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The Ataribox lives, as a prototype, supposedly
Promised unveiling later this month could give form to vaporware console
The reboot of the classic Atari games console is back on, with prototypes to be displayed at the Games Developer Conference (GDC) in San Francisco later this month.
The news follows three months of dead air in the wake of the company's decision to pull out of pre-order plans at the last minute.
Last month, the Ataribox's website also went offline, sparking speculation that the whole idea had been ditched.
Apparently not though, with Atari announcing, alongside the relaunch of several classic Atari games, that "for the first time at an event, see a prototype of the 'Ataribox Project', Atari’s first major hardware platform in over twenty years!"
Before you get too excited though, the announcement comes with an unnerving glut of great-sounding blurb but very limited product detail.
From the announcement: "Inspired by the iconic silhouette and style of the legendary Atari 2600 Video Computer System, Atari’s new entertainment platform has already generated tons of positive fan feedback.
"Thanks to its skillful blend of modern lines and reverential details, it has evoked positive reactions from long-standing and new Atari enthusiasts. Now, for the first time, see and touch a fully realized prototype of the new platform in person!"
But no launch details, no firm specs, no details on what has caused the delays or whether they have been overcome. We will ask Atari CEO Fred Chesnais about them when we catch up with him later this month.
The box itself has had a torrid run so far. Announced eight months ago, fans of the classic brand and its wooden styling got themselves in lather. There was precedent for retro consoles, with NES Classic having been relaunched the year before and almost immediately selling out.
A month after the initial announcement, some pictures appeared on a dedicated website and it looks like a real possibility, especially given the release of the Blade Runner 2049 movie in October which featured the Atari logo.
But we were skeptical it could be done in time. And we were sadly proved right. In November, the company promised that things were on track and even provided some details: it would be powered by an AMD customized processor with Radeon Graphics technology and run on Linux.
It will "offer games and more: bringing a full PC experience to the TV, it will also include streaming, applications, social, browsing, and music," the company said.
And then on December 11, Atari excitedly announced you would be able to pre-order the box just three days later. "These deals will be extremely limited," the company noted. "We'll tell you everything you need to know to get the best deal soon."
But on the launch date, instead of being presented with a pre-order link, would-be buyers were informed that "the countdown to the Ataribox launch has been officially paused."
A press release – available only in French as a pdf – quoted Chesnais as saying that "final audits" of the Ataribox revealed that that "certain accessories" were not ready and that the launch of its crowdfunding campaign was being delayed.
"All the green lights did not come on during the final countdown to launch the Indiegogo campaign, so we're shifting," Chesnais is quoted as saying. "This cautious decision, which focuses on the product and the community, is taken with a long-term vision."
"We will do whatever it takes," the company promised. "An updated launch plan is underway and more detailed information will be available soon."
There has been no news since. And when we contacted Atari last month, we were simply pointed to the press release.
What is important to understand is that Atari isn't the company that you may imagine: it has less than 10 employees and doesn't really build anything. Each of its ventures has relied on crowdsourcing, indicating that the company has no capital to draw on.
After its 1980s heyday, the games company didn't keep up with the times and slowly disintegrated. But it was saved from ignominious death from former employee Chesnais who bought the name and the intellectual property rights.
Since then Chesnais has tried a number of different ways to turn a profit from the iconic name, most recently with a proposed cryptocurrency launch. He has had some modest success with relaunching old Atari games for new console and formats and it is tentatively looking at creating new games.
But the Ataribox is the company's first effort at hardware in its modern incarnation, as the painfully slow process of even putting a prototype together has shown.
The haphazard way the Ataribox has evolved does put a big question mark over the console. But we're not writing the company off just yet. If the company has indeed put together a killer prototype for GDC, it's safe to say that all will be forgiven by gamers who want to enjoy some of the classic gameplay of Atari games in a modern setting. ®