Two gaming console announcements this week made my thumbs twitch and my teeth itch. Each arrived from the extremes of consumer gaming – at least chronologically.
The Atari 2600+ tries to resurrect the first breakout home-gaming console and introduce it to a new generation. Or, more likely, entice an older generation steeped in nostalgia to part with their cash.
Meanwhile, the PlayStation Portal finally unveiled Sony’s long-rumoured vision for handheld AAA gaming. And I don’t mind admitting both announcements left me scratching my head.
The Atari 2600 is a relic. It’s rooted in hardware designed for playing Pong – a title that falls far short of what even most gaming veterans would consider classic gaming. Games created for the system won’t hold most people’s attention. (Apart from H.E.R.O., which is still brilliant, obviously.) And for those die-hard enthusiasts who still swear by games that make Commodore 64 titles seem like modern AAA offerings by comparison, the 2600+ seems an odd choice too.
That’s because Atari’s new/old machine straddles the line between retro and modern fare and yet is neither. It shoots for authenticity by allowing you to plug-in decades-old Atari cartridges and joysticks. But in reality it’s no more authentic than an Evercade. The unit’s just doing something fancy to squirt a cartridge ROM into an emulator running on yet another low-end board.
So who’s the target audience for this strange console? The Atari Flashback and Atari game compilations cater for casual gamers. Proper geeks have original hardware wired up to a CRT. Any remaining niche in this space must be so thin as to be barely discernible in three dimensions. Yet even this makes more sense to me than what Sony cooked up.
To PSP or not to PSP
Over the years, Sony’s gaming strategies left me feeling conflicted. The original PlayStation upended much of what I loved about gaming at the time, by demanding everything had to be in 3D. But the market later made peace with past and present through mash-ups and innovation in the rapidly evolving handheld space.
Nintendo had long dominated there, but Sony twice grabbed my attention with fantastic handhelds of its own. First, there was the PSP, into which I may as well have glued superb racer OutRun 2006: Coast 2 Coast. Next, the Vita, featuring seminal Jeff Minter blaster TxK.
So I was surprised by the PlayStation Portal, a fancy screen sandwiched between a cleaved-in-two DualSense, designed to remotely play games living on your PS5. And nothing more. In a world where PS Remote Play exists on devices from Retroids to phones to Steam Decks. All of which do far more. It’s like a Sony exec quaffed too much sherbet, saw a Wii U controller and screamed “I WANT THAT!” until engineers reluctantly complied.
Still, I take solace in the fact that I’m equally perplexed by these efforts from the cutting-edge of gaming and its distant past. Also that it’s not just me. Judging by online reactions, I’m far from alone.
Let’s just hope these devices don’t signal gaming heading into ever-stranger niche territory. I’m not sure we need a three-quarter-size ZX Spectrum, demanding you load games from tape to simulate the nostalgic joy of waiting 20 minutes for a game to appear. Nor does Microsoft need to respond to the PlayStation Portal with Xbox Mobile: 4K gaming on a colossal screen/controller combo even more unwieldy than The Duke – and only usable if you sit fewer than 37cm from your actual Xbox console.