Fans of the 1970s Atari Video Computer System (VCS), later renamed the Atari 2600, have helped raise more than US$2m to fund the creation of a modern version of the console. As well as web browsing, video streaming and voice control, the new system also promises 100 classic Atari games. Yet the technical specs listed on the system’s crowdfunding page indicate the machine is going to be significantly less powerful than the current consoles on offer from Microsoft and Sony.
The new system is less of a games console and more of a mini gaming PC. So, with a price tag similar to the current entry-level XBox, it raises the question of what the big attraction is. Some will be drawn to the potential for customisation that the Linux operating system offers. Others will be attracted by the power of nostalgia. But is this enough to make a system like this a success in today’s market?
To gain an insight into why the Atari VCS may have generated so much interest, we should first look back at the history of Atari – and gaming itself. The Atari brand has been owned by a number of different companies following the original firm’s collapse in 1984 and has an unconventional history. In a 2003 documentary, former staff members discussed regular marijuana use and parties at the Atari offices in the early 1980s. These were some of the earliest years of home video gaming, in an immature industry where games were produced by an individual developer, with no fixed working hours and where the main measure of accountability was that they delivered a game on time.
As well as creating some of gaming’s most memorable titles such as Pong, Millipede and Missile Command, Atari is also known for creating what is widely regarded as one of the worst games in video game history, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial. Despite its failure at the time, the game has now gained cult status. Judging by the comments left by fans on the crowdfunding page, players want to experience this game just as much as some of the classics.
This colourful history contributes to the interest surrounding the Atari brand. The firm has another great advantage when it comes to tapping into the nostalgia of the past: creative control over its titles and franchises. Gaming and gamers have changed since these early years. Back then many of the games available on home consoles were adaptations of coin-operated arcade titles, and others were based on similar gameplay. These machines were ultimately designed to be both easy to play and difficult to master, taking your money but leaving you wanting to play again.
The decline of amusement arcades has seen a switch from a “play to lose” focus in game design to a more inclusive “play to win” style of gameplay. Players with various levels of ability are now supported by hints and the option to save their game at any point, making a full game experience accessible to a larger number of players. The effect of this change is significant. Players are able to take more risks and experiment with fresh playstyles further into a game without experiencing the frustration induced by having to start from the beginning after an extended play session.
What’s old is new again
Because Atari owns the rights to its games it can refresh the still-loved classics to reflect the new way we play games. This is Atari’s greatest strength and the firm appears to have recognised it. The promised integration of its system with social media reminds me of the success of Flappy Bird on the iPhone.
Like many Atari games of the past, it was created by a single developer in a matter of weeks. It was frustratingly hard and games didn’t last long. Yet players felt proud to share their high scores and they did so widely on social media from a link within the game. At the height of its success the developer reported the game was making $50,000 a day in ad revenue.
Atari is uniquely placed to be able to bring its titles into the modern era with internet connectivity, something that video game emulation (the use of simulation software to play older games on newer systems) doesn’t provide. Online high-score tables will allow older players to see how they measure up against the new generation of gamers – and younger gamers will have the opportunity to see how they compare with others on some of gaming’s earliest classics. Further features supporting modern gaming, such as live streaming, will only add to the potential of this machine.
It is the appeal of an authentic but fresh perspective on some of gaming’s classics that is driving interest Atari’s new system. The opportunity to experience the legacy left by Atari in new ways is compelling for many gamers. Atari has already confirmed its intention to reimagine games from its back catalogue and has indicated on its crowdfunding page that some of these will involve online multiplayer. But as the first consoles won’t be released until the start of 2019, we will have to wait and see if this is enough to take Atari to the next level. Otherwise, it could be game over. Again.