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Atari VCS Review: Nostalgia Isn’t Enough

Not exactly a Super Breakout

Atari VCS
(Image: © Tom's Hardware)

Our Verdict

The VCS delivers on its promise of nostalgia-inducing retro gaming with old-school Atari titles. But the rest of the experience is like peeling an onion when you were expecting an orange. The deeper you go, the more layers of bitter frustration you uncover.

For

  • Attractive, nostalgia-inducing design
  • Bundled and Antstream games run well
  • Upgradable RAM and storage

Against

  • Included content is limited for the high price
  • Streaming apps basically require a keyboard and mouse
  • PC mode is convoluted to set up and clunky at best
  • Noisy fan

Tom's Hardware Verdict

The VCS delivers on its promise of nostalgia-inducing retro gaming with old-school Atari titles. But the rest of the experience is like peeling an onion when you were expecting an orange. The deeper you go, the more layers of bitter frustration you uncover.

Pros

  • +

    Attractive, nostalgia-inducing design

  • +

    Bundled and Antstream games run well

  • +

    Upgradable RAM and storage

Cons

  • -

    Included content is limited for the high price

  • -

    Streaming apps basically require a keyboard and mouse

  • -

    PC mode is convoluted to set up and clunky at best

  • -

    Noisy fan

Depending on your perspective, the Atari VCS console/computer/set-top box is either a couple of years, or several decades overdue. Modeling itself after the venerable Atari 2600 (originally called the Atari Video Computer System, hence VCS) which launched in September of 1977, the modern VCS made its debut via a YouTube teaser in 2017. The company followed that up with a successful crowdfunding campaign the following year, promising to deliver devices in mid-2019. Here we are a couple of years later, and the VCS finally made its way to retail, via Best Buy and Micro Center last month.

Available in either basic black (Onyx) or the more 2600-like Black Walnut, the device (let’s call it a console, though it also has a PC Mode, if you can get it to work) sells for $399. You get an AMD embedded APU, 8GB of RAM and 32GB of storage, as well as both a nostalgia-inducing joystick and a more modern Xbox-like controller.

$399 is a lot to ask for the hardware here, although you do get a promised “100 classic arcade and console games” included, as well as the ability to install popular streaming apps, like Disney+ and HBO Max — in case you didn’t already have a set-top box. That said, beyond some streaming apps and a handful of indie retro-inspired games, the store selection is minimal at best.

And in a move that at the very least makes the VCS more versatile and interesting, you can crack the console open to add additional storage via SATA M.2 as well as upgrade the RAM. A PC Mode selection in the menu lets you install and run other operating systems, like Linux and Windows — at least in theory. But the process for installing Windows on an internal drive is surprisingly convoluted. And if you were hoping to run demanding AAA games from your Steam or Epic gaming libraries, the dual-core (four-thread) Ryzen embedded R1606G SoC with integrated Vega 3 graphics is here to throw a wrench in your plans. In terms of retro gaming, this is a powerhouse compared to the popular Raspberry Pi. But as might be expected given the Atari name and woodgrain front panel, modern games are best left to the best gaming PCs, or a current console from the likes of Sony or Microsoft (if you can find one in stock).

Atari VCS Specifications

SoftwareAtari Custom Linux OS (Debian based)
CPU/GPUAMD Ryzen Embedded R1606, 2.6-3/5GHz dual-core (four threads)
GPUAMD Radeon Vega 3, 3 Compute Units, 1.2 GHz
Internal Storage32GB eMMC fixed internal
Internal SATA M.2 SSD slot
RAM8GB DDR4 RAM (upgradable)
Compatible Operating SystemsLinux, Windows, Chrome OS
WirelessWi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n 2.4/5GHz, Bluetooth 4.0
PortsHDMI 2.0, Gigabit Ethernet, 4x USB 3.1 (2x front, 2x rear)
Included ControllersClassic Joystick, Modern Controller (mice and keyboards also supportive via USB or Bluetooth)
Dimensions11.6 x 5.9 x 1.9 inches
Weight11.6 x 5.9 x 1.9 inches

Out of the Box Atari VCS Experience

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

It’s clear that the company is leaning hard into the nostalgia trip with the VCS, as the interior boxes are all pleasingly adorned with the company’s old-school logo and Asteroid graphics. Given that I was born a month before the 2600 launched, and some of my earliest gaming memories involve small black cartridges and the iconic single-button joystick (which gets a few extra here), I’m happy enough to go along on this trip.

