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.
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.