Yesterday, I reported on the recent GamesBeat interview with Atari CEO Fred Chesnais, a chat that confirmed the existence of an upcoming Atari console. The news came as a bit of a surprise, and since that break, speculation has been running wild. Forbes’ own Paul Tassi posted an interesting take on the whole situation, and honestly, I think he makes a great point—the market is indeed full, and introducing a brand new platform, especially one potentially poised to take on those of industry giants like Sony and Microsoft, may be an exercise in overzealous futility. And yet I can’t sit still, so break out the one-button joysticks and dusty Combat cartridges—we’re going to play devil’s advocate.
Even with everything seemingly stacked against such a machine (and there’s a lot, believe me), I still can’t manage to shake my naive excitement. I’ve been gaming for a long time, since the late 80s if I’m counting right, so the prospect of a legitimate Atari revival has set my imagination on fire. I know they’re not even close to the same company that released the 2600 and the Jaguar (or the criminally underappreciated Lynx handheld), but I feel like the potential for something compelling lay not only within this recent hardware announcement, but also amongst the remnant echos of Atari’s yesteryear 8-bit greatness. Before the infamous video game market crash of 1983, they all but owned the digital entertainment market, so who’s to say that they can’t stage a screaming comeback?
The deck is, without a doubt, stacked against such an impromptu market breach. Why? Because as it stands, Sony and Microsoft are in a constant and incredibly expensive battle for console market dominance. And while Nintendo occupies some strange, PG-rated corner of said market, one filled with jovial plumbers, wacky hardware innovation and awful online implementation, they absolutely dominate that space with consistently good first-party titles and an insane degree of consumer loyalty. When paring out the market shares, precious space for an additional dedicated gaming hardware option shrinks to almost nothing. And for the most part, it’s been this way since Sega bowed out of the race back in 2001 with its legendary Dreamcast. So beyond mobile devices and PC, we have three major options for gaming platforms. But what if people want more? What if they’re eager to try something different but lack the opportunity to jump ship?
Believe it or not, there was a time in gaming history when we did have more options. Way more, in fact. Back in the 1990s, all over the span of roughly ten years, the gaming market saw the introduction of a crazy amount of original, completely unique home consoles. Some were weird. Others ludicrously bizarre. Many were quirky experiments that only lasted several months before disappearing forever. Huge mainstream successes like the SNES and N64 were simply the machines that bubbled to the top. For every PlayStation sold there was an Apple Pippin left to forlornly rot on a lonely Circuit City shelf, ignored and forgotten by the gaming masses.
There was Panasonic’s 3DO Interactive Multiplayer, which introduced Gex—and an insane MSRP—to the world. Sega released the Sega CD and 32X, the bulky combination of which made for quite the conversation piece (and a heavy means by which you could defend your house from lions and swooping pterodactyls). And oh God, the Virtual Boy, which didn’t even last a full year before Nintendo pulled the plug. Still, that’s just the tip of the hardware iceberg: CD-i, Amiga CD32, Saturn, and Neo Geo CD are all among the onslaught of consoles that ran the gamut from world-changing to painfully obscure. The failure rate was high, though through all the pricey risks, gamers had choices. Sure, many of them weren’t the best and absolutely didn’t pan out in the long-term, but we weren’t strictly relegated to two or three major sources for our gaming needs. There was a power in that pool of options, and if we wanted to game on a Pioneer LaserActive, we could (though we might cry about it during, after and later).
If Atari’s new product ends up being a proper console with properly powerful innards, it could bring back that sense of choice, something that’s sorely missing from today’s market. Just imagine if they were able to entice several AAA developers and secure a handful of compelling exclusives; Ataribox-only titles you couldn’t find on Xbox, PlayStation or Switch. At the very least, it would make for an interesting 2018 E3, or at least one more exciting than this year’s ho-hum showing.
Oftentimes I’m struck by how homogeneous the gaming industry has become, so I think a gutsy newcomer (in the form of a wise old-timer) would do well to stir up the pot. We need something less, shall we say, predictable. And if the product is solid enough, if it bucks enough trends and pushes the right boundaries, customers may shock analysts and wander outside the comfortable camps that Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo have set up.
It’s all just speculation at this stage, of course, but it’s fun to wonder. I just hope it’s nothing like the Ouya, bless its tiny Android heart.