The first big name in video games is back, with a very modern take on a classic console. Can it bring back those Missile Command memories?
All the way back in 1977, just as punk music started to make its way across the world as a snarling answer to soft rock, video games had started to make their way into pinball arcades, changing the future in the process. Atari’s own Pong opened the floodgates for a new type of gaming, and the company was determined to use its advantage to bring those games and many others into homes. What they came up with was the Atari Video Computer System, later known as the Atari 2600. It wasn’t the first home video game system, but it soon became the most popular one.
The big hook was that the games came on cartridges, letting you thwack a game into your console and play it instantly. That, of course, was a genius move, since Atari could be certain of ongoing profits from the ever-increasing user base who had to have the next big release (like 1978’s Space Invaders, a very broad interpretation of the legendary arcade machine). Third-party companies started releasing for the console too – including a scrappy little start-up named Activision.
Atari has changed hands multiple times since, even releasing an updated version of the VCS at the worst possible time – right after the Nintendo Entertainment System arrived. The VCS has been the stuff of history since then – until now, with Atari Interactive releasing their Kickstarter-backed Video Computer System to bring many of those classic games into a modern device that’s a bit more versatile than you might expect.
The VCS is actually a bit more ambitious than the wave of mini-consoles that have proven popular recently. As you’d expect, the games are run in an emulator, but rather than just go for the easy option of using a small PC like the Raspberry Pi, Atari has kitted out the VCS with an AMD Ryzen Zen CPU with Vega graphics, 8GB of memory, 32GB of storage, a bunch of USB 3.0 ports, gigabit Ethernet, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
Hang on a moment, doesn’t that sound more like a PC than a game console? Well, yes it does – because that’s what’s under the hood. Arguably for the first time, the name Video Computer System seems to actually fit. With full support for mouse and keyboard, it can double as a mini-PC that sits next to your TV for whenever you need it. Keep in mind that the AMD processor’s not the fastest in the world, though, so while you theoretically could install Windows and run Steam, more demanding games are going to be a bit of a slideshow.
“But most will be here for the Atari games, and there are 100 of them…”
The console natively runs a customised Linux OS, with a small app store where you can grab streaming apps for a surprisingly wide range of services, from Stan to Spotify. However, some of these apps (such as Twitch or Netflix) simply open a website for the service and, as a result, you’ll need a mouse (or the free companion smartphone app) to navigate them. You can install your own custom OS in “PC Mode” – but with only 32GB of storage (upgradeable with a SATA M.2 drive if needed). The better option is to run a second OS off a bootable USB flash drive (PS3 veterans will remember “Other OS” on that console, so this is a nice tribute to a long-lost feature!) However, be prepared to do battle with errors and missing drivers while you set it all up.
The console itself is extremely well-built (the LED-lit Atari logo is a nice touch) and is available either by itself, or as a bundle with two controllers. One is an Xbox-inspired offering, while the other is a replica of the original VCS “stick” controller, complete with big red button. They’re well-made devices (unlike the original stick) and both support Bluetooth. If you’re playing games that needed the paddle controller back in the day, the new controller has a trick up its sleeve – that stick rotates as a paddle substitute.
Setup is not as simple as just turning it on and playing – there’s an ecosystem here, and you’ll need to create an account to get started (with email confirmation required), as well as setting up your Wi-Fi if you’re using that. From there, you find two prominent options – the Atari VCS Vault, and Antstream Arcade. The latter is a game streaming service (free with ads, otherwise a paid subscription) which offers video games from a whole lot of different platforms, as well as “homebrew” titles.
But most will be here for the Atari games, and there are 100 of them here – a nice cross-section of VCS games with a collection of arcade games as well. Whether it’s the original release of Breakout (the one everyone was disappointed to discover had only two levels), the brilliant Asteroids, big-pixels driving simulator Night Driver, Missile Command or Centipede, there’s plenty to keep Atari fans happy alongside some of the more obscure VCS titles and, of course, Pong. All the games load from the VCS Vault app and can be tweaked to your liking – and the emulator runs them flawlessly. It’s safe to say that they look at lot better than they did back in the day when you had to tune into the console on your TV.
But some key titles are missing – most notably Space Invaders, presumably for copyright reasons. More games are available in the online store, along with a second VCS Vault pack which only includes 14 VCS games, but adds games from the later 5200 as well as custom and homebrew titles. It’s cheap enough, but we think perhaps it should’ve been included. The store also includes an emulator for the rare Atari 7800 console (the world’s first game console with backwards compatibility!)
So, is the new Atari VCS worth it? Well, that depends – it’s not in the same league – not even on the same planet – as the mini retro consoles we’ve seen so far, as it has ambitions that stretch far beyond just giving you 100 games and calling it a day. Is it overkill? Arguably yes, but for those who want a bit of quick nostalgia-gaming fun while being able to browse websites or stream video on the TV, it certainly covers all the bases. The main attraction here, of course, is the game library, which will likely see further expansion in the future – and with a game streaming service built in, you’ll never be short of new things to try.
With a gorgeous, quality design that brings to mind the classic original VCS instantly with its “wood panel” front (it’s also available in onyx black) it may not be the retro console for everyone, but, at the very least, they’ve tried something different by creating a flamboyant and ambitious piece of retro tech and, for the most part, pulled it off.
The Atari VCS is available now.