The Atari 5200 appears to be a misunderstood and maligned console if I’m inclined to believe everything I read and hear. “The controllers suck.” “It’s too big.” “I don’t like the weird RF/power box combo.” Sure, there is a semblance of truth that goes along with each of these gripes, but it’s oftentimes easier and more fun to disparage and ridicule old consoles that maybe weren’t as powerful as they advertised or didn’t offer a large number of great games (*cough* Atari Jaguar *cough*). The Atari 5200 seems to be the misunderstood loner of the 80s 2nd/3rd generation of consoles. In Breakfast Club terms, a pop culture reference that all of us 80s kids will understand, the Colecovision is the popular jock, or the Emilio Estevez. Everyone loved it then. Everyone loves it now, despite its flaws (those damn Colecovision controller hand cramps). The Vectrex is the wealthy, popular one driving around town in her brand new Cadillac, the Molly Ringwald. The Vectrex is the princess that demands attention but for a steep price. The Arcadia 2001 is the derelict that no one quite understands, the Ally Sheedy. What is it? It’s not popular, it’s not unpopular. It’s the weird one that throws lunch meat on the ceiling. The Intellivision is the brainy, geeky one, the Anthony Michael Hall. Mattel’s advertisements for the Intellivision used George Plimpton, an author, journalist and sporadic athlete to sell their console. If that doesn’t scream out “nerd” then I don’t know what does. What does that make the Atari 5200? The drop out. The loser. The burn out. The guy from a rough family. The Judd Nelson.
How so you might ask? Well, the Atari 5200 is an imposing physical specimen, just like Judd’s character John Bender, was in the Breakfast Club. He tried to intimidate smaller and weaker classmates with his brash and ready to fight attitude. The Atari 5200 is a beast of a console when you compare it to consoles that came out 3-5 years later and it clearly outsized the Intellivision, the Atari 2600, the Arcadia 2001 and to a lesser extent, the Colecovision. Atari continued to operate with the more is more philosophy, wanting to give consumers who were willing to shell out hundreds of dollars on their product, something substantial for their hard earned money. Something weighty. The Atari 5200 provided this in spades.
How else did the 5200 compare to our favorite 80s anti-hero? Its home life, like Bender’s, was fraught with violence, instability, and towards the end, uncaring parents that could no longer care and support their child emotionally and financially. Like Bender, the 5200 was at one point created out of loving and stable family, however by 1983, Atari was bleeding money, losing market share, and the 5200 wasn’t selling quite as well as they’d hoped. A decision had to be made and the 5200’s life was the collateral damage. Within less than 2 years after its release, the 5200 was discontinued. Abandoned if you will. Just like Bender was allowed to roam the halls of Shermer High unchecked and unsupervised, 5200 owners were left holding the bag on an expensive console that would no longer be supported by its “parents”.
Finally, and the most important similarity between the Atari 5200 and the tough but troubled John Bender, would be their deep seeded desire to simply be loved and respected. Let’s face it, the 5200 had a bad reputation as well, and some of it, as I mentioned, was warranted. The controllers can be problematic for certain games, but then work amazingly well for others. They can break down easily and may not be reliable, just like Bender, but there are a number of other amazing options that can be used to play games if you simply cannot find a working original controller. But really, the Atari 5200 just wants someone to believe in it today the way that Atari believed in it when it was launched in 1982. It wants you to know that the games available for it are some of the best home console conversions of arcade ports from the era! Many of these games could not be found on competing consoles such as the Colecovision or the Vectrex and of course they were going to blow Atari 2600 and Intellivision conversions out of the water. Atari 5200 was next generation even if Wikipedia doesn’t document it as such. Will you be a Claire and give this forgotten and beaten down console the love it rightfully deserves?
Because it’s a pre-NES console without a huge cult following, Atari 5200 games are easy and cheap to find. As a result, I had no problems picking up a half a dozen new games for my collection this month. I grabbed copies of Berzerk, Robotron 2084, Moon Patrol and Congo Bongo at the Missouri Game Con at the beginning of the month, then picked up River Raid (with manual) and Space Dungeon from a Facebook seller for very reasonable prices. I also wanted to add additional means to play my 5200 games since only 1 of my 3 controllers works perfectly. I added a WICO controller, which allows you to plug in a 5200 controller into it for the keypad functions but provides a more robust and sturdy joystick than the standard 5200 controller. The WICO controller still isn’t self-centering unless you lock it in place at the bottom, so it doesn’t necessarily perform better than the standard controller, but it’s more reliable for what that’s worth. As I am writing this blog post, I am the high bidder on a 5200 trackball controller, which is the holy grail of trackball controllers from what I understand. If I can win that particular Ebay bid, my Missile Command and Centipede scores should increase exponentially. Wish me luck (unless you are one of the bidders against me).
Final Grade: B