Interview: We Ask Atari's CEO About Lingering Questions Surrounding Its Retro Linux Box

Interview: We Ask Atari's CEO About Lingering Questions Surrounding Its Retro Linux Box

The VCS is more like an "open PC," but recent controversies and delays paint a grim picture. We ask Atari's head where it's headed.

Atari's VCS might, from the outside looking in, look like another retro console, similar to the SNES Classic or Genesis Mini. But Atari's goal seems to be much loftier: an all-in-one Linux box, perfectly capable of reliving Atari's glory days but also of doing much more; that is, if it can all come together.

Streaming and playing modern games are just a couple things planned for the VCS. But the current question lingers: how much will it be capable of from the get-go?

Atari CEO Frederic Chesnais tells USgamer over email that the aim of the VCS is to deliver a "top-notch gaming and PC experience on the TV."

"Our primary audience will most likely be classic fans, a very large number of players who just want to enjoy and share retro games with friends and family," Chesnais says. But the VCS also plans to include a Sandbox mode, which Chesnais says will let users install an additional operating system of their choice. Its strategy is to support many game formats to stay flexible for the future.

"We have tried to be as different from and complementary to major game consoles as we could, while addressing many expectations that those platforms have established for a modern game system," Chesnais says.

The Atari CEO draws comparisons to building a gaming PC, as VCS users will be able to upgrade memory and expand the system's storage. "Every Atari VCS is essentially an open PC," Chesnais says, adding that creators will be able to submit apps and games to the VCS storefront.

But recent reports from outlets like The Register have painted a grim picture of the Atari box, including unpaid invoices and claims that the Atari console would have no native apps. In a statement, Atari told USG that the VCS is "proceeding according to its previously announced schedule," and it reiterated its spring 2020 goal in a Medium post detailing the VCS' progress.

Atari CEO Frederic Chesnais. | Atari

The post does, however, end with a reminder for Indiegogo backers about the nature of their investment. "As we have stated before, the Atari VCS hardware that early backers receive will be 100% finished, but the software on these first units will be early access," the Atari VCS team notes. The question of how much will be playable on day one for Atari backers, which go out prior to the official launch, lingers. Chesnais characterizes the early access to Indiegogo backers as "an opportunity to get feedback on our software from a heavily engaged and invested community of users prior to our official launch," a move he compares to software pre-releases and says is "quite common in the gaming industry."

Chesnais says both original games and apps will be available on the Atari VCS through a proprietary interface and store, and that Atari is working with "several proven developers and has had many additional fruitful conversations about first and third-party games and content for the Atari VCS." Though he doesn't say how many they have on board, aside from the recent confirmation of retro streaming service Anstream Arcade, he says that "when we and our partners are ready to make announcements about new, original, and porting of existing games we will do so."

The early access model will hopefully elicit user feedback, which will improve the software in turn. "'Early access' does not mean incomplete or unfinished," Chesnais says. "It will be the current state of the software which we will continue to refine and finesse up until launch, and as with any game system, beyond."

Atari's Apple Arcade-like Antstream, a recently announced partnership that's prepped to deliver "roughly 2000" retro games to the VCS at launch, seems like the main thoroughfare for retro gaming on the platform. Where it falls on modern gaming is more ambiguous, though with the Sandbox mode, users should be able to install Steam or other launchers on the Atari VCS, though that seems like an odd patchwork way of putting games on the platform.

As for streaming, following reports from The Register that services like Netflix would be accessed through a browser rather than a native application, Chesnais says the primary way to access games and services will be through the proprietary VCS interface and app store.

"If a service such as Netflix is not available as an app on our platform at launch, it can still be accessed through the integrated internet browser," Chesnais says. "Our goal is certainly to have the content providers that our community values the most accessible via apps."

