During E3 2017, Atari posted an interesting 21-second teaser called AtariBox. In short visual stabs, it shows what appears to be a redesigned Atari 2600 console. Atari CEO Fred Chesnais confirmed that the AtariBox was indeed real, and that the company was back in the hardware business.
Naturally, that generated a lot of buzz. But before you get too excited at Atari’s possible return to the console wars, you should consider where the company is now, where it plans to go, and what Fred Chesnais has publicly stated since he rescued the company from bankruptcy protection in 2013. What you’ll find is that a full-fledged console likely isn’t on the Atari menu.
Atari, the software company
Today, Atari makes its money as a game publisher. It serves up games for Android and iOS such as RollerCoaster Tycoon Touch, Atari Vault, Centipede: Origins, and many more. The company also provides an “online arcade” where fans can play Flash-based versions of Centipede, Lunar Lander, Missile Command, Pong, Yars’ Revenge, and more, within a web browser.
Atari also serves up older console and PC games such as Ghostbusters: Sanctum of Slime, Blood, and the RollerCoaster Tycoon series. Atari is even rebooting its popular franchises, publishing reimagined versions of Asteroids, Yars’ Revenge, and Haunted House.
Classic games optimized by Atari for a game-optimized smartwatch doesn’t seem far-fetched at all.
Atari does make money from games, and it even generates cash with lucrative licensing of its brand to Hollywood. Yet that doesn’t mean Atari is able to make the huge investment required to compete with Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. Sony and Microsoft often lose money with each console sold, and make up for that loss through software sales. Based on Atari’s current software portfolio, it doesn’t appear to have the cash to do that.
Chesnais said, in 2015, that the company has no plans to build a new console. Instead, Chesnais indicated his interest in producing an Atari-branded smartwatch capable of playing games. That’s totally feasible, as smartwatches on the market today can play clones of Asteroids, Galaxia, Brick Breaker, and Pong. Classic games optimized by Atari for a game-optimized smartwatch doesn’t seem far-fetched at all.
What would a new Atari look like?
What, then, is the AtariBox? In 2014, Chesnais said that Atari was contemplating a replica of the Atari 2600. The comment seemingly points to a device like what Nintendo produced during the 2016 holiday season — the NES Classic Edition console. It’s a miniature version of Nintendo’s very first home console packed with 30 games, HDMI connectivity, and the ability to save progress.
The NES Classic Edition had classic games you can’t purchase to play on other hardware, however. That’s not the case for Atari, which has frequently made its classics available on various platforms, so if the company is indeed taking that route, it will need something to get gamers excited. One possibility is an AtariBox that plays not just Atari 2600 games, but also made for the 5200, 7800, and Jaguar consoles — and maybe even the Atari Lynx handheld system, too.
Chesnais’ said in an interview that AtariBox will rely on PC technology, which is what started the excitement. That’s a very vague description, and could be a play on words to generate buzz. Both Microsoft and Sony ditched proprietary processors in their latest consoles, and went with AMD-based processor and graphics technology used in PCs for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 consoles.
To some degree, Nintendo’s Switch console is based on PC technology, too. Unlike the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, the Switch is based on a variant of a mobile all-in-one “Tegra” chip designed by PC graphics card provider Nvidia. It contains processor cores based on the ARM mobile CPU architecture, which mainly powers smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices. But Nvidia’s chip also includes graphics cores based on Nvidia’s “Maxwell” design for PC-based graphics cards. In a sense, then, it could be called “PC technology.”
If Atari chose to rely on Nvidia’s Tegra mobile chip, then the AtariBox could be a themed, Atari-branded variant of the Shield TV set-top-box. But right now, Atari’s Android-based portfolio on Google Play is limited to six games including Atari Greatest Hits, Centipede Origins, and RollerCoaster Tycoon Classic. A lot of work might be involved on porting the games to Android-compatible versions. And an Android TV-based console feels unlikely given how the highly-anticipated Ouya’s success panned out.
Another unlikely route for Atari is a branded PC. The video teased by Atari hints at 2600-like surfaces that could be applied to a console-shaped PC like Dell’s Alienware Alpha, which has a starting price of $550. The AtariBox could even be a themed, branded miniature PC from Zotac or Gigabyte. After all, the company does license out its brand. We don’t think that’d be a great idea, however. Even Valve Software’s own highly-popular Steam brand had difficulty selling PC gaming machines under the company’s Steam Machine initiative. Atari wouldn’t stand a chance.
If the AtariBox isn’t an Xbox One competitor, an Android-based set-top-box, or a branded desktop PC, what is it? Our best guess is a device capable of PC-based software emulation.
PC technology, retro fun
Right now, all signs seemingly point to an Atari 2600 revamp with digital output, internal storage, and pre-installed Atari 2600 games. But if the AtariBox isn’t a straight-up copycat of Nintendo’s NES Classic Edition and SNES Classic Edition consoles, we could be looking at a device capable of playing the company’s PC games along with its limited Android library through emulation. The software would presumably be sold and maintained through a built-in Atari Play marketplace.
Right now, all signs seemingly point to an Atari 2600 revamp with digital output.
But that PC-based design would also mean the device would need to rely on a version of the free, open-source Linux operating system to keep the overall console cost down. However, based on what’s available through Steam right now, only a dozen Atari-published titles are compatible with the Linux platform.
What about input? If the AtariBox is indeed a remake of the 2600 model, expect identical joysticks connecting through a USB port instead of the previous 9-pin input. Of course, Atari could opt to throw in standard gamepads instead, but that would break the retro feel. Having full USB ports would mean gamers could purchase third-party controllers that can be used both on the AtariBox and PCs.
Despite all the recent buzz, Chesnais said Atari was still working on the design, so we may not see what Atari is up to for quite a while… if at all. Until then, we can only speculate that the AtariBox is a small Atari 2600 clone with updated components. Frankly, the fact so many of potential AtariBox ideas lead to a dead end, makes us think the concept isn’t as promising as it seems – until we learn more details, at least.