The Ataribox is here at GDC, but it's also kind of not (hands-on)

Atari's vision was on display, but not a working console.

Sean Hollister Senior Editor / Reviews
When his parents denied him a Super NES, he got mad. When they traded a prize Sega Genesis for a 2400 baud modem, he got even. Years of Internet shareware, eBay'd possessions and video game testing jobs after that, he joined Engadget. He helped found The Verge, and later served as Gizmodo's reviews editor. When he's not madly testing laptops, apps, virtual reality experiences, and whatever new gadget will supposedly change the world, he likes to kick back with some games, a good Nerf blaster, and a bottle of Tejava.
Sean Hollister
4 min read

The Atari VCS, in the flesh.

James Martin/CNET

Good news: We finally understand what the mysterious Ataribox is all about. We've touched its deliciously retro ribbed plastic frame and given its classic-meets-modern joystick a wiggle. The Atari VCS looks like it could be a real product, one you might be proud to own and display.

Bad news: There's not much proof it's real yet. Atari didn't bring a working VCS to the 2018 Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco, only mockups. Though the company has an interesting vision for the box, we weren't able to try a single game.

"We'd all like to be BAM, there it is, it's awesome. That day will come," says Atari engineer Joe Moak. "Today is not that day."

Watch this: Our first look at the Ataribox: The Atari VCS

In fact, Atari execs told us there's no longer a set price or a promised release date for the console -- because many of its key pieces, like its AMD processor and customized Linux operating system, are still coming together.

If you've been following the Ataribox closely, that's a little surprising: When Atari delayed it last year, the company said there was just "one key element on our checklist" left to fix.

But if you're willing to give Atari the benefit of the doubt -- it's not like they're taking your money yet! -- the company's pitch still sounds pretty neat.

Up close with the Atari VCS (formerly Ataribox)

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The pitch

Atari COO Michael Arzt apologizes for all the things he can't tell me -- like when, where, how much, how powerful, etc. the Atari VCS might be. 

But he still paints a picture of a interesting product: a fairly tiny, full-fledged Linux desktop computer that also comes with a boatload of Atari games. Over 100 classic titles and a "handful" of "reimagined" Atari games too.


The new Atari VCS joystick.

James Martin/CNET

He says Atari wants to build hardware and software again, and it's also opening the doors to third-party developers who want to try turning Atari's classic games into something new. 

So not just the likes of Adventure, Asteroids, Breakout, Centipede and Pong, though those are all but confirmed. You should expect more games like Tempest 4000 as well:

"We're actively courting developers who want to either port their stuff over to the box, or want to try an attractive partnership deal to recreate and reinvent our classic IP," says Arzt.

Atari still has good relationships with practically all the classic Atari game publishers like Activision , according to Arzt, so even if you don't see a classic game on day one, it's likely to come to the platform as well.

Since the Atari VCS is basically an Ubuntu Linux computer, it may also be able to play games distributed on the Linux version of Steam -- though Atari says it doesn't yet know how well games like Borderlands 2 for Linux might run.

While Atari's building a custom interface for games and media options like Netflix and YouTube (which you'll access through a web browser, not dedicated apps) there'll also be a sandbox for you to play around with Linux, too.

Execs say you'll be able to hook up a mouse, keyboard, and any Bluetooth or USB XInput controller if you like, but Atari will have a couple of dedicated gamepads on tap as well. One's a modernized Bluetooth version of Atari's classic joystick -- the joystick rotates to double as a classic Atari paddle -- and the other's a dead ringer for Microsoft's Xbox One gamepad. 


Atari's Xbox One-like "Modern" gamepad.

James Martin/CNET

"It's impossible to innovate on the controller," says Atari CEO Fred Chesnais, when I ask if they're worried about fans who'll claim they're copying Microsoft's work.

That controller is the reason the Ataribox was first delayed, by the way. Atari says it had an unspecified issue with its hardware partner on the gamepad, and that caused them to abort the initial launch. But the way execs tell it, that one issue triggered a full audit of the project, which brings us to the awkward state of things today. 

"As we started digging a little deeper, we found there were more things that were maybe 90 percent of where we wanted to be instead of 100 percent," says Arzt.

And now, it's been long enough that the company's considering whether it should move to a newer, faster AMD processor than the Bristol Ridge chip it originally planned to use. Which could mean a longer wait. 

"It means too much to us to get it right, it means too much to the fans to get it right," says Arzt, when I push for even a rough ballpark when the Atari VCS might ship. "It'll ship when it's ready."

Me, I hate it when companies ship unfinished products. I'm willing to wait.