Past microconsoles have lived and died by what they can offer. You don't need to look farther back than the Ouya to see how some past attempts have fared, and right now, it's questionable where Atari's VCS will fall. Atari and Chesnais declined to comment on its relationship with past vendors like Rob Wyatt, who left the VCS project and alleges his team has unpaid invoices for its work on the console. It does say, however, that both the redesign from earlier this year and Wyatt's departure has not impacted Atari's delivery schedule.

The VCS is planned to launch sometime in spring 2020, but how much it arrives with has yet to be seen. If early versions are set to roll out to backers before then, they will give some sense of where this "open PC" is at. Right now it feels like Atari has its hardware set, but where exactly it will land on software, and where the VCS fits in the long-term console landscape, is a greater mystery.

Sometimes we include links to online retail stores. If you click on one and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. See our terms & conditions.

Eric Van Allen

News Editor

Eric is a writer and Texan. He's a former contributor to sites including Compete, Polygon, Waypoint, and the Washington Post. He loves competitive games, live music, and travel.

Read this next

Red Dead Redemption 2's Frame Rate and Resolution Come Up Short on Stadia

Digital Foundry went deep on Red Dead's two streaming modes for Stadia.

Pokemon Sword and Shield's Worst Pokemon Are a Reference to Actual Prehistoric Mistakes

When Gideon Mantell accidentally mixed up early Iguanodon fossils, at least no living creatures suffered.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare's Latest Patch Adds in Gun Game

Also, it's led to some more map leaks.

Jedi: Fallen Order's Intro Beautifully Captures One of Star Wars' Defining Traits

Star Wars has always made us feel small in a powerful way.

State of Decay 2 Shambles Over to Steam in 2020

Undead Labs' survival game is transitioning to a new platform next year.

Netflix's The Witcher Episode Titles Tease Appearances of Familiar Characters, And More

We could be seeing more than just familiar Ciri and Yennefer as side characters in The Witcher.

Gris Is Coming to PS4 Next Week With Retouched 4K-Ready Artwork

Plus, there'll be a "PlayStation-exclusive secret homage."

More News

Red Dead Redemption 2's Frame Rate and Resolution Come Up Short on Stadia

Digital Foundry went deep on Red Dead's two streaming modes for Stadia.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare's Latest Patch Adds in Gun Game

Also, it's led to some more map leaks.

State of Decay 2 Shambles Over to Steam in 2020

Undead Labs' survival game is transitioning to a new platform next year.

Netflix's The Witcher Episode Titles Tease Appearances of Familiar Characters, And More

We could be seeing more than just familiar Ciri and Yennefer as side characters in The Witcher.

More on PC

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare's Latest Patch Adds in Gun Game

Also, it's led to some more map leaks.

Jedi: Fallen Order's Intro Beautifully Captures One of Star Wars' Defining Traits

Star Wars has always made us feel small in a powerful way.

State of Decay 2 Shambles Over to Steam in 2020

Undead Labs' survival game is transitioning to a new platform next year.

Netflix's The Witcher Episode Titles Tease Appearances of Familiar Characters, And More

We could be seeing more than just familiar Ciri and Yennefer as side characters in The Witcher.

Gris Is Coming to PS4 Next Week With Retouched 4K-Ready Artwork

Plus, there'll be a "PlayStation-exclusive secret homage."

Destiny 2's Solar Subclasses Are Getting Some Major Reworks

The changes will be introduced next season.

Monster Hunter World: Iceborne's Second Title Update to be Revealed Later This Week

New information will be detailed onstage at the Tokyo Monster Hunter festival.

More Platformer Games

Gris Is Coming to PS4 Next Week With Retouched 4K-Ready Artwork

Plus, there'll be a "PlayStation-exclusive secret homage."

Donkey Kong Country Turns 25: Gaming's Biggest Bluff

Twenty-five years ago, Nintendo faced the threat of obsolescence with sheer bravado—and won.

Rare Announces Everwild, Its Mysterious New IP

We got a glimpse of what Rare's next project is.

Shovel Knight's Final Expansions Are Coming Next Month

They'll mark the end of Treasure Trove, but not for our brave blue Knight.