Atari VCS review: Costly nostalgia & DIY potential

The new Atari console/PC hybrid has quite a bit of old school charm packed in, but does what's under the hood make it more than a nostalgia piece?

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It was a long time coming to finally have the Atari VCS in a state where the general public could get their hands on it. This device, marketed as both a new Atari console and upgradeable living room PC platform, has spent years in crowdfunding and development and is finally available in several bundles. So, was the wait worth it? That depends. If you miss the Atari days of old and enjoy the idea of a machine you can tinker with and upgrade to turn into a versatile gaming platform, this might be a machine worth your interest. However, a hefty base price tag before upgrades makes the Atari VCS a bit more difficult of a sell beyond enthusiasts, especially with the emergence of certian new tech coming later this year.

What’s in the box?

The Atari VCS comes in various packages, but for the purposes of this review, we’re looking at the Atari VCS 800 Black Walnut All-in Bundle. This package contains the console itself, a wireless modern controller, a wireless classic joystick, USB charge cables for both controllers, and an AC power adaptor. It also comes with a copy of Atari Vault, which allows you to access various classic Atari and console titles.

Setting up the system is fairly simple and the form factor of the Atari VCS is something I like. The little machine is sleek and doesn’t take up too much shelf space. Account setup and all the normal rigamarole of engaging in its regular Atari VCS mode is also pretty speedy. The modern controller feels about as good as a Nintendo Switch Pro controller or Xbox One controller, though I will say I like its circular d-pad design more than the squishy Pro controller or the clicky Xbox controller’s d-pads. As for the Atari classic-styled wireless controller, it’s okay. I dig the format and look of it, and it controls well enough. It also features a rotating element on the joystick that simulates the rotary knob function of various old arcade games like Tempest and Pong. That said, the joystick also feels a little loose for my liking, giving a slight bit of cheapness to its overall feel for being otherwise decently functional.

Inside the console, the Atari VCS features 32 GBs of fixed eMMC internal drive space for the sake of its normal operation. For its APU, it’s rocking an AMD Raven Ridge 2 and for GPU, it’s using an AMD Radeon RX Vega 3. It also features 8GBs of DDR4 RAM (two 4GB sticks upgradeable to up to 32GBs) and an M.2 SSD slot for further storage and operation. For connectivity, it features a Gigabit Ethernet port, an HDMI 2.0 port and 4 USD 3.1 ports (two on the front and two on the back), as well as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity. The device also features easy mouse and keyboard support, which we’ll get to in a bit. I will say it’s nice to be able to get at the internals so easily and you can hook up an external HD/SSD or USB stick to expand the PC capabilities of the VCS. It’s good because on its own, the Atari VCS just isn’t packing the power to do much. Though, with an upfront $400 price tag, it’s a lot to ask to upgrade this device beyond that.

What it can do

So out of the box and into VCS mode (the normal mode), the Atari VCS can do a few things naturally well. You can jump into classic Atari titles which feel fun to play around with on the joystick or Modern controller, or you can check out the few neat games packed into the VCS store beyond the Atari Vault. Pixel Cup Soccer ended up being one of my go-to games and a pretty good representation of some the top line titles you’ll see in the VCS library. It’s a top-down arcade soccer sim and there are a lot of other arcade-like titles developed specifically for the Atari VCS, though I wouldn’t expect anything truly lavish. You won’t be seeing something like a Call of Duty or even a Fall Guys here playing on the VCS’s base hardware.

Even so, the Atari VCS has a decent suite of installable apps on it, one of the most interesting of which is Google Chrome. Through it, you can login and access most Google functionality and even utilize Gmail, Docs, Drive, and Meet apps, as well as various streaming functionality through the machine such as Twitch and YouTube. You can also download system-tailored apps like YouTube, Twitch, Discord, and even Xbox Cloud Gaming to the device if you want, that last one of which is a rarity so far.

