Reconsidering the Atari 5200 (despite the joysticks)


Doing research for the Atari 5200 I have gain a new respect for the machine (joysticks too). If I remember My history right, the 5200 (in it’s current form) was not planned to the be the replacement for the ageing 2600. Atari was actually working on a more advanced console (Which I think eventually became the 7800)  but ran out of time. What they came up with was basically an Atari 8-bit computer stripped of what wasn’t necessary (such as a full OS), added some funky joysticks and shoved into a really big case

Oddly though, it worked.

Reviewing the list of games for the 5200 I found that the console had a rather respectable, although somewhat short, list of games: Pacman, Centipede, Mario Bros, Qix, just to name a few. A lot of the games where just ports from the 8-bit computer line which in realty wasn’t all that bad of a thing since the Atari 8-bit had a very large library.

The console was huge, compared to the 2600, but the design has a nice classic look that hold up even today. No wood grain or overuse of chrome on this console. It has just a very clean design that Atari elected to continue on through the Sears II, 7800 and Jr.

The size is a sticking point for a lot of people. I find the size to be OK. The reason for the large size is so you can store the joysticks in the back of the unit which makes for a clean look. If you got the original 4 port version you would have only one wire coming from the the TV which made for an even cleaner look.

This design also made practical sense too. Atari’s thought (I imagine) was that one would store the 5200 under your TV and when game time came would pull it out and either put it on the floor or on a coffee table. One wire to the TV and the joysticks ready to pull out and play, nice. No mess of wires from the back of the TV or joystick wires stretching across the floor.

Yup, just plug those lovely analog joysticks into the console and start playing. Wait a minute, didn’t you just say the 5200 was a warmed over Atari 8-bit computer and didn’t the 8-bit use the same digital joysticks as the 2600? Yes they did and I did. So why did Atari change? Officially, I have no idea. But I have some ideas.

First, Analog joysticks give a full 360 degree of play-ability. On some games this is great. Playing Centipede on an analog joystick is much easier than using a digital joystick since you can move more quickly and accurately. But games like Pacman, no so much. To move up the alleys in Pacman you need the absolute directions of an digital joystick.

Second, one of the problems i have always disliked about digital joysticks is that moving the stick to aggressively tends rip the stick right out of your hand. With analog sticks this doesn’t seem to happen as much as the stick itself isn’t pulling against your movement.

Third, analog joysticks were looking to be the next big thing; Intellevison used them, CoCo used them and Apple II used them. At the time it looked like maybe that was the direction the industry was going and Atari didn’t want to look like the oldster on the block still using digital.

That being said, it was still a departure for Atari to go from their tried and true pot joysticks to a analog design. Some games where better and some weren’t better.


Now for the joystick. Adding the Start, Pause (something the 2600 really needed) and reset all on the stick is nice. The two side buttons were independent which gave more firing options. The numeric pad that accepted overlays was standard for the times (Intellevison and Coleco both had such) but adding a storage of the overlays in the back of the cartridge itself was innovative.

Yes, all roses and unicorns here except…

The sticks were built like crap. The side buttons regularly went out as well and the Start, Pause and Reset. The rubber around the joystick controller tore and the whole stick would just die. The failure rate on the 5200 joysticks is just pronominal. I heard of people going through several sticks in just a few years. Contrast this to the old 2600 joysticks that would work for decades without a problem.

Lately company’s like have come up with better replacement switches, sticks and buttons that looks to have improved the life of the controllers a lot. But I would still have some spares if you wish to collect 5200 games and play them.

All in all, its not a bad system. I have recent decided to add a 5200 to my collection. But, I plan to buy lots of joysticks.