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The Atari VCS: Everything you need to know

Want Atari's new retro console? Read this before you order

Atari will soon attempt to re-enter the console business with the Atari VCS, a set-top device that will play classic Atari games and also do much more.

The VCS, initially introduced as the “Ataribox” in 2017, was unveiled in its rebranded form at the 2018 Game Developer Conference. At the conference, Atari showed off the final design, which is meant to evoke memories of the classic Atari 2600, as well as its two controllers — one is a pretty standard gamepad complete with an Xbox-style layout, while the other looks almost identical to the 2600’s controller. Now, Atari is taking pre-orders, exclusively through Indiegogo.

When the device was revealed shortly after E3 2017, the VCS looked to be a revamp of 1980s classic Atari 2600 console akin to Nintendo’s NES and SNES “Classic Edition” consoles. Atari CEO Fred Chesnais threw a wrench in that logic when he said Atari was back in the hardware business, and that the system would be based on PC technology. Now that pre-orders are open we have a clearer sense of what that means, and why this is more than just a cash-in on Nintendo’s retro gaming success.

For now, here’s what we know for sure about the Atari VCS.

What does the VCS do?

Even with pre-orders online, Atari is still a little cagey about defining VCS’ full capabilities, including what you’ll play on it besides classic Atari games, and what it can do beyond playing those games.

For starters, the VCS will, in fact, serve as a plug-and-play retro console for classic Atari titles from the dawn of console gaming. It will come with more than 100 pre-loaded games at launch.

The Atari VCS surpasses its retro peers, however, by also keeping a full, Linux-based PC under its hood, with a custom AMD Radeon GPU and 4GB of DDR4 RAM. This means users will be able to download additional games and apps onto the VCS through a custom storefront, developed with a “leading industry partner” that Atari has not yet disclosed. All users will have access to basic connected features like the store and online multiplayer, but there will be a subscription service for advanced features like cloud storage and game streaming. Running Linux means that users will be able to get their hands dirty and customize the experience more directly in the Linux Sandbox, which lets them “add more storage via cloud or USB, run multiple operating systems at once, load homebrew games or customize your own unique platform.” It will also be compatible with most PC peripherals via both Bluetooth and USB 3.0.

That range of options makes the Atari VCS something of a hybrid, blending elements from plug-and-play retro consoles like Nintendo’s NES and SNES Classic Edition devices with features we’ve seen in more robust alt-console set-top boxes in recent years, such as the Ouya and the Nvidia Shield. Without details on exactly what games and apps will be on offer, however, it’s difficult to truly assess the VCS’ utility.

Additionally, though technical specifications have been offered, it doesn’t appear the company has a fully functioning prototype of the VCS yet. Speaking to The Register, Atari COO Michael Arzt revealed that the VCS could be switching from one chip to a newer chip and that Atari  was not “locked in.”

What will it look like?

The Atari VCS sports a slim form factor and grooved, black plastic. The standard version will have a glossy black front plate, but a limited Collector’s Edition, available only through pre-order, will sport swanky wood paneling on the front similar to the classic 2600 system. Were it not for the glowing Atari logo on the front, you might not realize that this is a video game console.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

What kind of hardware are we talking about?

The full specs, according to the Indiegogo campaign, are as follows:

Specification Measurement 
Unit dimensions 14.5″ x 5.3″ x 1.6″
Unit weight 3 pounds
Materials Plastic, metal, wood
Operating system Linux OS based on Ubuntu (Linux Kernel 4.10)
Compatible systems Linux
Power Low TDP architecture — less heat and noise
Connections HDMI 2.0, 2.4/5GHz Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.0, Gigabit Ethernet, 4xUSB 3.0
External inputs Classic joystick, modern controller, microphone
Storage 32GB eMMC, external HD, SD card
Memory 32GB eMMC
CPU Bristol Ridge A10
GPU Radeon R7
HDCP integration HDCP 2.2
Second screen (screencasting) Yes.
Cloud Storage Yes. Additional service offering.
Required internet connection Not for classic gaming but required to access all features
Cross game chat Skype, Discord, etc.
Voice commands 4-front facing mic array
Subscription needed? No. Includes cloud and other services.
Live streaming Yes with
Mouse & keyboard support Yes

It’s entirely possible that some of these specifications could change over time, particularly regarding processors, as Atari actually hasn’t made its final decision on which it would utilize. We will update the specifications table as newer information is provided.

What games will it play?

One of the biggest sticking points for potentially interested players is that we still have no official confirmation on any of the games, old or new, that will be available to play on it. At launch, the Atari VCS will include more than 100 classic Atari games pre-loaded “in their original arcade and/or 2600 formats.” Atari still has not released a list of what games will be included, however. In addition to original Atari games that come in the box, an online marketplace will provide access to “countless new and classic games from both Atari and a host of partner studios and publishers,” including both reimagined old school games and wholly new, exclusive titles. Atari has released a list of confirmed third-party development partners (see below):

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Availability and price?

The Atari VCS is currently on track to ship in spring 2019. Atari is now taking pre-orders for it via Indiegogo. The console starts at $220.

In addition to the standard black console and the Collector’s Edition, which was available for pre-order for a limited time, Atari will also be offering a “Tribute Edition,” which features a similar wooden design. The $379 “All In” bundle includes the console, a retro-style controller, and a modern controller. A $300 version without the accessories is also available, and a black bundle packaged with the accessories will set you back $300, as well.

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Kevin Parrish
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Kevin started taking PCs apart in the 90s when Quake was on the way and his PC lacked the required components. Since then…
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