Atari - A Tale of Two Systems
Part I: Atari 5200 and Atari 7800
Author and Photography Credit: Bill Loguidice
Editing: Christina Loguidice
Online Layout: Buck Feris
Notes: Portions of this article's text were previously produced by the author for and appeared at OLD-COMPUTERS.COM. All photographs were taken directly of the actual products in the author's private collection.
Special Thanks: Matt Barton
The Atari 5200 SuperSystem, released in the US in late 1982, was the direct follow-up to the highly successful Atari 2600 (VCS), and predecessor of the Atari 7800 ProSystem. Atari chose to design the 5200 around technology used in their popular Atari 400/800 8-bit computer line, but was not directly compatible, unlike Atari's much later pastel-colored XEGS (XE Game System) console. The similarities in hardware did allow for relatively easy game conversions between the two systems, however, particularly when porting from the computer line to the 5200.
The Atari 5200, as designed, was more powerful than Mattel's Intellivision and roughly equivalent to Coleco's ColecoVision, both of which were the 2600's main competition at the time and the systems Atari had to target in order to remain technologically competitive in the console marketplace. Besides the unusually large size of the 5200 console, the controversial automatic RF switch box (incompatible with many televisions of the day without the included adapter) that also supplied power to the system and the innovation of four controller ports (the Atari 800 computer also featured four controller ports), the most notable feature of the system was the inclusion of analog joysticks, which to the frustration of most gamers were fragile and did not self center (or as "The Game Doctor", Bill Kunkel, put it, "dead fish floppo"), but had a keypad that accepted overlays and featured one of the first pause buttons. Part of the 5200's girth accommodated storage for these controllers to the rear of the console, as well as a wire wrap underneath.
Alienating a significant number of Atari 2600 users, the Atari 5200 was not backwards compatible with the popular system, requiring the purchase of all new software. With a lackluster initial game line-up, featuring cartridges with versions of software like "Pac-Man", "Space Invaders" and "Breakout" that were already available on other systems, there was little incentive for many consumers to not consider the competition when upgrading consoles. With the poorly designed controllers, the few games that were otherwise impressive technically were difficult to control. For games actually designed around the non-centering analog joysticks, like Atari's own "Countermeasure" or "Space Dungeon", the system fared much better, but unfortunately these types of games were few and far between.
Realizing some of their mistakes, Atari released a smaller, two controller port Atari 5200 with a standard television switch box and independent power supply. In addition, the company released an Atari 2600 cartridge adapter to directly address an advantage that Mattel and Coleco had for their systems. Unfortunately, this add-on did not work with most of the 4-port 5200 models without significant modifications to the consoles themselves.
Despite all of these set-backs, the Atari 5200 had a slow, but steady user growth cycle. Other hardware, like the trak-ball, was well designed and received good overall software support. The joystick holders that came with certain games, like "Robotron: 2084", were appreciated by hardcore gamers for allowing arcade authentic simultaneous use of two joysticks. Third party software support was fairly limited, but there were many games in development right up to early 1984. Unfortunately, by 1984, the console game market as a whole was mired in the throes of the infamous videogame crash, which left no mainstream console survivors or software support.
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