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Atari 5200 Guide

Atari 5200 Guy



If you are here then you either have a 5200 console and not sure what to do with it or you have had one for a while that is not wanting to work right or at all. In either case the system is most likely used, has not been played in quite sometime, and the controls are not working. Am I right?


Then welcome to the Atari 5200 guide! I will do my very best to help you get your system cleaned up, hooked-up the way it was intended, so that it can be enjoyed the way it was intended. Be advised, though, that the 5200 is a delicate console. It will last for a very long time if knowledge is shared on its operation and such. It is not a console intended to sit on a shelf, closet, basement, or where ever, for months on end without using it. Not using a 5200 will do it more harm than good, even after giving it a lot of tender loving care. This will be a multiple-part series covering how to use, clean, and maintain the 5200 console and its controllers. Ready? Let's get started! I'm already excited!!


What You Should Have


If you have just purchased a 4-port 5200 (four controller ports on the front of the system) you should have:

  • A 4-port 5200 console
  • An Original 5200 A/C Adapter (do NOT use any other adapter or you may destroy the console!)
  • An Original 5200 Automatic RF Switchbox
  • At least one original 5200 controller
  • At least one 5200 game of your choice

If you have just purchased a 2-port 5200 (two controller ports on the front of the system) you should have:

  • A 2-port 5200 console
  • An Original 5200 A/C Adapter (do NOT use any other adapter or you may destroy the console!)
  • A 2600-style RF Switchbox or a Cable-Ready Adapter is OK
  • At least one original 5200 Controller
  • At least one 5200 game of your choice

NOTE: There has been known identity problems with an A/C Adapter included with the 5200 and those included with the 400/800 Atari computers. This adapter looks almost identical to the adapters used for the 400 and 800 computers. Whatever you do please, before connecting any adapter to the 5200, make sure it has the Atari logo and says on it "Use only with model CX-5200". This is an AC to DC adapter meaning it converts incoming AC current into DC current. The 400/800 Atari computers have circuitry built in them to do the converting of the current to DC, the 5200 does not. Using an adapter for a 400/800 Atari computer on a 5200 will fry it the second the Power switch is pressed because the 5200 can not handle the AC current. I mention this here because I have seen this and once got a 4-port off of E-Bay with a 400/800 adapter included...and I didn't notice it until it was too late.


If anything is missing or damaged/worn out, replace those before trying to use your 5200 again with original equipment. Using aftermarket parts, especially on the 4-port console, may be more costly and more harmful to your equipment than the original-issued equipment.


How To Properly Hook-Up A 5200 To Your TV (4-Ports Only!)


You may have seen online videos or other reviews/blogs mentioning about a spark that comes from connecting the system to the RF switchbox of the 5200. This spark is caused from connecting the 5200 in the opposite order of the instructions that were included with the console. What is causing the spark is the power adapter being connected to the RF switchbox first and then connecting the 5200 to the switchbox last. You are essentially creating a surge of power being sent to the 5200.


In the words of the late Gene Wilder when portraying Willy Wonka, "Strike that, reverse it." Connect the 5200 to the RF Switchbox first and then connect the switchbox to your TV. After that connect the AC adapter to the switchbox and finally plug the AC Adapter into the wall outlet. Always plug the adapter into the wall last. This will eliminate any chances of a spark or power surge from happening.


Use the same steps to connect a 2-port 5200: console to switchbox first, connect switchbox to TV, connect console end of AC adapter to console, and then plug the adapter into the wall outlet.


Testing The Console


Cross your fingers at this point as this is the do or die moment. Hopefully you managed to pick up a game or two (or more) along with your 5200. Grab any one of those and insert it in the 5200's cartridge port, making sure the label is up-right and facing you. It will fit snugly in the port. Try not to force the cartridge in the slot as this should not be necessary. If the cartridge springs back up, however, you may need a little more force to make it fit all the way in the cartridge slot. Once it is properly seated press the Power switch.


If you have an Atari released title you should see the Atari Logo with the game's name and copyright date at the bottom. Any third-party games, like those from Parker Bros., Sega, and Activision, will go directly to the game screen or a title screen.


If you don't have a power light on the console then double-check all of your connections to the RF Switchbox. Make sure that all connections are fully seated in their sockets and that the AC Adapter is plugged into the wall. If you still have no power there is a way to safely check the AC Adapter by simply placing the AC Adapter to your ear. If you hear a buzz or humming noise then the AC Adapter is getting power and working (we will get to that in a moment).


If you have a power light on the console but no TV signal check to make sure that you have the Automatic RF Switchbox in NORMAL mode and not in STANDBY mode. Also make sure the TV is set to the proper channel (2 or 3). For 2-ports make sure the RF Switchbox is in COMPUTER or GAME mode by moving the switch to that direction completely.


