Do not adjust your screen. Atari have confirmed they are set to release a new video game console. This is not a drill.
Atari CEO Fred Chesnais is keen to make his mark on the once-leading digital entertainment company. Recently, the man who took Atari out of bankruptcy in 2013 seems to have shifted the joystick away from the mobile horizons that saved its backside and back to the good old wood-paneled box of wonder. Murmurs had arisen concerning Atari’s decision to re-enter the console market in the weeks preceding E3 2017, however it wasn’t until an interview with Gamesbeat that Chesnais finally lifted the lid on the industry-Godfather’s fabled return. The so-called AtariBox is stark without any details at the moment, but that doesn’t mean we can’t play out our greatest resurrection fantasies and retro gaming memories.
While the design hasn’t been finalised, the AtariBox was featured in a small promotional clip that seemed to display the company’s famed wood grain design. Such a classic design has been a springboard for discussion over whether this is indicative of a reappraisal of Atari’s classic game titles or simply a nod to simpler times as part of a modern project. Since the announcement, optimistic dreamers and nostalgic cynics have been butting heads in press and comments over just what the new Atari console actually is.
Atari As A Mainstream Competitor
For many, the possibility of little old Atari taking on the lithe body builders Sony and Microsoft is ludicrous. For these guys, the new system will most likely take the form of mimicry as Atari casts its green eye of Nintendo’s NES Classic and SNES Classic profits and forecasts. Indeed, Nintendo has shown great success over the past few months with its retro gaming systems. Whether or not Atari still has that hold over the market willing to spend the cash on a new dedicated console will remain to be seen. Nintendo is certainly gathering its market share from the poker table with two greedy arms, so Atari will have to get in there quick if they’re going to snag a chip or two off the back of it.
But what if…
What if the video game industry’s initial creative tour de force is back to show the DLC-crazed kids how it’s done? It’s a romantic thought to entertain, and we all need a little romance so let’s entertain it. Atari have innovated before. They’re no alien to setting (and re-setting) industry standard, so what’s to say 20 years would change that potential?
Well, apparently quite a lot.
If we ignore the fact that the industry has sped onward after dropping Atari off a little early in the desert, or the fact that Atari has a relatively niche market today, we could comfortably conceive of a world where Atari returns on horseback. We do know that the AtariBox will be running on PC technology, so there’s potential there for a mainstream console addition.
Whether or not there’s enough room for Atari to squeeze itself in is another matter. We’re already in an incredibly competitive industry, one in which you need the money of a King and the luck of a God to scrape together a decent competitor for the Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo giants. Without this initial capital and without the considerable following other companies have carved for themselves, Atari’s step into mainstream next-gen gaming may be a stride too far.
Atari’s Retro Gaming Console
So it’s probably not a fully fledged competitor console, but that doesn’t have to mean it’s simply a pretty emulator. Soon after the initial announcement was confirmed, a website for the AtariBox cropped up, displaying three tabs for contact:
Developers are being handpicked for Atari’s new console. Whether that means new Atari games or remakes / preservation attempts of old ones, if it was simply an emulation job such recruitment steps would be unlikely. Could this be a souped up retro gaming console supporting the odd novelty cartridge? Or are we still thinking too far inside the AtariBox?
Or Something Else Entirely?
What if Atari were listening the whole time the gaming community was asking for change? Is there a pocket of market distinct enough from Nintendo’s creative approach to send it toward Atari’s offerings? Atari comes from a time when anything was possible and now we’re in a world of AAA stasis and developer and player frustration alike. There’s imaginative life in the industry yet, and Atari might be the ones to draw it out again.
In the beginning, Atari inspired a mass creation of very different consoles offering very different experiences. Though these experiences ultimately met with a process of evolution that weeded out the weirder ones and made way for the systems we now have in play, an injection of that very same diversity may be what the industry needs to balance the PS4, Xbox One pseudo-binary.
A new approach to hardware would breed a new approach to software. Developer recruitment may be reverting to small studios building simple, small games for Atari. A microcosm of the industry as a whole, the retro company would do well to seek out independent developers working within these parameters. Such design would allow for the return of a sense of ownership of the video game product – a form of auteurship that has since been shrouded by corporate mainstream development practices. At this stage, it may be that even mildly recognisable independent developers would be reluctant to sign a contract with such a relatively uneasy industry stepping stone. Targeting the uber-indies, the literal bedroom coders or University ideas-kids to bring the essence of Atari gameplay into the 21st Century could be the move Atari needs to make for its final innovation.
Whether this is all an exercise in wishful thinking, or even just a rambling thought experiment, it’s exciting that we’re in the position in such a young industry that we are lucky enough to still be reeling from the moves of industry creators. Atari hasn’t released a console since 1993, and hasn’t made a profit since 1999. If anything, though, their announcement this week just reminded me that our industry is still young, and there’s so much more to come. If we listen to the oldies, they may just remember enough of the wisdom that set the video game industry alight in its origins to set us on a path of unlimited possibilities in the future.
I mean, that would be nice. But it’s probably an all in one retro gaming emulator.
Go on, I know you’ve been waiting to – let me know what you think in the comments.