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Atari and Intellivision’s 21st-century war may have no winner

Two of the most famous names in 1980s game consoles will duke it out again. But times have changed.

At the end of May, Atari launched an Indiegogo campaign for a new Linux-based game console that trades in the original 1976 Atari console’s cartridge slot for an internet connection. Known as the Atari VCS (the original name for the console that is better remembered as the Atari 2600), the new model has a modern design which pays homage to the original. In another nod to the past, the lowest Indiegogo backer price for the new Atari VCS is $199, the same price price the original cartridge-based system once sold for (though that 40-year-old price works out to about $823 in today’s dollars). Alas, pledging $199 to the crowdfunding campaign doesn’t get you any controllers or even qualify you for the special edition with real wood paneling.

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The design of the new Atari VCS may hearken back to a product of the 1970s and run many of the same games. But the company now known as Atari is far, far removed from the 1970s Sunnyvale entity that bridged TVs and joysticks and once employed a “difficult but valuable” young man named Steve Jobs.

The new Atari stands little chance of approaching the more than 30 million consoles that the original and its follow-ons sold. But merely trying to squeeze into a market now dominated by Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony is an audacious move. (When the original VCS was debuted, Nintendo had already launched a home game console in Japan, but Sony’s most impressive product was an iPhone-thin FM radio and Microsoft was a toddler.)

For all that’s changed about the video game market, the new Atari VCS will have one familiar competitor: Intellivision. The original Intellivision was launched by Mattel Electronics in 1979. By that time, Atari had a head start in the market and access to popular arcade titles such as Asteroids and Missile Command. So Intellivision competed with the Atari VCS–its graphically inferior but more popular rival–using head-to-head comparison commercials featuring writer/sports commentator George Plimpton.

After Mattel discontinued the Intellivision, a few entities fought to keep the brand alive, at least in the hearts of fans. One of its original programmers, Keith Robinson, valiantly kept the flame via a company called Intellivision Productions, a mix of nostalgia trove, community and licensing entity. Following Robinson’s death this year, videogame music composer Tommy Tallarico. purchased the Intellivsion intellectual property. Alongside some of the original team, he’s relaunched the company as Intellivision Entertainment and announced that it, too, is working on a new console.

In a rambling Facebook Live Q&A, Tallarico says that his new company will provide more details of its hardware in October. Despite its announcement breaking the day before the launch of the Atari VCS Indiegogo campaign, he says the new device–focused on family games–has been in discussion for years.

In the ’80s, Atari and Intellivision fought for a piece of what would become a multi-billion-dollar market that eventually slipped through their grasp. Today, it’s unclear what their ultimate prize would be. Both intend to have their devices ship with an extensive collection of their original catalog. Presumably, these would be presented with better fidelity than the Flashback plug-and-play consoles that have appeared over the years from AtGames. The Atari VCS will cost at least six times the $35 price of an Atari Flashback 8 Classic on Amazon.com.

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[Photo: courtesy of Atari]
Beyond the nostalgia factor, both Atari and Intellivision intend to grow through the support of independent game developers, and that’s where prospects get murky. A few years ago, a small cadre of independent Android-based microconsoles, led by Kickstarter-hatched Ouya, sought to build a business by providing a platform for smaller developers. Some, like the Mad Catz Mojo, even had access to Google Play for a ready library of games. But Ouya’s console business soon collapsed and none of its competitors made much headway.

In contrast to these more open devices in development, the well-executed retro NES Classic Super NES Classic consoles from Nintendo have sold so well that retailers frequently run out of stock. That’s not surprising given that they are the exclusive way to legally access old Nintendo titles on a plug-and-play console, an opportunity that Nintendo sat out for years. But like most of the Flashback consoles, they can’t be (legitimately) expanded to run new games and have no Internet connectivity.

Retro consoles may do an excellent job at re-creating the excitement of the past, but ultimately neither the original Atari nor Intellivision could find their way to a prosperous future. That’s an unfortunate aspect of video-game history that their reincarnations may also faithfully re-create.

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About the author

Ross Rubin is founder and principal analyst at Reticle Research. He has been covering consumer technology and innovation for two decades.

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