We Went Hands-on With Atari VCS (Sort Of)

SAN FRANCISCO - The Ataribox is now officially known as the Atari VCS: a Linux-based console designed to play classic Atari games, new Atari games and, well, were still not totally sure about the rest. Much of Atari’s quasi-retro console still remains a mystery, but we learned some key new details when we saw it up close at GDC 2018.

While the Atari VCS wasn't available to play just yet, I did manage to get my hands on the hardware for the first time. The console itself is a plastic black rectangle with a wooden front panel — a design clearly meant to evoke the iconic Atari 2600, but with a more modern touch.

The console features four lights up front, presumably to denote how many controllers are connected to it. In the back, I spotted three USB ports, an Ethernet jack, an HDMI port, an audio jack and what looked like a microSD card slot.

The VCS was shown off with two controllers: an old-school joystick that looked and felt largely identical to the ones that shipped with classic Atari consoles, as well as a more modern, Xbox-style gamepad. The latter controller was decently ergonomic, but since it was a non-functioning mockup, I couldn't quite gauge how well the buttons felt.

According to Atari COO of Connected Devices Michael Arzt, the VCS will support a range of USB and Bluetooth controllers, and the Atari gamepad will be sold separately for use on other devices.

So, how will the Atari VCS actually work? According to Arzt, the Linux-based machine will do just about anything a mildly capable PC can do. That potentially includes playing a slew of old-school Atari classics, newer Atari releases like Tempest 4000, and possibly even a few third-party games from previous generations.

But Atari also wants the VCS to be an entertainment machine. When I asked Arzt if streaming content from services like Netflix and Hulu would be an option, he said, "if you can run it through a web browser, it'll work." Still, the VCS will have its own custom interface, and I got the sense that Atari would like to have custom apps ready for the major streaming services.

The VCS currently has no set price or release date, but Arzt said that Atari is targeting a range of $249 to $299 at the absolute maximum. The company plans to share more info about the system's launch in April.

Despite spending close to an hour with the Atari VCS, I still feel like I know absolutely nothing about how it'll function in the real world. The fact that it can theoretically work with a range of games and peripherals is promising, but until we know what games will ship with it (and which ones can be added), it's hard to predict how the VCS will hold up in a market dominated by high-quality nostalgia products like the SNES Classic and  Analogue Super Nt.

Is the VCS the future of retro consoles, or just another piece of vaporware? Here's hoping we find out in the coming months.

Credit: Tom's Guide

Michael Andronico

Mike Andronico is Senior Writer at CNNUnderscored. He was formerly Managing Editor at Tom's Guide, where he wrote extensively on gaming, as well as running the show on the news front. When not at work, you can usually catch him playing Street Fighter, devouring Twitch streams and trying to convince people that Hawkeye is the best Avenger.