If the AC Adapter is making a humming noise, and still the 5200 is not coming on, the AC Adapter may still be at fault. Inside the 5200 adapter is a fuse to help protect it against a large power surge. The AC Adapter will still hum from the transformer inside working but the console end of the adapter will be dead. Unless you know how to fix electronics, and are comfortable with taking things apart and fixing them, it is recommended to get a new 5200 adapter from an Atari dealer (which in this case would be Video 61 or Best Electronics).


If the system still refuses to work at all it may be defectively unfortunately. The good news is that the above mentioned dealers can also fix the 5200. I can only offer things to check for such as a damaged or worn-out RF cable, AC Adapter, RF Switchbox, etc. I have not had any issues with a 5200 that is cause for parts repairs or replacements other than those already mentioned. Others may know more than me and, if so, I would hope they would share that information in a comment below.


If your machine is working then we now need to test the controller or controllers if you have more than one.


Testing The Controllers


All 5200 models should have the same controllers unless you are lucky to find a Wico controller. But this is about standard equipment that would have been included with the console when bought new decades ago. For that reason this section will be discussing the original 5200 analog controllers.


This is the most picky part your will find on the 5200. These are what makes and breaks a 5200 because of the nature on how they actually work. I will discuss the insides of these in another post because I want to keep how to fix these separate from this post so it is easier to find.


First, turn off the console. Please do not connect a controller to the 5200 before turning it off if this is your first time using one. There is a reason for this which I will discuss in another post. Plug a controller into the Control 1 port of your 5200. Turn on your machine with a game already inserted in the cartridge port. I recommend Pac-Man, Galaxian, and Missile Command for testing controllers. Press the START button. You shouldn't have to press these buttons hard at all. If they are not responding well or at all they may just need to be cleaned. You can either find a video or other post about how to clean these controllers or wait a bit for me to write mine. I have a few secrets that some of those other do-it-yourself instructions may not have.


If your controller is working then try to have fun. Play a full game. Play all the games you have for the 5200. Take notes on how the controller is working, responding. Is it sluggish? Are the buttons working instantly? Are you having to mash the buttons with too much force? Keep a mental record of your findings with the controller for each game played. If you have more than one controller then try them all out taking notes on which one works best or which ones have the better response in the joystick handle and which ones have the better button responses. This will be important later.


A Bit About The 5200 Controllers


One thing you can not do with the 5200, and really shouldn't do, is approach the 5200 and treat it as if it was the 2600. While it is an Atari console it is not a 2600. And in some ways it simply can not handle the rigor a 2600 can.


One of the ways I have witnessed some people play a 5200 game is by holding the controller with one hand and working the joystick with their other hand by covering the top of the joystick. While there is no set way to use a joystick controller, and maybe I'm being a bit picky here, the 5200 controller is not an 8-way joystick with contact buttons inside. It is a 360 degree analog joystick meaning that it is very sensitive to movement. How I hold the controller is shown in the image below.




It's kinda hard taking a picture while trying to hold the controller but what I am trying to show is how I use the joystick portion. Cradle the controller with one hand where the fire buttons are comfortable to use. With the other hand try using the joystick handle by its base instead of the top. By playing the joystick handle inside your fore finger and thumb you can actually get better control and movement of your character on the screen with games that are analog sensitive. I hold the 2600 and 7800 controllers this exact same way as well to help eliminate or prolong cramps or other hand pains.


What All The Buttons Do On The 5200 Controller


The buttons on the 5200 controller are somewhat self explanatory as far as START, PAUSE, and RESET are concerned. But...

  • START BUTTON -- Starts a game
  • PAUSE BUTTON -- Freezes the game. Press again to resume where you left off. NOTE: Some games will return to the title screen if the game is left paused for too long. Others will put the 5200 in an attract mode just like the 2600 does, changing the colors on screen to protect the TV screen from burn-ins. This is normal and not a defect.
  • RESET BUTTON -- Returns to the Title Screen or another screen where you can change game settings if available. This feature usually only works when a game is paused. So, pause your game first before pressing RESET to return to the game's title screen.

The 5200 controller has two fire buttons on either side of the controller known as "Top Button" and "Bottom Button". This is to accommodate left- and right-handed players because the right-side buttons do the same as the left-sided buttons depending on the game being played. In some games the Top Button is not used.


The Keypad is the 12-buttons on the controller under the joystick handle. These keys perform various functions in the games and are very dependent on the game being played. In most games, however, the STAR (*) key is used to select the number of players and the POUND (#) key is used to select the skill level.


