Death by Controller – The Atari 5200 Super System

Death by Controller – The Atari 5200 Super System

A game console can have advanced graphics, a large collection of games and a decent price tag, but as we see from our current console market, and the success of the Nintendo Wii, sometimes its the controller that can make the system. The Wii is flying off shelves and it outselling both the Xbox 360 and the PS3 which arguably have better graphics and a larger selection of game available. Yet I dare you to try out all 3 systems and tell me that the Wii, with its innovative control system is not a joy to play. The Wii is an example of the controller saving a gaming system, but if you jump back to 1982 with me you can see an example of just the opposite, the Atari 5200 Super System.

In 1982 the venerable and super popular Atari 2600 was already over a half-decade old and Atari was looking to launch the next great system. What they came up with was the gigantic Atari Video System X. Which, when it was released, became known as the Atari 5200 Super System. Originally designed to compete with the, then ascendant Intellivision, the 5200 actually wound up competing against the much more popular and well-ensconced Colecovision. The system release was greeted with mixed reviews and like all game systems, it had its pros and its cons.

The Pros

The Atari 5200 had a lot going for it.

The Controller

The Controller – Although the Atari 5200 had a lousy controller it did break some ground by adding a “Pause” button. As anyone who has played a game system since 1982 knows this has become standard issue on all game systems. The controller also featured a reset button allowing a player to reset their current game without getting up or reaching over to the system itself.

The 5200 also released a very cool Trackball system that was infamous for being as large as the system itself. Which for no technical reason I could find was ginormous (yes that IS a word).

The Switchbox

The 5200 featured the first automatic TV switchbox, allowing it to automatically switch from regular TV viewing to the game system signal when you turned it on. If you remember fumbling behind your TV for your 2600 slide switchbox you know how awesome this feature is.

The Graphics

The Atari 5200 could generate 256 colors, which, for its time was a big deal. This, of course, resulted in much better-looking games.

The Games

The Atari 5200 Super System had some amazing arcade-style games. As you can see from the Pac-Man screenshot from above. The games were not a perfect match, to what you might see in your local video arcade, but the gameplay and graphics came very close.

The Commercials

This would not be a Retroist article if I did not make a reference to some sort of commercial. I love Joust and I love this commercial. It’s a sweeping epic that pulls YOU the player right into the Joust world with frightening results. I cannot confirm this but I think the player in this commercial is a young Arye Gross who played Willie in the film classic, “Just One of the Guys.”

The Cons

The 5200 was full of promise, but sadly it had some things working against it.

The Controller

If you ever picked one of these controllers up and tried to play a game with it you will see a problem right away. Its awkward to hold, the side buttons are difficult to push and the joystick will give you the symptoms of juvenile arthritis in a little under a day. The joystick is also not self centering, which led to some real awkward gaming experiences. Especially if you were used to playing games on the 2600’s controllers

Atari was a weird company and the controller itself was designed by a person who had never played a video game in their life. They were merely creating a controller they thought was innovative and would rival the Intellivision’s 16 point controller. The controller received miserable ratings from focus groups and was so poorly regarded in-house that Atari’s engineers circulated a petition hoping to have the controller changed before release. Sadly marketing prevailed and the innovative and difficult to use joystick with its 360 degrees of control was released to the public.

Lack of Games

You could not play your Atari 2600 games on your Atari 5200 Super System until an adapter was released a year later. This of course never sits well with consumers which is why you always see mentions of backwards compatibility on modern systems.

The Commercials

Check out the magic of beach Atari (okay this has nothing to do with selling anything. It just makes me laugh)….

Why Did It Fail?

The 5200 was a well-intentioned system that was led astray by feature addiction. Like many companies they seemed to be so obsessed with adding an extra bullet point to the box that they forgot the main rule of gaming. They need to fun. The Atari 5200 Super System games may have been fun, but it was difficult to confirm that after soaking my crippled hands in ice water after spending an afternoon playing Pac-man over at my friend’s house.

Could it have been that simple? Change the joystick, sell the system? It is hard to tell. The game market was already pretty saturated and most people who had an Atari 2600 didn’t feel it was worth it to pony up money for a new system in the early 80s economic doldrums. There are a lot of “What Ifs” associated with this system. Yet I would go out on a fairly sturdy limb and state that if the Atari 5200 Super System had a better controller and allowed for backwards compatibility (and of course Atari had better management), I might be enjoying a game of Dead Rising on my Atari 166400 Super Duper System instead of my Xbox 360.

This Post Has 11 Comments

  1. Brian

    Remember how many games came with a plastic card that slid into the controller over the pad to highlight what buttons to touch for game-specific actions? I loved my 5200 and since it was my first video game system, the joystick didn’t bother me too much. Defender was my favorite game.

