Atari VCS Classic Joystick

The new Atari what?

The new Atari… wait for it… VCS.  Atari VCS—for some reason of internet-searching confusion with the original Atari VCS product.  Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of Atari.  A big one.  (I still have our original 2600—repaired may times by my brother and I—which even became the center of some controversy over some retro tech.  Perspective enough of my fandom?)  But this new thing’s name… and place in the world… whaaat?  So, let’s dig deeper and see where some honest criticism leads.

Aside from the name—which I don’t really find to be all that terrible—just oddly risky—I’m more concerned about Atari’s apparent business model.

Atari says they were inspired to create a new hardware product by people who would hook up their laptops to TVs to play PC games on a bigger screen.  I would bet most of those adventures were to play AAA titles—but Atari isn’t targeting AAA titles with the new VCS—the VCS specs don’t show enough power to play them.  They know this.  They know they can’t sell a console at less than cost like the big boys can.  Thus, they are trying a different and lower-cost tack.  A noble and curious effort… except for one thing.  By doing this they have just admitted they are not really meeting the use case of what inspired the product.  ???!  That’s a real head scratcher.

Atari says they’re trying to learn from the failures of the Ouya and the Steam Machine and, yeah, okay, they have some decent plans to do things differently from those products, but… and a big BUT… there’s this other company that I remember from the 1970’s that had a hot product and blew it in the 1980’s.  Not that anyone back then knew how to navigate the new territory of the home video game market (until Nintendo showed us how—annoyingly, to me, back then).  I digressed.  Sorry.  I don’t hate Nintendo anymore for being smart.  Anyhow, I’m not convinced Atari’s new product plans have learned anything from the failures of that 1970’s company, whatever it was called.

As far as I understand it, the video game marked crashed in the last century primarily due to a flood of poor quality in retail titles.  Much of this is blamed on third parties taking advantage of the open systems of the day and publishing junk titles at low prices.  And, while that may be an accepted truth, that’s not how I remember it.  I remember our hearts being broken by a highly-anticipated but, ultimately, a really bad title from Atari themselves!  (We mostly didn’t care too much about bad titles from no-names—we still knew what “you get what you pay for” meant back then.)  Most might guess that bad title was the notorious E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial but, no, it wasn’t.  By the time E.T. came out half a year after this one, we weren’t surprised by the release of a strange little game from Atari that no one understood.  No, we were still too pissed off about the 2600 port of Pac-Man to care about E.T.!  I was crushed when I first played Pac-Man at home.  It was as if Atari had never played the original before porting it!  Thanks, Tod Frye.  Nevermind the 4K-ROM-limit Atari imposed and how that might have impacted the maps, 2600 Pac-Man looked and animated like an antique pipe wrench with a creepy eyeball, and the colors were stupid.  Ms. Pac-Man was a much better port the next year (I hear now) but I don’t know anyone who cared about that back then.  It would take another three decades before someone smart enough finally came along to do Pac-Man right with the same 4K limitation.

Another lesson from Atari’s history that worries me regarding the new VCS is about having the vision to see what your marketable product really is versus what you think it is.  For this topic—and, for brevity, skipping past the 5200, the 7800, and the desperate maneuvers of a dying company around the Jaguar—lets look a bit at the Lynx: a curiously-engineered platform (by Epyx engineers formerly of Amiga) with a decent lineup of quality titles.  The biggest mistake around the Lynx (other than making the first model too big because uninspired user testing said so) no, the biggest mistake was probably the financial desperation of ignoring the decent share the Lynx was gathering in some markets and throwing the last of their money at the Jaguar instead.  Whatever.  Blindness to markets by executives can’t always be helped.  BUT!… the more concerning mistakes, in my opinion, were the decisions surrounding a new Epyx title in development called Time Quests and Treasure Chests.  When Atari bought the Lynx project from Epyx, for some reason they decided to throw their mega-hit Gauntlet name at this quite different and quite tedious dungeon crawler and call it Gauntlet: The Third Encounter.  I understand the temptation behind wanting to cash in early on the Lynx launch, but you really should think about such things more before deciding to shoot yourself in the foot like that.  Not only did this maneuver diminish the Gauntlet brand, but it also blocked the way for an awesome port of Gauntlet II to the Lynx—a game that could have been the killer multiplayer app for the Lynx.

