Atari VCS review: Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be
Quick verdict: The Atari VCS provides a super-convenient way to dip into gaming's rich retro history, but it does so at a price point that's ridiculously high.
- Iconic design
- VCS joystick won't kill your hands like the old ones
- Antstream retro streaming adds a vast library of titles
- Can be set up as an actual PC
- Horribly overpriced
- Antstream is available on just about everything else
- Joystick feels wobbly and cheap
- Did we mention how expensive it is?
For gamers of a certain age, Atari is a brand that can evoke a rich nostalgic glow. It brings to mind those younger years and blocky but heated games of Combat in front of a glowing CRT, all the time hoping that the resolutely unforgiving 2600 joystick wouldn't break – or break your wrists – just as you were about to claim victory.
The Atari brand has been through quite a few owners since those heady heydays of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and now it's back with a new console. Except that the Atari VCS is both deliberately a throwback system primarily pitched at retro gamers, and it's not really a console in the strictest sense of the word.
It's also almost horrifically expensive for what you get, and that's by far the biggest problem it has. Its ambition is fine, and if money is no object it can be a whole lot of fun – but it can't in any way be said to represent value for money, even if, like me, you're something of a retro gaming tragic.
The Atari VCS sells in a couple of different configurations, with or without bundled controllers, but always based on the same core console. If you buy it standalone, it comes in a basic black, while the model bundled with controllers has a walnut front finish.
That's not by accident, because it's 100% designed to evoke memories of the classic Atari 2600 designs, albeit without those classic clunky switches or any kind of cartridge port.
Seriously, Atari, where am I meant to plug in Combat on this thing?
At the rear, there's a power button, ethernet port, HDMI and 2 USB A type ports, used for pairing and charging the supplied controllers, or other peripherals if you choose to attach them.
The design makes sense given what it's trying to mimic, but at the same time given the feature set it almost feels as though Atari could have gone down the "mini" route as we've seen with devices like the Super Nintendo Mini, Mega Drive Mini or PC Engine Mini.
If you do opt for the All-In-One bundle, you also get 2 controllers in the box. There's an almost-clone-copy of the Xbox 360 controller for more modern gaming needs, as well as a recreation of that classic Atari 2600 CX40 joystick. With both classic and modern sensibilities in mind, it has more than 1 button. Well, it has 2, but the stick also acts as a rotary paddle for games that required that back in the day.
If you do opt for the base console, it can pair to most controller types without fuss, and if you feel pangs of regret for not colour matching your console, the modern and classic controllers are sold separately. At $109.95, they're not inexpensive, especially for what is ultimately a 2-button joystick for the classic model.
The modern controller is absolutely fine in terms of build quality for most game purposes, but it doesn't really feel as though it's $109.95 worth of hardware.
That's even more pronounced for the classic controller, and it's not just a question of limited button sets. Original 2600 controllers – and I've still got a few – were notoriously stiff and often unresponsive, but the "new" classic controller was rather loose and wobbly out of the box.
My review unit had been through a few other journalists' hands before it landed with me, and it's possible they were more brutal with it, but even that doesn't point to a stick that's likely to last the distance. For that asking price, I'd want more… and this became a repetitive thought during my review period with the Atari VCS.
One plus here is that they're not limited to working with just the VCS console. Plug them into or pair them via Bluetooth with a Windows 10 PC and they'll be recognised and good to go for other gaming pursuits.
The Atari VCS can't take cartridges, and it doesn't have a hidden disc slot anywhere, which means its gaming focus is entirely built around internal components. Where competing consoles offer entirely distinct operating environments, the Atari VCS is, ultimately, more akin to a PC in a shiny case.
The Atari VCS is built around an AMD Ryzen processor with 8GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage, running a custom Linux built "Atari OS" to provide its user interface. You can upgrade the storage via either rear USB port, and the flexibility of its build is something of a highlight. If you're keen enough, you can set it to a specific "PC" mode and reboot from an external drive with an OS of your choice on it.
At which point you realise that you've spent at least $699.95 on what is a fairly basic PC. It's neat that you can do it, but really, consoles can and should sell on their games.
Here, there's a rich trove of retro goodness to take advantage of, with one big catch. You can buy specific games for the Atari VCS through its integrated storefront, but don't think that you're in store for cutting-edge high-end classics. The intent here is for more indie titles with a retro feel, and there was little here, if I'm honest, that kept me engaged for all that long.
It's an Atari console first and foremost, so you do get access to the Atari Vault of games from its arcade and Atari 2600 heyday, which may bring back some nostalgic memories for you. However, there are 3 issues here.
First problem: Some of these games have not aged all that gracefully – and I say that as a passionate retro gamer, but seriously, nobody's hanging out to play Basic Math in 2021.
Second problem: The Atari 2600 is home to some timeless and immensely playable games. I'm talking titles like the 2600 version of Ms Pac-Man, Pitfall or Kaboom!, just to name a few. Sadly, though, while those were on the 2600 platform, they're not owned by Atari – so they're not in the vault.
Third problem: While they're called the Atari Vault, it's not the case that Atari has had them locked away behind a secure door since the early 1980s. Quite the reverse is true, because we've seen countless Atari Flashback consoles and Atari Vault releases for just about every console known to man, as well as direct PC releases.
Indeed, a larger array of Atari titles than present on the Atari VCS can be yours via Steam at the time of writing for around $14.50. You don't even need that much of a PC to run them.
The Atari VCS is the first home console with specific compatibility with the Antstream retro gaming subscription service, and that does bring a lot more retro gaming goodness to bear, with over 1,000 retro games to choose from.
Antstream is easily my favourite part of the VCS experience, both for the rich depth of its catalogue and its embedded challenges to keep things interesting… but again there's a problem.
No, not the emulation-exists problem, although clearly that's a factor as well.
While you can't get Antstream on your PS5 or Xbox Series X, you can get Antstream on a lot of other platforms, including mobiles, PCs and selected other set top box units. It's not a unique offering to the Atari VCS, and again, while the premium tier has a cost, it's substantially lower than that of the VCS itself.
While the classic 2600 tried to soften the blow of being "just" a games machine with cartridges that promoted simple maths skills – and you were the unluckiest kid ever if one of those carts was your Christmas present back in the day – the new Atari VCS is a far more complex machine, thanks to the fact that it is ultimately just a PC in a shiny box.
You get access to a web browser in Chrome, as well as streaming client support for services such as Netflix, Disney+, Kayo and plenty more besides.
That potentially puts it in the same frame as devices like the new Apple TV 4K or Shield TV given their gaming focus. Except, again, those devices are way cheaper than the Atari VCS, and in the case of the Shield, it's even Antstream compatible.
Should you buy the Atari VCS?
- Buy it if you absolutely must have a direct Atari hit.
- Don't buy it if you understand the value of money.
But I can't recommend it, because everything it does can be done, legally and safely, for substantially less than the VCS's asking price.
The Atari Vault titles are available for way less, Antstream is available in Australia (even with a free, ad-supported tier) and there's a plethora of smaller, cheaper video streaming devices you could buy instead.
Take away all of that, and what you're left with is a quite nice UI for browsing and playing retro video games, but that alone cannot justify the Atari VCS's price tag.
Pricing and availability
PriceRRP: Console from $699.95 | All-in-One bundle with a joystick and controller from $849.95 | Classic or modern controller from $109.95
Where to buy
How we tested
The Atari VCS was tested over a week's gameplay, taking into consideration its bundled games, games storefront and streaming services. The author has over 40 years of gameplaying experience, and a collection of more than 100 classic Atari titles to draw on for comparison, alongside a general passion for retro gaming.