Atari to Make its First Console in Decades, but What the Heck Is It?

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Atari has announced its intention to re-enter the console market, 23 years after its last platform, the Atari Jaguar, launched. The company has said very little about its plans for the hardware, and hasn’t even confirmed if its working on a retro game platform or if it actually wants to compete with the likes of Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft.

Here’s what we know. At E3 last week, Atari CEO Fred Chesnais told GamesBeat that the company was “back in the hardware business” and that the next Atari console would be based on PC technology. Atari has also released a trailer, as shown below:

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Jokes about the wood-grained paneling aside, this system is something of a puzzle. Claiming that it’s based on PC technology doesn’t really tell us much these days. You can already buy ARM-based devices running Windows 10, and the Nintendo NES Bait and Switch Classic Edition used a quad-core ARM SoC to emulate the original platform. Atari could be planning to launch an official platform with the best of its games from the Atari 2600, 5200, and 7800 eras. Heck, it could even be planning to emulate consoles like the Lynx handheld and the Jaguar. The Jaguar was a bit of a beast to program for, with multiple CPUs, but all of this could be handled in emulation today.

There are two things to keep in mind, however. First, the Atari of today is a shadow of a shadow of its former self. The original founders (Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney) have been gone for decades. The teams that built the popular 8-bit Atari computers like the Atari 400 and 800 are gone, as are the employees that built the company’s consoles. In 2014, the company announced that it would expand into growing markets that focused on the LGBT community, “social casinos, real-money gambling, and YouTube.” It’s simply not positioned to take on Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft in the mainstream console market, which is why the smart money is on a classic console along the lines of the Nintendo Classic Edition.

But therein lies the rub. Unlike Nintendo, which has kept its previous game releases restricted to its own platforms, Atari has freely licensed out its most well-known games, many of which have appeared in various software collections or shipped with third-party consoles. It’s not clear what the company hopes to leverage here — nostalgia for classic gaming may have kicked off a boom in Nintendo sales, but many of the Atari games from an earlier era are already available and ultimately may not have the same pull as classic NES games.

There are a handful of Atari games that still shine through as fun (games like Combat and Haunted House are classics in their own right), but Atari is fundamentally hoping to harness the nostalgia of a slightly older group of gamers. Then again, the company may simply be hoping to ship a few hundred thousand units and call it good. With minimal hardware costs for emulating games this old, it shouldn’t be hard to build a decent hardware emulator for the company’s classic library.

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