Thanks to USB-A ports (two in the front and two in the back) and HDMI, connecting up the VCS is a whole lot easier than the old-school Switch Box that always had me running to the kitchen for a butter knife to use as a screwdriver to connect the console to the two screws on the back of the TV. Powering up the system pulls on the nostalgia strings, as the Atari logo takes center stage, followed by some black-and-white Asteroids animation.

But once you get into the VCS’ main screens (you’ll first have to create an account and a PIN), it very quickly becomes clear that what’s available is much more broad than it is deep.

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

First, the good news: As advertised, there are about 100 included Atari arcade and 2600 games. And while I can’t say I played each and every one, the titles I played worked well and looked good. They certainly looked better than when I played them in the 1980s on a 13-inch TV with no remote and a busted channel knob that required using a pair of pliers when it was time for my mom to watch M*A*S*H.

I was, though, disappointed that Yar’s Revenge did not include rumble support (although some games do). And some notable titles that no-doubt would require expensive licensing (like ET, Superman and Pitfall Harry) were absent. If you want more Atari titles, a VCS Vault Volume 2 with 50 more games is available in the store for $5, though it leans more on arcade and homebrew titles. Really though, given the price, it’s irksome that the company keeps so many Atari titles behind an additional paywall. And regardless, don’t expect anything close to a complete list of even 2600 titles. I counted 81 in the standard bundle, and while the VCS Vault Volume 2 adds a few more, there were over 400 games released for the console, or more if you count the many duplicate titles. Something you remember fondly will probably be absent here.

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

When you get tired of retro Atari titles, the Antstream Arcade app also comes pre-installed, and there’s real depth here. It’s a retro-gaming service with “thousands” of streaming retro titles from any number of platforms and decades, as well as online leaderboards, tournaments, and challenges. It’s also free as an ad-supported service, or $10 a month without ads. As much as I like the service, the pricing is a bit steep. But Atari does include a card in the box with a URL that gives you a year’s premium subscription for $39.99, which seems more reasonable. The only real downside I saw with the service, and this will be a big one with some people, is that you can’t remap buttons — at least for now, which can make playing some games feel awkward.

Regardless, I may pay up for Antstream, in part because the service works on almost everything: PC, Mac, Android — even the Amazon Fire TV stick is supported. That’s great, but it also means one of the VCS’ best features isn’t tied to this $400 device. You probably already own three or four devices that can play the games on this service already.

Games and App Store (Have your Keyboard and Mouse Handy)

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

Aside from the Atari titles and Antstream, the VCS also has a selection of additional apps and games in its store. At first, I was pleasantly surprised when I saw services like Disney Plus, HBO Max, Hulu, Netflix and YouTube. ESPN Plus, Twitch, Showtime and Peacock are also here, but what I just mentioned is about half of the current app list. I counted 19 in total, and that’s including a VCS Companion smartphone app to control the console, plus an app to test the controller that seems to be aimed at developers.

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

Things actually get worse when you actually try to use the streaming apps. I tried both the Disney+ and Hulu apps, only to find out (eventually) that you can’t actually control them with either of the included VCS controllers. You either need to have a regular keyboard and mouse connected (via USB or Bluetooth), or you need to use the aforementioned VCS Companion app, on a smartphone or tablet that’s connected to the same network as your VCS.

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

It seems like this app basically emulates a keyboard and mouse, similar to an app Intel shipped with its Compute Stick PCs years ago. But I could never actually get the app to work on my Samsung S21 Ultra. No matter how many times I entered my login PIN, the Launch button was always grayed out.

Your mileage may vary with app-based control. But as much as having to navigate streaming apps with a gaming controller isn’t ideal, having to use a mouse and keyboard with a set-top box or use a buggy app to awkwardly move around menus is a flatly awful experience.

The game store is also sparse. At the time of testing, I counted just 26 titles available to buy (including that second Atari pack). Most were appropriately retro themed, and they all seem to be indie titles. Nothing stood out as something I’d seen before.

