After a number of swirling rumours and coy teasing, Atari has announced that, yes, it is indeed working on a new console. The Ataribox, as they call it, has been revealed to be a mixture of old and new. In particular, they say it will host both classic and “current” games. What that indicates, exactly, is still up in the air. Atari states that they’re going to assess feedback and build the machine around what their fans request.
There’s also rumblings of a possible crowdfunding campaign to support the development of the console, a method should theoretically allow Atari to tap into the fanbase to collect feedback and gauge enthusiasm. While this is not inherently a bad idea, it should be noted that this was also the route taken by the ill-fated Ouya.
Whether or not the demand for this new console is there remains to be seen. Anecdotally, I haven’t seen many who are legitimately excited by the prospect, but there are some that feel intrigued by the perceived re-emergence of one of the industry’s earliest icons. For those of you who belong to that hopeful and optimistic mindset, I have this advice for you: don’t get distracted by the name attached to the product. You don’t have to dig far into Atari’s history to find reasons why you should keep your hype restrained.
ATARI’S CLASSICS ARE READILY AVAILABLE
My introduction to Atari games was actually on a little Jakks Pacific joystick that you plugged directly into the TV. It was pretty slick and gave me my first taste of games like Yars’ Revenge. That wasn’t an isolated novelty, though. For years, Atari has been releasing their “Flashback” consoles; miniature replicas with pre-installed games. The most recent release was the Atari Flashback 7, which was back in November 2016, and the Atari Flashback 8 is slated for release this fall, so the company has hardly been absent from the console market.
If you don’t want a wood-grain adorned chunk of plastic collecting dust on your entertainment center, then you also have the option to buy one of the many Atari collections released for consoles and handhelds. They’re not an uncommon sight in bargain bins, so if you really want to play Centipede, then you’re already catered to.
ATARI HASN’T BEEN ATARI FOR A LONG TIME
It’s hard to dispute that Atari was instrumental in the initial forging of the video game medium since its inception. The company under Nolan Bushnell and Teb Dabney practically invented the arcade. However, Dabney was quickly marginalized and soon departed Atari altogether while Bushnell sold the company to Warner in 1976, a mere four years after it was founded, in an effort to bring the Atari 2600 (at that time called the VCS) to market. Bushnell then feuded with Warner execs, who felt that his work ethic left a lot to be desired, and was fired in December of 1978.
One could argue that the years that followed under the direction of Ray Kassar are what define the “real” Atari — the one that oversaw the Atari 2600 days — but that only lasted until the video game market crashed in 1984, at which point Atari was sold off to Jack Tramiel. Tramiel held ownership of the Atari brand until the failure of the Jaguar console and Lynx handheld in the mid-90’s, at which point its sullied name and properties were sold to Hasbro for the bargain basement price of $5 million. Hasbro then turned around two years later and sold the brand and properties to Infogrames along with their Hasbro Interactive division.
See what I’m getting at? At what point do we disassociate Atari, the company that brought us Missile Command and Asteroids, from the brand? Is it at the point when we stop associating them with what they’re known for? In that case…
ATARI’S MOST RECENT GAMES HAVE INVARIABLY SUCKED
Let me ask you something; what was the last Atari game that you actually enjoyed? Don’t get me wrong, there are some fine titles that were released during the Infogrames era of the company. I personally enjoyed games like Ghostbusters: The Video Game and Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters Melee, but those were years ago. Even back then, the quality of their titles were shaky at best, but not all of them were beyond enjoyable. These days, Atari seems more keen on selling us the leftover lunches that have been left in the company fridge.
I’m talking games like Alone in the Dark: Illumination and Haunted House: Cyptic Graves; games that seem to only exist to cash in on the name. In some cases, like with Roller Coaster Tycoon: World, they appeared to at least make some effort by listening to some community feedback, but still ended up putting out a pale shadow of its great legacy. Then there’s Asteroids: Outpost, a game that was released on early access, aborted, and left on the Steam store to sponge up the money of gamers that were unaware that the servers were offline and the game was unplayable.
It’s not the sort of track record that inspires confidence.
ALONE IN THE DARK
The prospect of Atari re-entering the competitive game console market strikes me in the same way that it does whenever someone wistfully hopes for Sega to finally release a successor to the Dreamcast; there’s not much point. Both names may inspire nostalgia, but neither company exists in the same shape and form as the days when they were revered. Atari moreso than Sega.
That said, there’s a lot of unknowns still in play, the biggest being their intent with the system. With the Atari Flashback still receiving new iterations, it’s unlikely that this is merely another attempt to cash in on their back catalogue, but I also severely doubt that the company has the capital to position a new console as a competitor to Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo. This could be yet another ill-advised move to fill that illusive, indie-driven niche that the Ouya failed to capture, or it could be intended as a platform for something more. Dream, perhaps, that the people behind the Ataribox know what they’re doing. A stretch, maybe, but it could be that this is to be Atari’s attempt to regain the goodwill that it has long squandered.
Regardless of your take on Atari’s new system, I’d advise, at the very least, a modicum of skepticism. This isn’t the Atari that helped build the industry, nor the Atari that helped tear it down. This is the Atari that spent some time as a middling publisher before taking the time to piss all over its ancient licenses. That’s just not the sort of company I place much faith in.