ATARI 5200 Super System

With competition mounting from the likes of the Intellivision and the ColecoVision, Atari released the 5200. My personal experience with the Atari 5200 back in the day were very limited. One of my friends’ dad was a local TV Movie Critic (I got to see a special screening of Yor, the Hunter from the Future because of him)! We would sometimes go over to his house where he had an Atari 5200 and the Atari 7800 (he also had a giant closet filled with early VHS review copies of hundreds of movies, it was awesome). I only went over there a few times, but at least I can say I did play them! 

The Atari 5200 had a very short lifespan of less than two years. While its graphics were on par or even slightly better than the ColecoVision and Intellivision it didn’t generate much interest. The fact that it could not play the huge library of Atari 2600 games without an adapter did not help either. The announcement of the upcoming Atari 7800, about a year after the 5200 came out, spelled the end for this system.

 

The Original

ATARI 5200 Super System

Model #5200 (4 Port)

Released 1982

The first thing you will notice about the ATARI 5200 when you lay eyes on it, is that is it huge. Pictures don’t due it justice, this thing is obnoxiously big. The main reason for the size is that the back third of the unit is a controller storage bin. There is a hinged door on the back that opens up so you can hide two controllers inside when not using them. It seems odd these days, but looking at my game cave now, with a dozen system sitting around, it would be nice to have a place to put all these controllers, but I digress.

Atari 5200

  • Unit Lifetime: 1982-1984 (US)
  • Units Sold Wordlwide: 1 million
  • Resolution: 384 x 240
  • Colors Available: 256/128
  • Colors on Screen: up to 256
  • Power Requirements: 2-port: 11.5VDC, 1.95A
  • Power Requirements: 4-port: 9.3VDC, 1.95A
  • Sound: 4-Channel Mono
  • Games Released US: 69

There are four controller ports located on the front of the machine, which is better than having them on the back of the machine like the 2600 line if you ask me. The power button it located on the top right of the unit. And other than the cartridge port in the middle, that’s it. Gone are all the switches and knobs that bristled from the Atari VCS 2600 models.

And when I say there are no more ports or buttons, that include the back of the Atari 5200. The next revelation you will have when looking at this unit is that there are no (zero) port on the back. No power, no AV, no RF switch, nothing. You will find however what appears to be a long coaxial style cable on the bottom of the system. The bottom of the Atari 5200 has a recessed area with clips that allow you to coil the this cables around for storage.

This cable serves an interesting yet odd purpose, it provides the audio and video to the television and the power to the 5200. Let me explain.

Atari moved all ports for connecting the system to the TV, from the back of the unit to the RF Switch Box itself. I have never, and will never, see anything like it. Basically you connect this large RF/Switch box to the TV like you would for any other game system. You then attach the cable from the Atari 5200 to the RF Box. And then you plug the power supply for the system… into the RF box. That’s correct, the power runs into the RF box, and gets fed back to the system through the same cable that is sending the audio and video to the RF box and on the the TV. Another crazy thing to note, if the power is plugged into the RF box and you then plug in the cable from the system, YOU WILL SEE SPARKS as you plug in the cable. But that’s how we lived back in the day! We had to actually harness lighting at our finger tips to power these babies up!

Needless to say this was the first and the last time this method was used for any mainstream gaming platform.

I do like the look of the Atari 5200, but it’s just too big. You can tell there is a lot of empty space that could have been removed to reduce the footprint. That approach would happen with the Atari 7800 Pro System that was on its way less than two years after the Atari 5200 was released.

Revision 1

ATARI 5200 Super System

Model #5200

Released 1983

About one year into the life of the Atari 5200 a revised model was released. From the front of the machine the only noticeable difference is that it now has two controller ports instead of four. This is fine as finding four working controllers at the same time is no easy feat (more that in a bit). Another substantial change appears on the rear of the machine. Apparently realizing how bizarre the original RF Power Combo was (and the potential fire hazard sparks could cause), Atari moved the power port back to the system itself. The power port and RF Channel selector switch now reside on the rear left section of the 5200. One odd thing of note, the Channel Switches positions, which would normally be labeled channels 3 or 4, just have a square or circle, so you can just guess which channel to use I suppose. The long RF cable is still attached to the bottom but now only sends Audio and Video like every other system. You can also use any standard RF box with this unit.

