Atari VCS Review
The modern-retro Atari VCS was announced with much fanfare when it first hit IndieGogo in May 2018. People were very excited to secure a preorder for the first new Atari console since the Atari Jaguar in the 1990s. On its official website, the Atari VCS is championed as “blending the best of consoles and PCs,” but in reality the system is nothing more than a watered-down combination of a console and a PC. It sets out to do some interesting things, but it doesn’t do anything unique, and it doesn’t do anything well. It definitely doesn’t justify its price tag.
Atari VCS – Design and Features
There are two different versions of the Atari VCS: the Onyx and Black Walnut variants. Black Walnut has a splash of classic woodgrain across the front, an homage to the original system’s 1980s aesthetic. Lots of electronics in the early 1980s had a panel of wood veneer, for some reason. It was a different time, but it’s a nice retro touch here. I tested an Onyx version, which is closer to the “Darth Vader” Atari 2600 variant, and as you can see from the photos, it’s an all-black device.
The case for the Atari VCS resembles the original in its shape, but lacks all the clunky switches and there’s obviously no cartridge port. It’s also much smaller than the machine to which it pays homage. I quite like the look of the Atari VCS. It’s sleek and unassuming, but resembles an original Atari console just enough to get a knowing nod of respect from my retro-addled brain.
The are four USB 3.0 ports on the Atari VCS for charging controllers or installing an operating system from a USB stick (I’ll get to that later on). Two are on the left and right sides of the front of the Atari VCS, and two more are on the rear of the unit. The two rear ports are side-by-side, and live in harmony with the Ethernet, HDMI, and power ports.
Power is supplied by a generic power-brick rather than an internal power supply. I’m not a fan of power bricks: I much prefer when devices hide away their power supplies. It’s probably for the best, though, since an internal power supply would increase the size of the case a bit and contribute to heating.
The fans are always running, sometimes quite noticeably…
Speaking of heating, when I first switched on the Atari VCS with the power button on the back, I was surprised by its fan noise. I wasn’t expecting any noise and instead I got more than any of my other devices, save for my gaming PC. This was on the first start-up, ever, mind you, and the internal fans were pulling hard. I initially thought the noise would die down, but it never completely goes away. The fans are always running, sometimes quite noticeably, like the sort of fan noise you’d expect in a laptop built 5 years ago. Not at all impressed by that.
Starting up and logging in, you’re met with a navigation screen where the VCS apps live. There’s a cool Atari VCS Companion app you can install on your mobile device that lets you control the system from your smartphone. If you’ve ever used a Roku device and had to replace your lost remote with the Roku app, it’s pretty similar in functionality. It mimics the functionality of a mouse and keyboard, which is nice because some of the “apps” require a mouse and keyboard to work at all.
I put “apps” in quotes because some of them aren’t actually apps. I was surprised when I went to download the Netflix app and saw its size was measured in kilobytes. Well, it turns out it’s not an app at all. It’s a symbolic link. When you click on the “app” from the navigation page of the Atari VCS, you’re just opening up the web version of Netflix through the built-in Chrome browser. That’s why the mouse and keyboard are required. You can’t navigate it at all with a controller, other than to hop back to the main menu screen.
Atari VCS – Gaming
The Atari VCS Vault contains a decent selection of Atari 2600 and 1980s arcade classics. Some of my favorite old Atari 2600 games are here, like Yars Revenge. Then there are some weird choices, like Basic Math. There are also a LOT of sports games. I don’t even like playing sports games from 2 years ago, I definitely don’t have any nostalgia for Bowling on Atari 2600. Out of over 80 Atari 2600 games included with the VCS, 17 are straight sports games. I didn’t count all the racing games, of which there are plenty (but not Gran Prix, the one I wanted most). There are some classics on here, like Missile Command, Adventure, and a couple others, but overall it’s a weak selection.
The Arcade choices are better, with classics like Tempest, Lunar Lander and Crystal Caverns, but there are only 18 games built in. Navigation of the Atari VCS Vault is simple, with games appearing either as cabinets or cartridge boxes in a carousel presentation. I was surprised at how relatively low-res the boxes are, especially given the VCS champions its 4K capabilities. The gallery mode, which should be a nice touch for those interested in a historical look into the marketing around these old games, is downright awful. Some of the images look like they were lifted from Google Image Search at 300×400 resolution.
Speaking of 4K, don’t even bother.
Speaking of 4K, don’t even bother. You can change the resolution in the settings to 720p, 1080p, or 4K. I don’t know why you’d want to experience Atari 2600 Asteroids in 4K, but it’s an option. Changing resolution requires a full system restart, which is annoying, and changing it back after you see how poorly it runs also requires a system restart. Seriously, at 4K everything is choppy and bogged down. The splash screens, navigating menus – all of it chugs along at an annoying rate, and that’s just the UI.
The somewhat confusingly named Antstream Arcade is a storefront where you can buy games, most of which are retro-aesthetic and not actual retro games. This is different from the vault, where the pre-installed classic arcade games are found. This is more akin to Steam or the Google Play Store, with modern games available for purchase and download. I really enjoyed Unsung Warriors, a side-scroller with some tight controls and a cool cartoonish style, but you can play that on Steam. In fact, just play it on Steam.
Atari VCS – PC Mode
If you have a bootable thumbdrive with an operating system on it, you can use the Atari VCS’ PC Mode to turn the device into a tiny, functional PC. I don’t have a copy of Windows laying around, but I am the annoying guy who uses Linux regularly, so I made a bootable Ubuntu thumbdrive and plugged it in. Navigating to the PC Mode section of the home menu brings up a prompt telling you to insert a thumb drive and then restart the VCS. That’s it. The official instructions tell you to insert a thumb drive and then power-cycle it with the switch on the back.
Whatever method I used, I was unable to boot my Ubuntu thumb drive. I tried two different thumb drives, all the USB ports, and even two different Windows programs to make the bootable media (Rufus, which is recommended by the manufacturer, and Universal USB Installer recommended by the Pen Drive Linux website). Nothing worked. I plugged it in and THEN powered on the VCS. Nope. Plugged it in while the VCS was on and power-cycled. Still nothing.
I tested the drive on my laptop and booted into Ubuntu without problem. I’ve seen people using the VCS online with a bootable Windows drive, so this method does work, it just doesn’t work for me and my Linux distro. I’m not a stranger to bootable media: I’ve been creating bootable CDs and pendrives since Ubuntu’s version numbers were single-digit. I’m also no stranger to Linux: at one point many years ago I had a Linux network certification I never did anything productive with. I found it pretty frustrating to follow the boot directions to the letter and still not have work. Having seen videos of people using Windows on their VCS, I know it works. It just didn’t work for me in spite of multiple attempts, and I’m very familiar with booting Linux from removable media.
The Atari VCS game box is a retro-style game machine made to look like the classic Atari console but with a powerful modern processor and a versatile Linux OS backend to allow it to stream, connect, and play like never before. Its library of games range from killer Atari classics to hot new indie titles and beyond.
We are now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@TechiUpdate) and stay updated with the latest Technology headlines.
For all the latest Gaming News Click Here