Atari launched the crowdfunding campaign for its retro console yesterday and immediately slaughtered its fundraising goals, temporarily crashing IndieGoGo’s site in the process. As of this writing, the campaign has raised $2 million dollars, 1,981 percent of its original $100,000 goals. It has raised this amount of money despite the overwhelming red flags, because nostalgia is apparently such a powerful force that it drives otherwise sentient individuals to fork over far more money than this crowdfunding campaign deserves.
Let me be clear about a few things up-front. This isn’t personal. My family owned an Atari 2600 and I have a lot of happy memories of gaming on that console. It’s also not intended as an attack on the people who own or currently work for Atari today. While we’ve pointed out that this Atari has absolutely nothing in common with the Atari that invented the grandfather of the modern console era, we’re not alleging any malfeasance or bad faith here. Our complaints are technical, and to some extent, economic.
The reimagined Atari VCS is a retro console built around Ubuntu Linux. It starts at $199 for the base unit and $229 for the base unit with a joystick; a collector’s edition is available for $299. It includes just 4GB of DDR4 and is built around what Atari calls a Bristol Ridge A10. That’s almost certainly the A10-9700E or A10-9700 — and both are bad (the differences between the two are clock speed and TDP). First, the A10-9700 is based on AMD’s old, last-generation Carrizo architecture. Second, the GPU is an underpowered 384:24:6 configuration. It’s not clear if the DDR4 RAM is in a dual-channel configuration, but even if it is, the GPU core itself is only a fraction as powerful as a modern Ryzen APU.
Now, the logical response to this is that the Atari VCS is, after all, intended for Atari games, which can practically be emulated by a modern manhole cover. But if Atari games are all you want, you can buy them already. The Atari Vault, available for $9.99 on Steam, includes 100 classic titles with leaderboards, online, and local multiplayer. Given this, the only possible way for the Atari VCS to distinguish itself is with non-Atari products. And I’m genuinely sorry to have to say this, but we’ve literally seen everything Atari is bringing to the table already.
A microconsole with a minimally powerful CPU that plays games and indie titles at a lower price point than mainstream hardware? Sounds familiar. Consoles based on Linux? Say hello to SteamOS or even the Nvidia Shield. The developers on Atari’s partner board are mostly mobile studios or game studios with a handful of relatively small products. There are no major indie developers onboard yet, much less anything from a company that builds AAA. Meanwhile, a new PS4 can be had for $299, as can an Xbox One S or Nintendo Switch. The hardware in all of these is, on balance, vastly more capable than a last-generation AMD Carrizo APU with 4GB of undoubtedly low-clocked DDR4 in an APU we already know is fundamentally limited by bandwidth, with even this modest horsepower chained to a CPU core that couldn’t be classed as “high performance” even by the standards of 2008. I’ll be the first person to shake the hands of the AMD CPU architects who took Bulldozer in 2011 and squeezed it into a 35W TDP in 2016, but with the advent of Ryzen, even AMD has been willing to acknowledge that its previous architecture’s performance was nothing short of disastrous.
If this was just a question of price, or hardware, or games, that’d be one thing. But it isn’t. It’s a platform from a company with no experience building platforms, at a price point and value proposition where we’ve seen others fail, with no clear gaming value-add, no unique (or uniquely valuable) library, based on an outdated hardware platform, built on an OS platform that is not known for being game-friendly, and which one prominent company with billions of dollars of revenue ultimately failed (for whatever reasons) to launch as a gaming competitor to Microsoft Windows.
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