Console of the Month (August 2018) – Atari 5200

Ah, the Atari 5200. Atari’s poor, misguided attempt to make a next generation console (good idea!) using awful analog controllers (bad idea!) and arcade retreads (another bad idea!). The console was born in 1982 after Atari’s recent foray into home computing, utilizing the same architecture of their 400/800 line of 8-bit computers. Inherently, this was a great idea as the original VCS/2600 was getting a little long in the tooth and more powerful systems like the Intellivision and the soon to be released Colecovision were taking away steam from the big bad daddy of home video gaming.

The first thing one notices when they look at or pick up an Atari 5200 is the massive size of the console itself. This is partly due to housing the advanced computer hardware but also partly because there’s a hollow section at the top of the console meant to store 2 of the system’s controllers. I’m not sure that this was a good idea as I imagine many kids were too lazy to wrap the cords up nice and tight to allow their controllers to fit in the compartment anyway. All it did was make the 5200 look like a monster. The original model of the Atari 5200 came with 4 controller ports, which was a first, but second revisions of the console, like the one I own, contained only 2. Besides the number of controller ports, another difference between the two models of the 5200 is the unique RF box that both the power supply and the RF cable coming from the console would plug into, allowing the system to automatically switch from regular TV to video gaming instead of having to use the sliding switchbox that was so common. The second model did away with this innovation and simply went with what was typically found on home video game consoles at the time.

Then there was the controllers. On a positive note, the 5200 controllers were an ambitious step up from the 2600 joysticks in terms of the number of directions a 360 degree joystick could move versus only 8 directions. The 5200 controller also adapted the Intellivision model by including a key pad on the bottom, beneath the joystick, as well as two “fire” buttons on each side of the controller, for ease of use by lefties or righties. Where the controller didn’t fare so well was the fact that the analog joystick did not self center from its squishy rubber boot, meaning that players would have to physically move it back to a neutral position. Any gamer that cut their teeth in the arcades was going to have a difficult time re-learning how to play their arcade favorites with that potential extra step of moving it back to neutral. Additionally, the controllers themselves were prone to breakage due to how they were manufactured. They did include a “pause” button, which was another first for home console gaming!

As for the available games, another detriment for the 5200 was a library filled with titles that were already available on the 2600. Sure, they looked significantly better since the hardware was significantly more powerful, but would that be enough to sell consumers on the idea that the 5200 was truly the “next generation”? I think time has answered that question as the console was not a big seller and the Colecovision stole the 5200’s thunder in late ’82 and early ’83, offering more unique games (and a near arcade perfect Donkey Kong). Atari never had a chance to right the ship and provide some interesting and fun exclusives before the gaming crash wiped out any chance of success. Today, this is truly one of those consoles that people have because it existed, not necessarily because it is a must own for any nostalgic or exclusive content. However, some of the arcade titles on the 2600 and 5200 never found their way to the Atari 7800, meaning that the 5200 versions are likely one of the best, if not THE best in some cases. So I suppose that could be reason enough for a video gaming enthusiast to pick up and play a console that specialized in games ported from the golden age of arcade gaming.

Currently in my collection: console – model 2, 3 controllers, power supply

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