May 31, 2018

Atari Launches Linux Gaming Box Starting at $199

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Atari VCS
Atari has launched an Ubuntu-based Atari VCS gaming and media streaming console aimed at retro gamers. (Image courtesy: Atari VCS)

Attempts to establish Linux as a gaming platform have failed time and time again, with Valve’s SteamOS being the latest high-profile casualty. Yet, Linux has emerged as a significant platform in the much smaller niche of retro gaming, especially on the Raspberry Pi. Atari has now re-emerged from the fog of gaming history with an Ubuntu-based Atari VCS gaming and media streaming console aimed at retro gamers.

In addition to games, the Atari VCS will also offer Internet access and optional voice control. With a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, the system can be used as a standard Linux computer. The catch is that the already delayed systems won’t ship until July 2019.

Indiegogo deals

Shortly after appearing on Indiegogo this week, the Atari VCS vaulted over its $100,000 funding goal to hit $1.7 million and counting. Indiegogo packages that are discounted by $50 include a basic Atari VCS Onyx model that goes for $199 or $229 with a classic joystick. These are both Early Bird deals that expire June 4.

There is also a wood-paneled Collector’s Edition version that sells for $299 with a classic joystick or $339 with a modern game controller.  Other deals, including a $319 package with both the joystick and modern controller, are available for the next month.

The Atari VCS was unveiled as the Ataribox last September. The new prototype looks the same, with a design borrowed from the circa-1977 Atari 2600, but with sleek, tapered edges.

The Ataribox was originally said to run a Linux stack on an AMD customized processor with Radeon Graphics technology. Some observers had hoped that the delay in launching the Indiegogo campaign meant that Atari would tap one of AMD’s new, gaming-friendly AMD Ryzen processors. However, it settled for one of AMD’s two-year old Bristol Ridge A1 chips with Radeon R7 graphics. This is overkill for most retro games, but, depending on the A1 model, may be too underpowered to attract developers thinking of porting more modern games.

Back in the ’70s and ’80s, Atari offered one of the largest game platforms around, combining a console with a large catalog of 2D titles. The company faded later under the onslaught of major 3D gaming consoles from Nintendo, Sony, and others, and its last console -- the 1993 Jaguar -- disappeared quickly. After filing for bankruptcy protection in 2013, Atari rebounded as a mobile games developer, and has licensed its name for the Blade Runner 2049 movie.

Features

Atari offers an Atari Vault library with more than 100 classic games in their original arcade and/or Atari 2600 formats. Next year, it will launch a new Atari VCS Store in partnership with “a leading industry partner to be announced shortly.”

By the launch date, Atari plans to have “new and exclusive” games for download or streaming, including “reimagined classic titles from Atari and other top developers,” as well as multi-player games. The Atari VCS Store will also offer video, music and other content. For now, Atari has listed 14 content partners.

The hardware is not open source, and the games will be protected with HDCP. However, the Ubuntu Linux stack based on Linux kernel 4.10 is open source, and includes a “customizable Linux UX.” A Linux “sandbox” will be available for developing or porting games and apps.

Developers can build games using any Linux compatible gaming engine, including Unity, Unreal Engine, and Gamemaker. Atari also says that “Linux-based games from Steam and other platforms that meet Atari VCS hardware specifications should work.” Developers must register with Atari, and the games must be pre-approved. Atari VCS Store will take an “industry-standard percentage” of the sale price.

Manufactured by Flex, the Atari VCS ships with 4GB DDR4 RAM, as well as 32GB eMMC and a microSD slot. The 14.5x5.3x1.6-inch system is further equipped with dual-band WiFi and Bluetooth 5.0, as well as HDMI 2.0, Gigabit Ethernet, and 4x USB 3.0 ports. A 4-mic array supports voice commands, and the system is compatible with typical Bluetooth and USB controllers in addition to Atari’s Bluetooth-connected joystick and controller.

The platform will offer live streaming using Twitch.tv and will support cross-game chat using Skype and Discord. Optional cloud storage and other Internet services will be available via subscription.

Despite its Indiegogo success, there’s no guarantee the Atari VCS won’t go the way of the Steam Machine in the larger gaming market. However, the competition is less daunting in retro gaming, and the fact that at least 6,300 backers are willing to wait over a year for their Linux gaming box is promising indeed.

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