Atari VCS – Is It Worth It?

When the Indiegogo for the Atari VCS first went up in 2018 or 1940 or 1492 or however many lifetimes ago it was, I enthusiastically and immediately backed it. I did this for a couple of reasons. Part of it was nostalgia. I may have been born after the release of all of Atari’s consoles save for the Jaguar, but I love old gaming hardware, and I spent a lot of time playing my 2600 when I was younger. Part of it was novelty. I love quirky hardware even if it’s not the “best;” I adore my Vectrex, my Ouya, my Virtual Boy, and even my GameStick. Part of it was price. For $199, I figured I could take a gamble on a novelty piece. I spent that much on the Reading Rainbow Kickstarter for the novelty of having an Ouya with LeVar Burton’s signature on it (okay, so it was mostly to support Reading Rainbow, but that is a cool collection piece for a gamer and a Star Trek nerd). Part of it was that I’m stupid. I mean, I just admitted to spending $200 on an Ouya. No matter whose name is on it in Sharpie, I spent $200 on an Ouya; I’m not a clever lad.

Then came the delays. And more delays. And then they delayed their delays. I had faith that it would come out, though. What other choice did I have? I’d just wasted $200 on this thing. Fast forward to late December 2020. UPS delivers a package, and I finally have my Atari VCS. I unbox it, hook it up, turn it on….and then hit a roadblock. See, I encountered what seems to be a fairly uncommon bug. When you’re doing the initial set up, the first screen that involves user input has you connect a controller. This can be their gamepad, their joystick, a compatible USB controller, a compatible Bluetooth controller, or a USB keyboard. I tried my wired Xbox One controller. No luck. I tried my Bluetooth Xbox One controller. I tried my Bluetooth Xbox Series X controller. No luck. I tried my Bluetooth Wii U Pro controller. No luck. I tried my wired PS4 controller. No luck. With all of these, it detected the controller – the little controller picture lit up and it said “Bluetooth controller connected” or “USB controller connected” or whatever – but it wouldn’t actually register any of my inputs. You’re supposed to press A and then move to the next screen. No matter what button I pushed, it wouldn’t do anything despite recognizing that the controller was connected. So I reach out to their support team, and they take a couple of days getting back to me. Apparently, I was the first person to report this issue, so they had to discuss how to address my problem before getting back to me since they were pretty sure I wouldn’t be the only one (and, indeed, I have seen several Reddit and forum posts of other folks having the same issue in the weeks since). Their suggestion was “Try a USB keyboard to see if, for whatever reason, that works. If it doesn’t, try a factory reset. If that doesn’t work, we’ll replace it.” For whatever reason, a USB keyboard worked. All I had to do was complete the initial set up with the keyboard; I’ve been able to use my wired Xbox One controller no problem ever since.

Okay, cool story, bro, but what about the games? That’s why you buy a game console, after all. Short version – there aren’t any. Long version – there are some, but it’s nothing you can’t get elsewhere. It comes with Atari Vault preinstalled, but that’s been available for a while as a Steam download. You can buy Atari Vault Vol. 2, but that’s also been available for a while as DLC for Atari Vault on Steam. If you want an Xbox Game Pass style set up for arcade games, you can download AntStream for free and just pay monthly for that (I think it’s like $7 or something), and that’s actually a really neat deal, but not only is that also available on PC, you can get that on a damn cell phone. They advertise it as a sort of “console-slash-PC in a box hybrid,” whatever the hell that is supposed to mean. Do the specs make it worth it? Well…maybe? I don’t know. You tell me. Here’s what you’re looking at according to Tom’s Hardware.

OS: Atari Custom Linux OS
APU: AMD Raven Ridge 2
GPU: Ryzen
Storage: 32GB eMMC internal, unlimited external USB HD/stick, subscription-based cloud storage
RAM: 8GB DDR4 RAM – optionally expandable
Compatibility: Windows, Linux, Steam OS, Chrome OS
Wireless Connections: Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n 2.4/5GHz, Bluetooth 4.0
Wired Connections: HDMI 2.0, Gigabit Ethernet, USB 3.1 (x4)

That’s the specs for the “VCS 800” which runs $300 ($400 if you want a controller). The “VCS 400” runs $250 and is identical except that it has 4 GB of RAM instead of 8 GB. Indiegogo schmucks like me got the 800 for $200, so I guess the Indiegogo was the way to go-go (sorry, I had to) if you were absolutely going to get it, but the question of “is it worth it?” leans hard towards no in my opinion. It’s got some cool features, to be sure, cool doesn’t always mean worth it. Yeah, you can install pretty much any operating system you want, but with 8 GB of RAM (let alone 4 GB on the cheaper model) and a paltry 32 GB of internal storage, there’s not a whole lot that you could realistically do with it that couldn’t be done better or cheaper (if not better and cheaper) elsewhere.

Let’s be real. The UI is relatively tidy, but it’s ugly. The game selection looks like the Nintendo 64 launch. Actually, I’d say it’s worse; at least the N64’s two launch games in North America were exclusive to the system. The 400 model is, from what I understand, roughly on par with the Switch, but unlike the VCS, the Switch has games and the ability to be played while pooping or on a plane. If you want to compare it to a more traditional console, the Series S is the same price with more RAM, 16 times as much storage, a huge library of backwards compatible games, and an equally zero number of exclusive titles.

That’s kind of what it boils down to. Unless you simp for Atari as much as I simp for Nintendo, there’s frankly no reason to own a VCS. Atari Vault is great, but if you already have a PC, you can get both volumes for $15 versus buying a $250 machine plus a $5 download to get them on VCS. If you have a smartphone, you can download AntStream for free right now and enjoy the same 30 day trial that you get on VCS (which is highly recommend, by the way; there are some legitimately great arcade and console ports on there). If you want a console experience, get a Nintendo Switch or an Xbox Series S. If you want a media PC to connect to your TV, you can find them way cheaper than that. If you just want a smaller PC for a more traditional PC set up, get an all-in-one PC. If you want an emulation machine, get a RetroPie. If you just absolutely have to have something that plug into your TV, isn’t a traditional desktop PC or laptop, and can emulate sixth generation and Wii games, then okay, sure, get this, but that’s literally the only reason I can think of to own one of these unless, like me, you love just wasting money on quirky hardware no one will remember in five years.

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