As nostalgia runs rampant through our consumer culture in 2018, the stewards of the Atari brand have come to GDC to show off early prototypes of a new system that looks and feels a whole lot like something you’d see on Radio Shack shelves 30 years ago. It’s called the Atari VCS, and if it delivers on even some of the promises being made about its capabilities this thing could be very, very cool.
VCS stands for Video Computer System, and when I asked why that name was chosen over more iconic options like Jaguar or 2600, the response was simply “we called it a Video Computer System because that’s what it is.” Rather than compare this system to game consoles like the Xbox or even the NVIDIA Shield TV, Atari wanted to make it clear this gadget is built to offer more. It’s a Linux-based platform with access to an Atari-made content store, and of course access to heaps of classic Atari games. The goal is to make this box a streaming platform, gaming platform, browsing platform, and so on. It’s a stylized 4K-capable computer you connect to your TV, hence the name.
Of course, the real draw here, for now, is how cool it looks. If you’re a fan of Atari’s design language from the days of old, you’re in for a real treat here. The top of the console is flat black lines against the wood grain of the front panel, and lots of ports in the back for accessories and more. It’s a simple, classic look complete with a glowing Atari logo on the front that is all but guaranteed to get people to ask questions when they see it in your entertainment center.
The unit we saw wasn’t actually functional, but Atari reps made it clear there would be a fan inside to help keep the internal hardware cool. Expect some of the lines up top to be vents, but don’t be overly concerned about noise. At least, in theory.
Coupled with this pretty box was a pair of controllers themed to match the console. The first is something everyone will recognize right away, the classic Atari joystick. It’s got some great weight to it and the joystick motion is perfect even in this early model. But the thing that really struck me was the lighting effects around the base of the joystick. These amber lights are visually pleasant and lit up to match all of the areas around the direction you tilted this joystick. We don’t know how long the battery is expected to last, but we do know it’s a wireless controller and currently charges via USB-C, making it remarkably future-forward for such a classic-looking controller.
The other controller is a great deal more modern and familiar. It looks and feels almost exactly like an Xbox controller, connecting via Bluetooth so it can be used with more than just the Atari VCS. The colors are themed to match the traditional joystick model, which if nothing else means you could buy this separate from the VCS and have a slick-looking Atari controller for just about everything.
There’s a lot of things we don’t know about this console yet. Atari is promising more information alongside pre-orders later this year, so if nothing else this is something worth keeping an eye on. And, as long as Atari is selling these controllers separately like they say, I may buy that joystick just because it’s so badass.