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My thoughts on the 5200



The other day I referred to Sub Scan from Sega as a bad idea… That got me thinking, or well, recalling something I had been thinking of previously. By 1983 the Atari 2600 was a pretty old console by console standards, and was being faced with fierce competition from Mattel with their superior in almost every way Intellivision, Magnavox need not apply themselves to this squabble. Atari needed a console that would trounce the Intellivision and the rumored super-console from Coleco, so Atari gathered their greatest minds and…


 Instead of coming up with new hardware like with what they did for the 2600 or their 8-Bit series of computers, Atari simply recycled verbatim their 8-Bit hardware. Funnily enough Atari would do this again with the XEGS. The result was a game console with games programmed for a computer, some of which required the use of a keyboard. But it was perfect for something to quickly shove out the door, hell, most of the games were already programmed, just slap them in a cartridge and send them on their way. This seemed like a good idea, on paper this is a low cost way of releasing a solid game console, sure the hardware was four years old, but compared to machines of the time it still held its own admirably. The games could simply be ports from their extensive 8-Bit library, and they could probably rope in a few their party publishers, Parker Brothers, Activision, CBS, the good ones, and as a result the 5200 library is far less spotty than the 2600’s. Unfortunately it wasn’t the technology inside the console that ruined the whole thing, it was everything else.


So, the first 5200 model was I big ‘ol piece of poo. The only thing it had going for it was four controller ports, but let’s face it nobody was going to get their three friends over to play 5200. Atari was really smoking some crazy shit because after their controller design they decided to innovate some more with the dual power and video system. Instead of taking a video cable from the machine to the TV and the having power supply plug into the wall and then into the machine Atari had a weird box that complicated the process. You plugged a single cable from the console into the box, which carried both the video signal and the power, which was simultaneously plugged both into the TV and into the power supply, which was also plugged into the wall. Instead of just having two wires behind your TV you know have three and a stupid switch box, because yes the stupid power/video box was also a TV signal switcher. Because of this absolutely idiotic solution to a problem that nobody had, first run four-port 5200’s are shunned and avoided because they’re a mess to hook up properly that is if the switch box works in the first place.


Another thing I forgot to mention was the size of the console itself; this thing is an absolute unit. Atari figured that people didn’t want to just leave their controllers out to get trampled and collect dust so they built controller storage into the back of the machine. This storage bay adds an extra three inches to the back of the console and it doesn’t even hold the controllers well to boot. If Atari had decided to omit the controller bays this thing would probably be only the size of a C64/VIC-20, and if they shaved all of the empty space from the inside then this thing would have been the size of a 2600, maybe smaller with a board revision, heck this thing could probably fit into a 2600 Jr. since those boards were seriously large and still full of empty space. The hardware was sound but everything else was terrible, and I’m not even mentioning build quality or quality of materials used, I’ve heard horror stories of consoles disintegrating on the shelf, because the plastic felt like it. Though it still isn’t as cheap feeling as the 7800, but we can all agree that despite being dubbed the "Pain-Line" the 7800's controllers were better than the 5200's by a country mile.


Non-Centering Joysticks, there are very few combinations of words that would elicit a cringe like those three. These controllers are complicated for the sole purpose of being complicated, sure the Intellivision’s keypad and directional disc were a bit much, but this is on a whole new level. The inside circuitry is made up entirely of a single flex board, a thin sheet of flexible plastic with the circuits inlayed. The flex boards are fragile and get dirty easily, and are prone to scratching, which could sever the connections. The joystick is controlled with two variable resistors, one for vertical movement and one for horizontal, that have small knobs that fit into slots attached to flat plastic pieces that fit together on rails that all pancake together to make the thingy on the screen move. I don't know what Atari's engineering department was smoking but it must have fucked them up if they thought this was a good design. I will give credit where it’s due, having the start button and reset button of the controller is rather convenient and the introduction of a pause button was revolutionary, but the rest of it is terrible. The fact that the controller plug was proprietary didn't help with finding alternatives as the only one there was was a Wico with an external keyboard. The thing is a pain to hold the thing is a pain to use since the buttons are so mushy sometimes it won’t register, the keypads simply refuse to function and repairs are an absolute pain in the ass. What’s wrong with contact points? Even Atari seemed to get the point when their Pro-Line controllers used the tried and true method over this complicated bullshittery. And unfortunately because of this stupid design some basic mechanics in games had to be rewritten.


In both Frogger and Q*bert you have to hold one of the action buttons to move, otherwise you’re standing still no matter how hard to torque the stick. If the games didn’t have this function you’d have to re-center the stick yourself otherwise you’d simply keep going. Some games are made far more difficult than they should be because of this, River Raid being the first that comes to mind. Because the action of the stick automatically re-centering is so ingrained into my mind I keep flying into walls because I forget to move the stick back, and as such the game is no fun to play. Star Raiders is a hassle to play with every button on the keypad having multiple functions, and having some buttons simply not work. Yes some games came with overlays but they were flimsy paper things that wouldn’t last a few minutes let alone a single session of Star Raiders. Some games are still very fun to play, Popeye, and Qix are great fun, even with the stupid controllers. Thankfully several games utilize the criminally underutilized Trak-Ball controller, the thing is sublime and Centipede is all the better for it.


I’ve heard that there is a custom 5200 controller replacement in the works and I’m seriously considering it the controllers are simply that awful. I still stand by what I said earlier about just getting the 5200 ROMS to play on an Atari 8-Bit computer, mainly because you can play with whatever controller you like. The Atari 5200 shall forever be known as the first console to be killed by its own controller, what a waste, and it won’t be the last either.


This thing disgusts me!


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I hear ya, and you're right... the standard controllers ARE terrible and they were an awful mistake.  The 4-port switchbox isn't THAT bad though (I use that thing all the time,) but for those that don't like it, the 2-port model is readily available.  


But man, this thing has a SOLID game library!  It's a bit small (all the better for completists), but there's not that many duds in it.  And most of the games are still affordable, even with the box!  It's a real collector's delight.


I hate that controller alternatives for this system are hard to come by.  But having one makes a HUGE difference!  The Coin Controls Competition Pro is a nice all-in-one analog alternative.  The Wico stick is a good analog alternative, but it's rare, needs a Y-cable that can also be hard to find, and works best with a keypad add-on that's REALLY hard to find.  


There's also adapters for using a standard 2600 analog stick (or a Sega pad) that are vintage (Masterplay) or more recent (AtariAge's Redemption), but are also somewhat hard to find these days.  An adapter can also be built to use old analog PC joysticks.


Like you, I'm hoping an attractive alternative appears soon.  The system has always deserved controllers as good as its internals and its library.

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