So while the VCS has support for most of the major video streaming apps, and there are some games that you can buy to add some depth, you’re likely going to be spending most of your time with Atari titles and Antstream.

Oh, and in case you were planning on using the VCS as a set-top box, make sure it’s going to sit far from earshot, because the console’s fan is quite audible. It’s not loud by gaming PC standards, but it’s quite noisy and noticeable for a set-top streaming device.

Controllers

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

The controllers that ship with the VCS feel OK, even leaning toward good. And while there are no paddle controllers included, the joystick spins left and right, giving an at least somewhat analogous experience for those games that used paddles on earlier consoles. However, twisting a slim control stick doesn’t give you the same level of fine-tuned control as you get with the larger paddle knobs on the original controllers.

Now, the controllers can be used either plugged in via USB or connected wirelessly with Bluetooth. Extra long micro USB cables are included in the box for a wired experience, and you may want to stick to using them, because I had issues with Bluetooth. Pairing the controllers is fairly simple. When the VCS boots up, it will flash a Bluetooth icon in the corner of the screen. Simply hold down the Atari logo button on each controller for several seconds, and they should pair within a few seconds.

But every time the system restarts, the controllers need to either re-pair, or wake up from their sleep state and reconnect to the VCS. And power up is done by pressing the same Atari button that’s used for pairing; a short press powers a controller up while a long press initiates pairing mode. This at times had me disconnecting the controller when I was just trying to turn it on. And at best, powering up the controllers takes a few seconds for each controller every single time you start up, leaving you sitting at the lock screen fiddling with controllers while waiting to be able to enter your PIN. I also experienced occasional issues with the Keychron K3 Bluetooth keyboard I used with the system, where it sometimes wasn’t recognized after a VCS reboot, forcing me to re-pair it from the Devices menu. I tried pairing an HP mouse via Bluetooth as well, but the system refused to see it at all. My advice is to stick to USB connectivity, as it just works. But of course, that makes for a much less-tidy setup.

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

At least with USB, the controllers just work. And there are four USB ports for this purpose, with two conveniently up front and two in the back.

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

Upgradability and OS Install Frustrations

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

Everyone appreciates versatility and upgradability — or at least I hope most of our readers do. As noted up top, the VCS’ menu has a PC Mode button that reboots the console, designed to let you launch into another operating system. An M.2 slot on the motherboard lets you add storage (which you’ll need for this purpose, given the system’s meager 32GB of eMMC). Only SATA M.2 drives are supported here, which is what we installed. I used a 256GB Crucial OEM model that I at some point pulled from a laptop that I upgraded.

You can also upgrade the RAM, but getting to that involves some more serious disassembly, because the SO-DIMM slots are on the underside of the motherboard. Games and productivity apps that you’re likely to run on a system like this should be fine with the 8GB that the VCS ships with, so for the sake of saving some time, we didn’t upgrade the RAM here.

Getting into the VCS is reasonably easy. The front and back panels pop off with a moderate amount of pulling and prying. That said, we suggest taking the back off first, then removing the four bottom screws, at which point the front panel should essentially fall off when you start to open the chassis. I mostly used Google searches and various posts and videos from users as guides for this process. Perhaps Atari has documentation regarding disassembly and upgrading, but I didn’t find any. Most of the documentation is provided digitally via a QR code on one of the interior boxes. But the camera app on my Samsung S21 Ultra refused to take the URL from the QR code, forcing me to type https://atarivcs.com/support in manually. This is fairly minor, but just adds to the frustration pile.

 

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

One nice thing to note: The four screws that hold the VCS together are hidden under rubber feet, but the parts over the screw holes just pop out to let you get to the screws, and then pop right back in. Every laptop maker should take notes here. A less-nice thing: The VCS uses Torx screws, and some require a lot of force to loosen, particularly for me the mounting screw for the M.2 drive.

Be careful when you open the VCS, as the Wi-Fi/Bluetooth module antennas are taped to the plastic top of the shell, while the module and the rest of the system is attached to the motherboard. You can pull off the tape, or unplug the tiny antenna connections. Just be sure not to snap the wires.

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

Installing the M.2 in the slot to the right of the Wi-Fi module was a pretty standard process, aside from initially getting that screw loosened (I eventually resorted to using pliers to loosen it). Installing the SSD went so fast and easy that, in my eagerness to get Windows installed, I didn’t even take a picture before putting the VCS back together. Little did I know that I would be opening the VCS up a few more times before getting Windows 10 installed.