There were not many games made that make use of all the keypad buttons but some do. And without instructions, if you have never played the 5200 game before, can cause frustration. Most games came with keypad overlays that detailed what each button did in those games and are hopefully included with the games you find. Atari-made 5200 game cartridges had an area on the back of them to store the keypad overlays. Look there if you buy loose carts for the overlays.


How To Approach The 5200 And Its Games


The 5200 is a game console...nothing more, nothing less. But, due to the nature of its controls, the controllers movements and limitations will need to be learned first. Once you turn a game on move the joystick in a full 360 degree movement a few times. Then wiggle it some more in a left to right and back to left motion. This will aide the 5200 find the controller's center a bit better since it really doesn't have any programming to detect the controller's dead center.


If you have it, play a few games of Super Breakout to get use to how the joystick moves the paddle on the screen. Try a combination of slight movements to fast movements while playing the game. Practice this as much as you can because this is the true learning curve of the 5200; to harness the feel of the analog joystick.


Once the feeling and movement of the joystick is harnessed with one game try another. This is usually where the 5200 rules will change on you as each game performs differently. This is another learning curve with the 5200, the ability to learn the controllers on a game-by-game basis. If it sounds like a pain it really isn't. Usually a small amount of time is needed to pick up on how the game controls work the game on the screen. The main thing is to practice how to work the controller first and then learn how to play the game. That...that is where the 5200 is best approached. I know that statement is the same for any game but it applies more so to the 5200 and its games.


What To Do When Finished Playing


You will save yourself a lot of headaches, and prolong the 5200's functionality, if you do the following when done playing the 5200 for the day:

  • Turn the machine off
  • Remove the game cartridge from the cartridge slot. You can remove it completely or let the cart rest in the slot. It is not recommended to leave the cartridge completely seated inside the slot.
  • Unhook the controller(s) from the controller port(s). You don't have to wind the cords around the joystick handles and you do not have to use the provided storage space on the console. Considering the age of the controllers, winding the cords around the handle could cause the small wires inside the cable to break, thus causing a controller not to work until the cord is replaced. You can place the controllers inside the storage area of the console and feed the cables in the small holes provided on either side of the console, then close the lid. However you store the controllers try to place them somewhere where dust can't reach them.
  • Unplug the AC Adapter from the wall outlet. It is no longer necessary, nor a requirement, for power plants to give warning of a power surge. If a power plant was to perform a power surge without warning, and your 5200 was still plugged in, the surge could cause the 5200 to fail prematurely. So, if you plan on keeping it plugged in at least put it on a surge protector. Otherwise unplug it from the wall when not in use...even if for a few hours or so.


What NOT To Do With Your 5200


There are a few things not recommended to do with a 5200 console. Some of these are common knowledge while others are things I've ran into and would like to share with you.

  • Do not leave a game completely seated in the 5200 while it is powered off and the AC Adapter is still plugged into the wall outlet for too long. Others I've mentioned this to have said they have never experienced this issue. But, just for the record, when I was I think 7 or 8, I had played a game of Space Invaders before having to go to bed. When I woke up the next morning to get ready for school I tried to get in a quick game of Space Invaders again while Mom fixed breakfast only to discover that the game no longer worked. Some have said that the game may have been faulty. And while that may have been true we (meaning Mom and me) had never had any issues with buying a game and it not work. I had left the system on the coffee table, game plugged in the machine, and the AC Adapter still plugged into the wall. Because of the experience I had I don't recommend doing this. I can't be 100% certain if this is what caused my Space Invaders to fail or not but, just to be safe, I am mentioning it here.
  • Do not let the 5200 sit more than a month without using it. This is mainly for the controllers as letting them sit can cause the buttons to stop working completely or make them hard to use, resulting in a cleaning job to be performed. Let it get exercise once a week to at least twice a month if you can. If you can't do that then at least once a month playing it for at least an hour.
  • Do not attempt to clean the cartridge slot while the power adapter is sending power through the system. Even when turned off the cartridge slot is still receiving 5 volts of power. Cleaning the cartridge slot while the power is still being provided will short the system out for good. Remove the source of power and press the power switch to drain any stored power before cleaning the cartridge slot.

Remember, while it is an Atari console, it is not a 2600 and should not be used as such. It will benefit you more to treat the 5200 as a delicate computer than a game console even if it is a game console. It is a beautiful machine that will last you years of enjoyment as long as you play by its rules. Treat it with respect and it will treat you to some of the best gaming you will ever experience.


A Few Tidbits


Did you know:

  • The 5200 is only one of two Atari consoles that is Made in the U.S.A.? This is something not seen very much in the modern world.
  • The 5200 was only released in the USA?
  • You can get extra balls in Super Breakout? It's true! On your 5th ball press the one button to reset the ball counter back to 1.


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