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Atari 5200 - What To Expect

Atari 5200 Guy

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I was sitting in front of my 5200 trying to play Space Invaders but my poor controller is just almost too far gone.  All the buttons work fine, just the joystick is worn. While playing the game a few thoughts came to me.  Of all times, right? I want you to see something though before I continue.


That's a happy 5200 right there.  It still works and it is always ready to give me its time when I'm ready to sit in front of it.  It talks to me.

"Why don't people like me? What's wrong with me?"

I don't really know, pal.  I've always enjoyed you.  

"Do people not like my games?"

I don't think that's it because almost every game made for you was a hit arcade game.

"Am I Ugly?"

I think you are one of the most attractive machines ever made.  I don't think it's that.

"Then why?"

Well it's your controllers you were given.  For most people they didn't work.  For me, though, I like them because they are a part of you.

"Why was I made with a handicap?  Did I do something wrong?"

You did nothing wrong.  It's just how you are made.  That's all.

"At least you like me."

You're alright, pal.

And now you, the readers, know where my thought process is.  It has taken me a very long time to come up with theories that will help other 5200 owners find some appreciation and enjoyment from the system.  I also hope that this post will also give a bit more understanding of what to expect from the system.  And, for the first time, people are finally going to see just how passionate I am toward the 5200 which, in my eyes and heart, was the best machine to come from Atari under the WB umbrella.

Theory One - The Machine

The 5200 was released during the early 1980's.  That's 40 years ago.  1970's was about woodgrain.  Everything was woodgrain.  Wall panels, floors, all kinds of various electronics.  By the 1980's that woodgrain was phased out in favor of silver and chrome...and piano black.  Think about it.  Then modern TV sets mixed woodgrain with silver accents, some TV shows had iconic vehicles decked out in black and chrome or silver including Knight Rider's K.I.T.T., A-Team's van, and Airwolf's helicopter.  It made sense to make a machine that kept the same concept.  Truth be told the 5200's design most likely was inspired by those shows or something else.  But the 5200 has the beginnings of the 1980's style all over it from its huge size to its heat vents...it is a product of 80's design and culture.

Theory Two - The Controllers

I believe this is the system's biggest issue.  For many many years I never understood how come others had issues where I did not.  Fact: my 5200 got played every single day and not once did my controller fail.  Not once.  It was mentioned to me a long time ago that using it everyday most likely kept it from having issues.   At seven years old I took very good care of my beloved 5200.  I spent many hours learning the controls before I would learn the games.  And I think the theory that I'm about to throw out there is where one common issue comes from.

I highly believe most of those that had issues had invested in the 2600 prior to owning a 5200.  The 2600 was a very durable system with controllers that could withstand some rough usage where the 5200 was a more delicate system with controllers that simply were not made to be used that rough.  See where I'm going with this?  Previous 2600 owners who decided to invest in the 5200 possibly tried to treat it the same way causing very early wear and tear.  It simply could not withstand that kind of use.

But the 5200 does have a title that seems to go unnoticed... analog controls.  The analog controllers that became standard starting with PlayStation and N64 actually owe their roots all the way back to the 5200 because it was the first console to put analog controls in the forefront of gaming.  So those with modern game consoles with analog controls should thank the 5200 for starting it.  You might not have them otherwise.

Theory Three - Generations and Time

Confused yet?  Well...let's start with time.

You see, technology has improved over time and it continues to try to improve still.  Technically the 5200 was advanced for its time and technology was there for it to introduce new things.  Analog controls being one of them but what were the others you ask?  The controller's buttons and flex circuits.  You see both of those tech advancements were new and the 5200 got them.  The buttons had a carbon dot on the underside of them that, when pressed, completed a circuit on the flex circuit sitting right behind them.  This new technology had never been used before in video game technology and the only other console to use a flex circuit was the INTV released just prior to the 5200.  

So what happened?  Time and age.  You see the longer some electronics sit before being used again the more harm that is done to them.  In some cases it doesn't matter how much or little something is used.  With the 5200 the constant use, like I did, helped the controllers maintain a good working experience but, at the same time, was also wearing off the carbon on those buttons to the point there was nothing there to complete the circuit.

Where does age come in?  Age figures in because over time a machine simply reaches the point it can no longer perform the job it was designed to do.  They can either be fixed with some simple routine maintenance or they can't.  With the 5200, however, it is sort of a random thing because if you use it too much you can wear out the controllers but if you don't use it very often the controllers can ruin themselves.  It makes no sense at all does it?  But that is a theory I've noticed from reading or hearing other 5200 owners talk about their issues which brings us to generations.

How does generations fit in?  Well as technology advanced so did the generations of game consoles.  Along with every new generation of game consoles new generations of humans were born.  It is probably safe to say that any generation of humans that got into gaming most likely started with the game console that was available with that generation.  Some had a NES as their first console, others probably started out with PlayStation or N64.  Those generations that hate the 5200 are most likely a later generation that had no clue about the 5200.  They either learned about them somewhere, discovered them in their parents' closet, attic, or basement, found one at a yard sale or something, get it home only to find out the thing works but the controllers don't work.  And with the 5200 nothing in the game can be done without a working controller and third party options are horrible when compared to the 2600.  So as generations of humans and consoles moved on the 5200 was left to collect dust, rust, and to ruin.

Did any of that seem to make sense?  I really hope so because the 5200 does have a lot to offer.  Now let's find the positive things the 5200 has to offer...starting with its controller.

The 5200 does offer all game and system controls in your hand meaning no more having to lean over a system to flip switches to change game setting like the 2600 did.  A pause button was even included on those controls and is pretty much the first console to offer this feature.  When they work well those analog controls can give a gamer precision movement that can improve their skills for better scores while narrowly avoiding losing a precious life.

The 5200's game library is made up of the arcade games that were hits and eventually became classics.  Some are spot on, some not so much but the library tells the tale of what arcade games were most popular of the time of their release.  Only a handful of games are original non-arcade games.  Only 69 official games were made for the 5200 which should make it easy to get a decent collection of games.

The 5200's design has allowed it to fit in with modern technology designs.  It is huge, yes, but it still fits well with designs that came after it.  And for me that click sound of the cartridge being pushed into the machine and the click sound of the power button then to see that colorful Atari logo on the screen is just magical.

What to expect when getting a 5200 is to, first off, expect the controllers to be in poor or non working condition no matter what others say.  "It worked when I put it away.". Yea...if it has been months since it was last used those controllers will need to be used a bit to get them back to a somewhat decent working condition.  Then you may have to clean them.  As long as the machine works there is still a chance that something can be done to fix the controllers.

Never attempt to take those controllers apart without first doing research somewhere on how to do it.  One false move can become a huge mistake and take away any chances of that controller working again.  That controller has a lot of parts that all have to work together in a very small space and it does not take much to completely destroy some of those parts.  I'm not saying not to nor am I trying to scare anyone away from doing so...I'm simply asking that anyone thinking about doing so to please see how it is done first so you will have knowledge on how it is done properly.

The 5200 is a remarkable system and can offer an amazing amount of enjoyment, and I can't express this enough, as long as it is cared for, never treated like it is a 2600, and used often.  Learn the system first by getting use to the controllers before you attempt to learn the games.  Seriously, just play around with some games without being serious to get the feeling of those controllers on a per game basis.  If you can master that, then master your games, you will get one heck of a gaming experience from the 5200.  And that is what you can expect.




Edited by Atari 5200 Guy
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