There were some internal changes to the cartridge port which would allow a new Atari 2600 adapter to be attached. This meant that the Atari 2600 adapter would not work with the original 4-port version (although some of the late model 4-ports did have the same cart port change, these will have an asterisk * next to the serial number on the bottom).

Due to these changes the 2-port version of the Atari 5200 is the version I would recommend getting if you are so inclined.

ATARI 5200 Controllers

ATARI 5200 Controller

The infamous Atari 5200 controller I should say. This was Atari’s answer to the Intellivision and ColecoVision number-pad style controllers. At first glance this looks like a decent controller. The thing is wrapped in buttons on all sides. The first thing you’ll notice is the numeric keypad that dominates the bottom half of the controller. Above that is a tall joystick that is similar the the original Atari 2600 stick. And above that are three additional buttons, Start, Pause & Reset. On either side are 2 orange actions buttons. That’s 18 buttons in total! Which is awesome, if they worked…

The Atari 5200 Controller turned out to be a huge problem for the system. The poor construction lead to many problems, very quickly. To start with let’s talk about the joystick. While it looks like a normal Atari 2600 style joystick you were familiar with at the time, it had one major difference. The stick does not self center. That means if you press it left (or any direction), and let go, it will stay in that position. The rubber boot around the bottom of the stick will attempt to center it back, but only slightly and even that wears out over time. This can make controlling games like Pac-Man, where you are trying to make quick twitch turns, very cumbersome and frustrating. I’m frankly amazed they designed it this way. Did anyone actually play with it before they shipped?

But the problems don’t stop there. The number-pad buttons and Start/Pause/Reset buttons, which look like nice responsive buttons compared to the Coleco and Intellivision, are anything but. They are mushy and unresponsive and give the “feel” of not being pressed in. It’s odd. To make matters even worse, the contacts inside are notorious for oxidizing rather quickly, rendering the buttons useless. The number pad also allowed for overlays (also like the Coleco and Intellivision) so you could see what each button would do, if they worked…

The final cherry on top is that the connection port style is different from the Atari 2600 style, meaning that no other controllers out there could be plugged into the 5200 and used instead. This was your only option, and it was a bad option. There are some third party adapters out in the web-world now thank goodness, but I have yet to try any.

ATARI 5200 Games

It a shame the controllers were such a problem for the 5200 as I like the games! The cartridges themselves are larger than their Atari 2600 cousins. They a square and have cool ridges on the sides. They feel more substantial and heavy than a standard 2600 cart.

The graphic capabilities for the Atari 5200 were an improvement over the 2600. Games like Pac-Man and Zaxxon show that the system can get much closer to the arcade ports than the 2600 games could. One the flip side though, many of the titles didn’t take much advantage of this and were very similar to the 2600 versions, which I’m sure hurt sales. Super Breakout for example was the original pack-in game and is unimpressive graphically. So when you open your box on Christmas and popped in Super Breakout, it had to be a disappointment. Pac-Man, Defender or almost any other title would have ben better in my opinion. Overall the system is on par with the ColecoVision and Intellivision graphically. Some games look better, some look worse.

The game boxes for the most part used a cool silver trim design. They are cardboard, contained the game, manual and for several games included an overlay for the numeric-pad on the controller, like the competition.

With only 69 title officially released for the Atari 5200 the library is a little weak. But, the one that are there were very popular arcade and home titles. This is a fairly easy system to collect for with only a handful of games being very expensive.

Pac-Man Atari 2600 vs. 5200

Zaxxon Atari 2600 vs. 5200

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