  2. vinvectrex

    I’ve owned three used Atari 5200 systems and have never found a working joystick. Despite that, I love the system – especially for the vibrancy of the color palette. I had an Atari 2600 and the neighbor kids would come over and play until one of them got the 5200. For the next few months we played that system, then went back to the 2600. I loved the graphics on the 5200, but that controller was just horrendous. I think if they’d have launched the system with a better joystick, Atari could indeed still be producing consoles today.

  3. Atari Adventure Square

    That Joust commercial is frantically freaky, from beginning to end.
    Pretty sure that’s Arye Gross, yeah.

    The second commercial is summery funtime good.
    And I can’t help but see Jim Carrey as that striped shirt guy, but i dunno if the IMDB math fits.

    Never got the chance to try out the 5200 at home, but recall reading poor reviews of the joystick back then, even as they praised the graphics.
    And yeah, the lack of backwards compatibilty was somewhat surprising, since Coleco was already making a big deal out of its expansion module that would allow 2600 games.
    Since Atari had the most titles, it meant Coleco ads could pump up its number of games beyond its competitor.
    Surprising that the 5200 team didn’t foresee that.

    Then again, it was more of a sprint than a race back then. Everything had to be out quickly.

    I’d *love* to be playing zombie games on my Atari 166400, nowadays.
    I bet they’d put an undead Plimpton big boss somewhere in there.

  4. OlderGamer

    I had one of these and I didn’t find the joysticks that bad. I apparently got lucky because Atari had different batches of the 5200 controllers and mine had working buttons for as long as I owned it. If you had good, the rest of the controller was solidly built and lasted forever. The buttons were actually good for long sessions compared to the Colecovision and Intellivision because they were rubberized. People who found them painful probably had failing contacts and kept pushing them harder and harder to get the presses to register. The non-centering joystick was an issue (but not a fatal flaw), and in certain games it was great. The dual-stick setup (another first) in the Robotron and Space Dungeon ports was unbeatable, and for a flight game like Rescue on Fractalus the analog stick was perfect. The system also had the best trackball you could get for a home console. At the time of its launch, Atari really didn’t market it as a replacement to the 2600, but as a premium alternative. Hence the big size (big=value in the 80s), slick exterior, hidden storage space, extra long cable, etc. It was meant to be played from the sofa on the big living room tv, not within two feet of the small tv in the kid’s room. Atari at that time thought of itself not as a maker of a console, but a provider of a product line. The 5200 was meant to be its Cadillac, while the 2600 was its Ford Focus.

  5. blinddog

    We had an Atari 5200 growing up and I had good times playing it. My favorites were Miner 2049’er and Pitfall 2. We had the self centering Wico stick to make it a bit easier but actually for games like Gyruss, Space Dungeons and Star Raiders the original controller worked well. Like you mentioned they were not the most ergonomic but it seemed like none of the consoles then had that down yet. My hand cramped up using the Intellivision and the Colecovision controllers too. My biggest issue I had was the fire and start buttons seem to fail pretty quickly but they did make revisions to the part to help fix the issues as time went on I hear. I did learn not to play decathlon that game would kill my controller in just a few weeks.

    Even if the Atari 5200 did sell better I think the outcome would be the same. The video game crash would have happened and the US companies would have still giving up on the consoles and try and move on to computers

  6. Rich Gott

    This post and and these comments are just awesome. We never got the Atari 5200 (and one of the reasons my father would always cite were the controllers). However, we played Miner 2049 on our Atari 800. Few games up to that point had ever been as satisfying.

  7. Geed

    Being old now, I fondly remember being a youngun and in a Sears store at Christmas time, looking at the massive wall of monitors they had set up for people to demo that holidays videogame systems. My friend across the street already had the Colecovision and was trying to get me to buy the 5200 so we could play games from both systems. They had Pac-Man on the system and I still recall after the start game jingle, as ol’ Pac chomped to the right, I moved the controller stick up and……..nothing. I couldn’t get the stick to center. I pretty sure I threw a curse word or six to describe what I thought about it. Then I got my dad to buy me Colecovision. Christmas was saved.

  8. VicSage

    Wow. That Joust commercial is truly one of the scariest video game ads I’ve had the pleasure of seeing.

  9. Doug

    That Joust commercial is exactly why Mom never let me play Atari in the house. Also, it just kept getting more and more hilariously terrifying. Just when you think nothing else can happen, dude eats the egg and gradually becomes a bird. That’s the hope of all Atari players? Weird.

  10. plcary

    I played a few games of Joust a couple of weeks ago at 1984 Arcade. Thumbs up for the game Vanguard!

  11. VicSage

    Plcary, they have a Vanguard cabinet at 1984 now?

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