It should come as no surprise that some of the best games available on the Atari 5200 are ports of arcade hits. Even though this was a next gen system when it came out in 1982, the types of games that were popular for home consoles were still primarily arcade ports or arcade port clones. So Atari took the approach that if they could show potential buyers that the most popular arcade hits would look better on the 5200 than any other console on the market, they would be able to continue their status as market leader. That strategy worked, but only for a brief period. It certainly wasn’t the fault of the three games highlighted in this post, Centipede, Dig Dug, and Missile Command, that the 5200’s life span was cut drastically short.
All 3 of these titles happen to be some of my personal favorites that I remember playing in the arcades as well as thoroughly enjoying their Atari 2600 versions, despite the graphical limitations. So going into these, I had high expectations and thankfully, I wasn’t disappointed.
“Centipede” looks and plays nicely but it’s clear that Atari stretched the screen out for the 5200 version so the centipedes seemingly make their way down the screen quicker than you might expect from playing the arcade version. The gameplay is traditional “Centipede”, complete with spiders and dive bombing bugs that zip around the screen so quick that they seem to homing in on your blaster. Just avoiding these spiders is difficult enough, let alone getting under them with enough precision to actually shoot them. They are worth a lot of points, however, so the temptation is always there but more often than not, the temptation leads to an early death. The question that most readers of Atari 5200 game reviews want answered is how are the in game controls using the standard 5200 controller? For “Centipede”, the standard controller works pretty well. I’m not going to say it’s better to or even equal to using a trackball controller, but lack of centering feature for the joystick doesn’t make much of a difference since you’re constantly moving around the screen at a feverish pace anyway. This is a tougher than normal home version of “Centipede” but it plays well and I can imagine it would only be better with the trackball!
Like “Centipede”, “Dig Dug” on the 5200 looks and sounds very good & a very close proximation to the arcade hit. Yet another example why the 5200 had so much potential is the superlative sound. Easily the best sounding Atari console released in the 80s (I know, not much of a statement considering the 7800 utilized the same sound chip as the 2600), but playing “Dig Dug” on the 5200 looks and sounds an awful lot like what I remember from Showbiz Pizza Place visits in the mid to late 80s. Once again, the 5200 controller works just fine for this title and “Dig Dug” is another one of those games that goads you into bigger point totals by getting you to lead enemies under boulders and crushing them. The safer, yet less rewarding option, is to take them out one by one before they start moving in on you. A game like “Dig Dug” tends to get repetitive if you don’t try new strategies and go for big points every now and then, but it’s certainly a lot tougher and will lead to accidental deaths when you crush yourself instead of one of the little dirt monsters. “Dig Dug” is an excellent looking, sounding and playing port of a classic game that I always liked but never loved.
“Missile Command”, like “Centipede”, is another trackball based arcade game that can still be played using joystick based controllers but will never reach its full potential as a result. Inexplicably, it’s also one of those games that gives me a low level of anxiety when I play. It’s hard to explain why, but the game’s premise, protecting cities from being completely destroyed by ballistic missiles raining down on them from above, might have something to do with it. You move the controller or trackball into a position in front of these missiles, thus destroying them, before they can make contact with your cities. During each attack, the enemy will also send across bombers, satellites and smart missiles, which make the game significantly harder than the 2600 version. To top it all off, you only have one ABM cluster at your disposal instead of the 3 that you get in the arcades. No matter, “Missile Defense” on the Atari 5200 is still a very fun game and even with the standard controller, it’s very playable.
Currently in my collection:
Centipede – game only A-
Dig Dug – game, manual B
Missile Command – game, manual, overlay A-