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Atari Attempts to Ride the Retro-Console Wave

A look at the Ataribox.

Last year’s retro console, the NES Classic, was an instant hit on the market, selling out virtually as soon as it went on sale. The SNES Classic will likely put up even bigger sales numbers (assuming Nintendo can actually produce enough to meet demand). Now, Atari wants to see if it can pull off the same trick with its Ataribox.

The Ataribox, which was teased with a short trailer at E3, was revealed today in an email sent to Atari diehards. It revealed what the console will look like and a few more details about the system itself.

While the comparison to the NES Classic is the easiest to make, the Ataribox will likely be different in a couple of key areas. One is that it promises to both play older games via emulation, as well as newer titles — meaning its internal hardware will be beefier (and therefore more expensive) than the NES Classic’s $60 price point. For instance, it will come with four USB ports and a SD slot, meaning that more games can be loaded in easily.

Still, there’s no word on what games will be available, what kind of controllers will ship with the system, and if the system will include any sort of online capabilities. In its email to supporters, the manufacturers explained: “We know you are hungry for more details; on specs, games, features, pricing, timing, etc. We’re not teasing you intentionally; we want to get this right, so we’ve opted to share things step by step as we bring Ataribox to life, and to listen closely to Atari community feedback as we do so.”

The Atari 2600, released in 1977, was part of the second generation of home video-game consoles, and the first home video-game console to sell in really large numbers. Over the course of its life span, an estimated 30 million 2600s were sold. (The NES, for comparison, sold about 32 million units.)

But part of the reason for the NES Classic’s recent success is Nintendo’s deep roster of franchises that have been popular for over 30 years: Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid are still tremendous draws for Nintendo. The chance to replay the original titles using something that felt very much like the original console was appealing.

The Atari 2600’s lineup tended to be more heavily based on arcade ports (e.g., Pac-Man, Joust, or Spy Hunter) that were later ported to better systems. It developed several touchstone titles — like Pong, Centipede, and Missile Command — but it’s tough to imagine many getting amped to replay, say, Yars’ Revenge. Atari, Inc.’s more modern franchises are similarly niche — the most popular is probably RollerCoaster Tycoon. The Ataribox may have a difficult time threading the needle of keeping the price low enough to entice while figuring out ways to offer enough interesting twists that make it significantly different from the Plug and Play that already hit the market in the mid-aughts.

But for many, the Atari 2600 was the first time they could play video games without plunking quarters into a machine. Nostalgia is a powerful market force; the question is whether the Ataribox will be able to harness it successfully.

Atari Attempts to Ride the Retro-Console Wave