The Atari 5200 has been my all-time favorite console for a very long time. However modern times have not been kind to it. The machine itself is fine and I don’t mind the RF hook up it received but the controllers have a poor working ratio when not used often. Which is weird considering most other systems can tolerate months without being used. The Atari 5200 controllers, however, are a double edged sword. If you don’t use them once a week they fail, if you use them too often they can fail. It’s hard to find a happy place sometimes. However the controllers are not what this is about. I’m just setting up the logic behind my thoughts.
When it was in production the idea of full analog controllers sounded good… on paper. Once shown to the public it wasn’t all bad but it was clear that the 360 degree controllers to beat out Intellivision just wasn’t the right answer. Super Breakout was also considered a poor choice for a pick-in game but it was the only 4-player game ever released for the console. While I loved playing the game when I woke up that Christmas morning to a 5200 sitting in my living room I never found another four player game. Even as I child I questioned Atari’s decisions.
I never had issues with my original Atari 5200 because it got played every single day for hours on end. Being an only child living where the only time you seen friends was at school made the 5200 my best friend. I endured and learned how to harness those controllers on a per game basis because each game reacted differently. Each game approached the analog controls differently. It was a “how well does this work with this game” thought process when getting a new game. Sometimes the analog controls were great, sometimes they were OK, other times it was like “blah”. I still say the Atari 5200 port of Pole Position was the best port made because of the analog controls.
While I now know there were controller “solutions” those were never seen in my area by my mother or me. So the standard equipment was it. Which leaves me to the thoughts I have today that I think might have helped the 5200. Ignoring the lack of self centering joysticks, what if Atari gave two controller options where there was a choice of the analog controllers we all know and the option to pick up all digital joystick controllers which would have shared the same controller design? Another option could have been to include a cable adapter that would accommodate the use of a standard Atari 2600 controller combined with the 5200 controllers. Similar to what the Wico does. There were so many things they “could” have done when they knew the original controllers were going to be an issue.
Regardless, the 5200 is a great example of how something advanced doesn’t always plan out. It does showcase some of the best arcade game translations of the time. It is easy to see all the hard work that went into the system and its library of games. Some of the loved arcade games of the time were represented faithfully on the 5200. Games that easily come to mind are Qix, Joust, Space Dungeon, and Defender. The unreleased Sinistar is impressive work as well.
I’m sure I’m missing a few things and I know the truth behind the 5200 costing Atari millions of dollars. I just hope newcomers to the 5200 will find enjoyment and the help they need to keep it interesting. It still has a lot to offer.