Installing Windows 10 on the Atari VCS

It’s worth noting that the VCS technically supports both booting into another operating system via an external drive or an internal drive. And many VCS owners online have opted for the former, understandably due to a lack of PC hardware knowledge and an aversion to cracking open a $300-$400 device that you just bought. But with nearly 25 years of PC building experience under my belt, a couple of SATA M.2 drives available, and the fact that I didn’t spend $400 of my own money on this VCS (our company purchased the VCS), I was happy to delve headlong into installing Windows 10 on an internal drive on the VCS. After installing the drive itself and putting the VCS back together, I expected the process to go smoothly. Boy, was I wrong.

While I was often distracted by other tasks, I spent more than two full work days attempting to install Windows 10 on the 256GB SATA drive I installed in the VCS. First, I attempted to use a LaCie flash drive I’d used to install Windows 10 with several times over the last couple years, only for the process to error out at various stages, with various messages of complaint.

So I wiped the flash drive and created a more up-to-date install drive using Microsoft’s Media Creation tool. After that attempt, I got a different error, indicating some files were missing. I’d run into a similar error with flash drive installation media before that was fixed by using an optical install disc. So I pulled my old USB Blu-ray drive out of a drawer and burned a Windows 10 install DVD. Again, upon attempting to install, I got varying errors, often relating to the system being unable to initiate a reboot to get to the next stage of the installation.

In the midst of all this, at some point I began Googling possible solutions, first landing on Atari’s own Windows 10 Install guide (warning, PDF link), which actually involves creating a bootable flash drive to run Windows 10 from, rather than getting Windows 10 running on an internal M.2. Still, I tried this process anyway and, one night after work, left the system to boot from my converted TeamGroup flash drive. After about 8 hours, Windows 10 hadn’t actually booted from the flash drive, but it had progressed from the spinning Windows loading circle to a spinning circle that asked me to please wait a moment while Windows loads. After several more moments, I gave up and powered down.

Eventually, I pulled the M.2 drive out and performed some low-level formatting on it from the command line, reinstalled it in the VCS, and didn’t get any further with my install attempts. Then I found another flash drive to use as installation media, and didn’t get any further. I even dragged out a different M.2 SATA drive and installed it in the VCS, without any luck.

At the end of the second day, I stumbled on a possible solution via Reddit, which I had considered at some point the day before, but figured there must be a simpler (and more sensible) solution. Maybe there is, but after about 48 hours of frustration, I tried the Reddit route. It involved pulling the M.2 drive from the VCS, installing it in an external enclosure (thankfully I had a Silverstone model at hand) and using the Hasleo WinToUSB tool recommended by Atari’s support materials to create a bootable version of Windows on an external drive. The free version wouldn’t let me create a partition that used all of the 245GB or so of space available on my Crucial SSD, but I gave it a shot anyway, creating an “external” Windows 10 boot SSD with over 100GB of space--plenty of room to install the OS and a few older or indie games and programs.

After the drive finished writing, I then unplugged and removed the M.2 drive from the Silverstone enclosure, and installed it back into the VCS once again. From there, I had to plug in a keyboard and mash the escape key when booting to get into the BIOS and tell the system to boot from my Windows MBR partition first--something you’ll have to do every time you want to boot into Windows on the VCS, unless or until Atari unlocks the BIOS features it apparently locked down with an update before the launch of the retail VCS.

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

But, with the Windows Boot Manager selected, I rebooted, and within a few minutes I finally had Windows 10 running on the VCS. I was slightly elated. It only took two days of failed attempts and frustration. And again, I’d have to enter the BIOS each time I wanted to boot into Windows 10 to choose my preferred boot device (the Atari’s Linux-based OS is still the default), but at least it worked! Of course, given the embedded AMD APU, I wasn’t expecting modern AAA titles to run. (Or at least run well.) It turns out, though, what I was actually in for was yet another round of “well, this isn’t what I expected.”

As I nudged Windows 10 to install any available updates and drivers, I also manually downloaded and installed AMD’s Radeon software, to be sure I had the latest video drivers. All seemed to go well at first, and I even began installing Steam and the Epic launcher, thinking I would soon be firing up some games to see what ran, what ran well, and what didn’t run at all.