I, for one, did not pretend I was buying a portable system when I bought my first Lynx—no, I never bought batteries for my Lynxes (not that I didn’t try some once)—no, I bought Lynxes because I wanted a better multiplayer experience (and the sprite capabilities were mind blowing).  A true Gauntlet port for the Lynx, it feels, would have gone a long way towards establishing such multiplayer separation from the Game Boy.  The Lynx handled arcade ports really well and was designed from the start for multiplayer experiences, so why not port their own hottest multiplayer arcade titles?  D’oh!  While, yes, nothing could have stopped the market dominance that Game Boy accomplished, it appears a lot was missed by Atari when trying to understand their Lynx market versus the Jaguar.  [But, I also hoped and fantasized for several years that the Lynx would see later evolutions with less power consumption, a better screen, and eventually turn into a phone—this was back when cell phones were small bricks so that was a pretty far-out fantasy—so maybe I’m a bit biased about what Atari missed with the Lynx.]

So, my question to Atari, at long-winded last, is: How are you going to guarantee a quality selection of titles from the Atari VCS store?  Currently, it sounds like anything will go as long as it passes some basic functionality tests.  This tells me Atari has yet to learn the lessons of, well, Atari.  Perhaps Atari feels, with today’s overloaded app stores and their star-rating systems and user-review systems, that they don’t need to engage in curating titles.  Let the user dig through all the noise and curate things themselves (and forget innovations like Nintendo’s “Seal of Quality”).  Yikes!!!  Okay, to be fair, maybe if back at Kmart in the 1980’s there were live ratings and reviews next to the games on the shelves, the industry might have survived the onslaught of bad games better…… but I think not.  That stupid port of Pac-Man would have still sold by the truckloads on day 1… and still broke our hearts.

To be clear, I think it is excellent that Atari is countermoving against the Ouya and Steam Machine and producing an open system with well-defined specs for homebrew and indie tinkering… but, when it comes to their own app store, I would like to see a Nintendo-level review process before anything makes it onto it.  Just because attempts to do this haven’t worked for Atari in the past (due to weak implementation over desperation, as far as I can tell) doesn’t mean it’s not still the right thing to do.

As to the new VCS trying to be more than just another console, I’m not convinced Atari has learned to read the market yet.  Let’s look at the home theater PC (HTPC), for example.  In my opinion, the HTPC market has never really taken off (with anyone but the geekiest) because nobody really wants yet another computer in their life to babysit and/or maintain.  After our PCs, laptops, and phones, all we can really stand to interface with are fairly basic and maintenance-free appliances that we can trust to deliver us quality entertainment without much fuss (like game consoles, DVD payers, and TV streaming boxes).  This, to me, means that what is allowed and not allowed into the Atari VCS store really really matters (!) and the other features of the new VCS will just be fluff to most users.

I, for example, am currently in the process of building a game, GRITS Racing, for, hopefully, wide release on various systems.  I would like to—and, indeed, hope to—publish for this new Atari VCS.  I won’t, however, be very excited about doing that if our game is just another crappy game in a store with a bunch of other crappy games.  I would much rather know that if our game is in Atari’s store, that it’s only there because it proved awesome enough to be there against some pretty high standards.  And, if our game is not awesome enough to be in their store (yet), fine, we may just have to settle for the homebrew scene and find users willing to download and sideload our game the hard way.  It is hard to imagine this new Atari adventure being successful any other way.

In other words, I would consider launching the Atari VCS with a dual-voiced campaign to two types of users: the geeks who are willing to babysit yet another computer and sideload homebrew games, and the smarphone-exhausted human who just wants to sit down and play a good game from a list of well-polished and tested titles (indie and otherwise).  Fun can’t be guaranteed but quality should be.  And, finally, Tempest without a rotary controller is just annoyance.  It may be a fine title but: Do better please.

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