The “Atari VCS” was released in late 2020 to early adopters (such as myself) by the somewhat cryptic ‘Atari VCS, LLC.’ and then, in 2021, began hitting store-shelves in places such as Best Buy, GameStop and other mostly online retailers. I’ve had my Atari VCS for nearly a year now, and I wanted to give my full one year review of this modern Atari gaming system. When I received the system a few days after Christmas 2020, it was a sight to behold! I got the Black Onyx model with the Atari VCS Classic Joystick. (I ordered the Modern Controller last month on eBay, too, and it works great.) But did the beauty of the hardware live up to the expectation of the software? Read on to find out!
For those of you not in the know, Atari got sold off many times over the years, most notably to Time-Warner in the 80’s and later, became Infogrames in France which some say ruined portable handheld gaming in light of the subpar experiences they provided over the years. (My opinion.) The Atari VCS was announced a few years ago in June 2017 and began to sell vintage gaming lovers on the promise of a new system with updated ports, updated graphics, more memory, tied to an OS undershell and available to play games downloaded and purchased online. The first screen shots were amazing and fans salivated, pre-ordered, crowdfunded (as far back as 2017/2018) and put up funding for the system. (There is an interesting Atari CES meeting article here from early 2020 on what was potentially coming.) The system suffered a few delays here and there, and buyers felt left in the cold a few times here and there. Thankfully, I was one of the ones who had faith, and before you know it, I had an Onyx base model in my hands in late December 2020.
My first impressions were… wow, what a great system. The hardware looked beautiful, with dark thick black grooves covering the front, with a red faceplate on the back where the ports were. It is a throwback to the “Darth Vader” 2600 systems of years gone by, and a little inspiration from other places, as well. (Just FYI, some early adopters could get the ‘black walnut’ or ‘walnut’ system designs, but I opted for the Darth Vader Onyx design.) When I first plugged in the Classic Joystick to pair it wirelessly, it all worked great. The Classic Joystick is wireless and the little base lights up in orange around the joystick when it is used. Very cool! The menus seemed fluid and set up pretty great, and I immediately noticed that Atari VCS Vault Vols 1 and 2 were on the system to start with. I played those, adored them… These arcade packs basically contain what is in the PC release of the same name (and I have played on the 3Ds before, I believe.) But now, the action is on a real Atari gaming console (the company’s first official one in over 25 years) and is running on my big screen 4K TV. Wow! You can also play streamed games via AntStream (but I never have, as of yet, but it looks cool.) I was impressed. Super impressed.
The game store that the Atari VCS uses always left something to be desired, however. Upon official launch, the Store (a tab in the home menu when you first start the system) contained only a handful of games, many of them seemingly lackluster. There were a few gems, to be sure, and I don’t want to poison the well. Let me just say that I expected a few more indie games to be released. In time, that kind of came true!
Fast forward a few months… I had played all the Atari VCS Vault (2600, 5200 and 7800 VCS classics from back in the day, from their original prospective consoles of their day… pre Nintendo) that I could handle. The Atari OS is fluid and works good, but seemed a little bare bones with the lacking software available for it. (I never used that ‘PC Mode’ function, and found it to be too complicated to install Ubuntu, etc.) Before you know it, the system got turned off and began to gather dust… for many many months. I got my first home in January 2021, moved.. got busy with school and work, and much more. Until one day…
So, about a month ago, I plugged back in the ‘ol Atari VCS from 2020 and noticed that it had some updating to do. The system update restarted and I clicked on the store, only to be slightly blown away. “Flashback Friday” 7800 games were being released every Friday (sometimes 2-3 games at a time, such as ‘Moto Psycho’ for the 7800) via the 7800 emulator, which is an app that Atari added a few months ago to render 7800 games on the system. There were more third party titles than I remember, and lo and behold… there it was: Centipede: Recharged and Missile Command: Recharged !! I was blown away! I rushed to download them, both $9.99 games, but the reviews looked great as well as the screenshots. After downloading those two ‘recharged’ games, I downloaded ‘Black Widow: Recharged’ last week, and was really taken aback at how great the Atari VCS from 2020 is shaping up to be!
Sure, it’s not a powerhorse XBOX One X or PS5 or what have you, but the Atari VCS actually delivered on what it promised back in 2017… to bring classic vintage gaming to the masses in a new, updated form factor, with an OS underpinning (so we could tinker and geek out) and now, Atari has also announced that they are going to begin releasing unreleased Atari boxed cartridge games, from back in the day. These were announced last week (as of writing this) in a Limited Collectors Edition set or a regular set, and these include: Saboteur, Yars’ Return, and Aquaventure. (I don’t plan on ordering these because of my budget, but what a great thing for collectors and newbies alike!)
So my final verdict on the Atari VCS 2020 is that I would have to give it a B- rating. The Atari VCS is shaping up to be a cool console for a new generation, but is it really all that innovative? I feel that it could be a bit more, and the store could be a lot more bolstered with new indie games with updated graphics. (Of course, this requires new developers to ‘get on board’ and I’m sure the user base is quite small.) As much as I LOVE the classic Atari games (of which I am a fan) and the new features such as ‘Flashback Fridays’ that Atari is putting out now in the Fall/Winter of 2021 via the console, I feel the console should definitely be able to play online multiplayer. The new chat/friend feature is nice in the latest firmware updated, but I feel it could be more. Just a bit more. The system is also for sale for upwards of $400 and I feel that is way too much for what you get. (Maybe $250-300 tops?) If you’re an Atari lover like me, get it! If not, do your research first. I also love the recharged series they have come out with. They are also releasing Asteroids: Recharged soon, and ‘Tempest 4000’ from what I hear, and that’s going to be a ‘blast’ ! I have been pleasantly surprised, actually, by the value that the new 2020 Atari VCS brings, but only time will tell if they continue innovating their hardware and software solutions for this recent foray back into the home video game market. With three big major consoles grabbing most of the cash from consumers, the new Atari VCS definitely has some large shoes to fill in 2021.
Anyhow, let me know in comments if you plan on getting one and what you think! I’m going to be doing a video review for my YouTube page of the Atari VCS 2020 next year, probably in early 2022. Let me know what you think and have a great holiday season!
The official Atari VCS website is here, and the system can be ordered via Best Buy here. The ‘Black Walnut All-In Bundle’ is currently $399.99. I do not make any money or provide any weird links, that is a clean link to Best Buy to look at and/or purchase the item. My overall advice: do your research!