But after a few reboots and, at least seemingly, all necessary updates and drivers installed and ready to rumble, the system was still persistently experiencing app crashes, video display issues, and other flavors of wonkiness. Slack ran OK for short periods of time, but both Chrome and Edge would often crash after sometimes just several seconds of use.

At first, given the display issues, I thought the problems might be primarily down to the generic Radeon software I installed. The system does, after all, make use of a rather non-mainstream Ryzen Embedded R1606G silicon. So I rooted around on AMD’s support site until I found, downloaded and installed Radeon software specifically for the company’s R-Series R1000 hardware. I was hopeful this would improve things, but after installation and a reboot, within a couple of minutes, my desktop looked like this.

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

Apologies for the smartphone photo, but as you may notice from the error on the right, even the snipping tool at one point refused to run. I clicked through a couple of these error windows, and eventually ran across this bouncing bundle of annoyance.

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

At this point, it felt like the Windows gods were trying to tell me something. I could spend several more hours Googling all of these errors and trying to get Windows 10 to run better on the VCS, but why? At best I was going to see performance akin to a $300 budget box. And if my primary purpose was to run Windows for low-end gaming, there are all sorts of options out there that should perform better, with fewer hassles — and, oh yeah, they will all run Antstream Arcade, which features plenty of Atari games, too. I love to tinker with hardware more than most people, but a Breakpoint error is, it turns out, my breaking point for the VCS.

Conclusion

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

I could give the Atari VCS every pass possible. Maybe you won’t have the issues I did with the Companion App or the Bluetooth pairing issues with the controllers. Maybe you don’t care about PC Mode, or you won’t have the installation and basic functionality issues I did. Good for you! And maybe the company will add significantly to its current lineup of apps and games. But then you’re still left with a $400 set-top box that does a pretty good job at playing 100 or so games from 35 or more years ago, with a noisy fan and a clunky interface for video streaming.

Aside from being perhaps the most frustrating piece of hardware I’ve tested and reviewed in years, the VCS is also hugely overpriced for what you get. And beyond its core functionality, it feels very much unpolished and unfinished, despite years of delays.

And here’s another frustration: While the system is technically capable of being switched over to 4K mode for higher-quality video, it ships at 1080p by default, because the whole OS is sluggish at the higher resolution. This would feel like a more dire issue if there weren’t so much else going on. But the retro games themselves don’t visually benefit from the OS running at a higher resolution. And the fact that the streaming apps require the use of either a keyboard and mouse or a smartphone app (which I couldn’t get to work at all) makes the VCS such a poor streaming media device that its 4K sluggishness feels fairly minor.

The basic 4K ability and responsiveness is the kind of basic functionality that $40-50 devices like the Roku Streaming Stick+ and the Amazon Fire Stick handle with far less issue (and with much better controls. And the Fire Stick can run Antstream Arcade, which is arguably the best thing about the Atari VCS. Or at least Antstream has far more depth than the rest of the games on the VCS, and it runs on Android and Windows and elsewhere, which means you probably have a few devices that will run the retro gaming service already without spending $400 on a device with some pretty retro-wood grain and a nostalgia-inspiring controller.

And heck, if it’s that old-school joystick feel that you're after for your retro-gaming enjoyment, Hyperkin makes one of those with a USB connection that will give you that retro-gaming experience for just $20, or $380 less than the Atari VCS. While it won’t come with that iconic Atari logo, the vast majority of gamers looking to recreate that old-school feel would be much better off buying a retro controller and a budget mini PC or even a Raspberry Pi for retro gaming than spending hundreds on the Atari VCS.

Matt Safford
Matt began piling up computer experience as a child with his Mattel Aquarius. He built his first PC in the late 1990s and ventured into mild PC modding in the early 2000s. He’s spent the last decade covering emerging technology for Smithsonian, Popular Science, and Consumer Reports, while testing components and PCs for Computer Shopper and Digital Trends. When not writing about tech, he’s often walking—through the streets of New York, over the sheep-dotted hills of Scotland, or just at his treadmill desk at home in front of the 50-inch 4K HDR TV that serves as his PC monitor.