Beyond the Atari VCS mode’s custom Linux Debian-based OS, you can also use external SSDs, HDDs, and thumb drives to load up further operating systems like a non-custom Linux Debian or Windows 10 in the system’s built-in PC Mode. During my time experimenting with the VCS, I was able to load up Windows 10, fiddle around, and log into my Steam account. However, without substantial upgrades, you shouldn’t expect to access your full Steam Library. The Atari VCS’s base specs just aren’t up to the task of running much. The most technically advanced game I was able to download and run out of my Steam library on an external HDD was top-down Guantlet Legends-like Battle Axe, which is kind of in line with the quality of games I saw in the VCS store anyways.

The true cost of variety

And that brings us to an important point. While the fact you can access a lot of internet and streaming features that may let you run the VCS beyond its tech capabilities deserves praise, this isn’t a powerful gaming machine on its own merit without serious upgrades. And that’s after you pay for at least a $300 Black Onyx Atari VCS that doesn’t come with the controllers. It’s $400 for the Black Walnut All-in bundle. Packing on an external HDD or SSD to run Windows 10 will run you anywhere from $60 to near $200. A SATA M.2 will also run you around $60 for a cheapy 250GB to increasing prices on higher storage. Add to that the price of DDR4 RAM upgrades (it can go up to 32 GBs) and you’re looking at another $30 to $80 per stick. It’s a price tag that pushes you well into territories where this isn’t a “mid-tier priced" PC/console hybrid anymore.

Don’t get me wrong. I like that the Atari VCS can be upgraded like this. I think the upgrade capabilities that can turn this into a decent living room machine are great for tinkerers who are all-in on this device and want to get the most out of it. I’d probably be more accepting of it if there wasn’t a recently announced elephant in the room: The Steam Deck. Valve’s upcoming handheld couldn’t have materialized at a worse time for the VCS. From the specs we've seen of various Steam Deck models, there’s a lot it’s going to be able to do out of box that the VCS simply can’t for a similar price and without multiple upgrades. I would have said the Atari VCS was limited before the upfront cost and upgrades anyways, but the Steam Deck makes the VCS an even harder recommendation as a living room PC gaming solution.

Nostalgia at a price & a day late on versatility

There are some interesting and good things about the Atari VCS if you’re going to go in on it. The controllers are decent (minus the wiggle factor on the classic joystick), the machine is sleek and small, and the Atari VCS library lets you access emulated classic games, store exclusives, and everyday apps like Chrome, Twitch, and Discord. There’s so much room to be able to upgrade, too. However, that $300 to $400 up front cost for a machine limited to mostly arcade games and streaming before upgrades can’t be denied. This is an enthusiast’s hardware. If you want to invest in the brand and the classic feel that goes with it and then be willing to DIY beyond the start, the Atari VCS will provide. Otherwise, this is a novelty it’s hard to recommend over current or upcoming gaming and PC options.


This review is based on a product provided by the manufacturer. The Atari VCS is available now through the Atari website shop or through approved retailers at $399.99 for the Black Walnut All-in Bundle or $299.99 for the Black Onyx set.

News Editor

TJ Denzer is a player with a passion for games that has dominated a lifetime. When he's not handing out beatdowns in the latest fighting games, exploring video game history, or playing through RPGs with his partner, he's searching for new food and drinks in the constant pursuit of good times with good people inside and outside the South Texas area. You can also find him on Twitter @JohnnyChugs.

Review for
Atari VCS
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Pros
  • Very light shelf space demand
  • Controllers feel mostly good
  • Some decently enjoyable exclusive & classic games
  • Highly upgradeable
  • Easy internet and peripheral connectivity
  • Chrome, Xbox Cloud Gaming, & further internet/streaming apps
Cons
  • $300 for the console, $400 for the bundle
  • Classic controller joystick feels a bit cheap
  • Atari VCS library is limited
  • Not very capable without upgrades & modding
  • Mod costs are an additional hidden price tag
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