Retro Game Guy

It's the 1980's again!

The Atari 5200…

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I wrote about Atari 8-bit game systems back in February…today, I will expand a little on the 5200…

Released by Atari in 1982, the 5200 was intended to compete with the Intelivision system, but also ended up being Atari’s answer to the Colecovision.  Atari had attempted to develop a system to replace the 2600, called the 3200 (based on a 10-Bit CPU).  This system was difficult to program and was cancelled.  Needing a solution in a hurry, Atari took the design of the their 400/800 computers and made that the base of the 5200.  The 5200 has unique controllers with a keypad and analog, non self-centering, joysticks.  These controllers are notorious for failing and contributed to the limited success of the 5200.  The other limiting factor was that it was not backwards compatible with the 2600.  Eventually an adapter was released, but it did not work with early versions of the 5200.  This is too bad as the 5200 is actually a pretty awesome game machine and has arcade quality graphics and sound.

The 5200 is powered by 6502 8-bit CPU running at 1.79 Mhz.  It has 16 KB of ram and 2 KB of rom and can accept cartridges up to 32 KB without bankswitching.  The 5200 also includes a Pokey chip that allows for 4 channel sound.  Two different models of the 5200 were released.  The early models had 4 joystick ports and a ‘high tech’ RF switch box.  Later models had two joystick ports and a standard RF switch box.  A few games (such as Pitfall) only work with the 4 port version and the 2600 adapter only works with 2 port versions and a few late release 4 port units.  A total of about 1 million 5200′s were sold between 1982 and 1984, when the system was discontinued.

The 5200 was not a commercial success for Atari and is typically rated low against other home consoles.  Atari certainly made some marketing blunders, such as making Super Breakout the pack in game for the system (later, they would change it to Pac-man), and by not making it backward compatible with 2600 games.  The controllers and their failure rate were also a major issue.  The engineers at Atari developed better, self centering controllers and separate paddle controllers, but these never made it out the door before the system was cancelled.  The amazing 5200 track-ball controller did, however, make it into production as well as the 2600 adapter.

In order to review 5200 games for this blog, I purchased a 4 port 5200, a couple of Best Electronics second generation rebuilt controllers, and a trackball.  In the past few months, I have really come to enjoy my 5200!  Back in the 80’s, the knock on the 5200 was that the games were just the same old arcade ports such as Dig Dug, Galaxian, and Kangaroo.  Today, these arcade ports are the strength of the 5200’s library.  The 5200 controllers are still analog and non self-centering, but the issues with excessive failures have been mostly solved with upgrades from the folks at Best Electronics.  The 5200 track ball is relatively easy to find and typically sells for under $40.  Several awesome arcade ports such as Missile Command, Centipede, and Space Invaders are coded to take advantage of the trackball controller.  The difference in playing these games with the joystick versus the trackball is significant.

Centipede for the 5200

Centipede for the 5200

Although there have been a few great homebrew games developed for the 5200, there are not nearly as many as for the 2600 or 7800.  the ones that have been released such as Adventure II, Tempest, and Castle Crisis are all really amazing additions to the 5200 library.  Also, many complete or nearly complete prototypes that have been released such as Millipede, Jr. Pac-man, and Xevious  fill out holes in the 5200’s library.  Finally, many 8-bit games such as Caverns of Mars, Donkey Kong, and Demon Attack have been converted to run on the 5200.  The 5200’s official library was only 69 games, but homebrews, prototypes, and conversions, take the 5200’s library to over 200 games today!

It is a shame that Atari cancelled the 5200, after only two years on the market, and it is almost criminal that they held back several completed games.  It is also too bad the the updated, self centering controllers never made it into production.  However, if you really like 80’s arcade classics, playing games like Centipede (with the 5200 trackball) is about as close as you are going to get without finding a real arcade machine.  The Atari 5200 is a pretty awesome game system and, if you have previously discounted it, you should give it a second look!



One thought on “The Atari 5200…

  1. I had a 5200 when I was a kid and didn’t play it nearly as much as other consoles, but that may have been due my having been restricted to playing it on a B&W television.

    There’s alot of quirks about this console that have really started to grow on me, and I recently re-invested in one. I never owned Centipede for it previously, and I’ve been blown away by how good it is (with the trackball, of course).

    I really believe that Atari was so spooked by Intellivision that they basically decided to create their own version of it. It explains so many of the weird choices in the design: The analog controllers with 12-digit keypad, the ability to store the controllers inside the unit (which seems to be the actual reason the thing is so damn big), the placement of the fire-buttons on the sides, etc. One design decision I have never understood, though, was making the cartridges so large (in comparison to the 400/800 cartridges).

    I have to say, though, that the stock controllers haven’t really been to my liking, though. I find that using a Masterplay interface with the Trackball in one port (for keypad use), and a 2600-microswitch joystick in the other seems to hit the spot for me.

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