to ship the console to those that pre-ordered by March 2020 before the units were then sent to retail. Arzt explained that the lack of communications over the previous year was due to limitations with their partnership contracts, but promised that they would try to provide more regular updates moving forward.
The console was delayed in March again, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Atari showed off a new production update on March 20, when they said that they have received enough parts to build the first 500 Atari VCS production units. However, most of these units are earmarked as dev kits for developers.
On May 29, 2020, Atari announced the first batch of 500 production units are ready to exit the factory by mid-June. On June 25, 2020, they announced the all of the 10,000 VCS units will come to the backers this Fall. In August 2020, Atari announced the support of Blockchain-games on the console.
Atari has not released the exact specifications of the Atari VCS, but states that it will be based on a customized AMD central processor and will use Radeon graphic processing technology. Pictures of the unit released in July 2017 showed HDMI and USB ports, an Ethernet port, and an SD card slot. The unit's photos echo the look-and-feel of the Atari 2600, with a black veneer and faux wood-grain front plate, though sized about half as large.
Conuladh says that they anticipate the hardware is comparable to a mid-range personal computer for 2017, powerful enough to run most games but not for more recent AAA titles. This was before the platform was redesigned around AMD's new Ryzen R1000 chip, the R1606G announced in 2019. Since then, the VCS has been demonstrated at the 2020 CES playing Fortnite and Borderlands 2.
The hardware will include one "Classic Joystick" controller, based on the single-button design of the Atari CX40 joystick, adding only additional inset buttons for accessing the console's menus, as well as LED lighting. A "Modern Controller" features a layout typical of modern console platforms.
Two editions of Atari VCS have been announced, including one inspired by the Atari 2600 and the other in red and black colors having a front panel made of glass. The third option which was added in June 2018 is the Tribute Edition, which is exactly the same as the collector's edition except without the limited edition numbering.
Atari has stated that while they will provide bundles with the Classic Joystick and Modern Controller, there will also be options to purchase the device without them. This comes as Atari intends to allow users to use their own pre-existing accessories including remotes, mouse and keyboards, microphones, external speakers and other controllers. The Atari VCS will be compatible with most PC peripherals via both Bluetooth and USB 3.0.
The Atari VCS will be driven by a Linux operating system. The software is specifically designed to be open to allow users to install other Linux-compatible applications on the Atari VCS alongside pre-installed games, using Atari Vault. Other applications that can be installed include streaming applications, music players, and web browsers.
Whereas the Atari 2600 was a cartridge-driven game system, the VCS does not use cartridges or optical discs for games, but instead allows players to download games from external websites or install through storage media such as SD cards. The Atari VCS will have a custom storefront that Atari developed with an undisclosed "leading industry partner", where users can download additional video games and applications. All users will have access to basic online features such as the store and online multiplayer, however, access to cloud storage and live streaming video games will be available exclusively on a subscription service.
Atari has stated that the unit will ship with "tons of classic Atari retro games pre-loaded, and current titles from a range of studios". Conuladh stated that there will be "hundreds" of Atari games, plus a number of other retro games from other catalogs. The console will ship with Antstream Arcade, a game streaming service that supports titles from the Amiga, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, and arcade games.
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