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Death by Controller – The Atari 5200 Super System
The success of a game console isn't solely determined by advanced graphics, an extensive game library, or an attractive price tag. As evident in today's console market and the triumph of the Nintendo Wii, sometimes it's the controller that truly defines the system. Look no further than the Wii, which is rapidly flying off the shelves, outpacing both the Xbox 360 and the PS3, despite their potentially superior graphics and wider game selection. In a challenge to you, I implore you to experience all three consoles for yourself and then assert that the Wii, with its ingenious control system, doesn't bring an immense sense of joy to the gaming experience. The Wii stands as a prime example of a controller that has single-handedly revived a gaming system.
However, let's take a leap back in time to 1982, where an entirely different narrative unfolds – that of the Atari 5200 Super System. While a game console's controller can indeed elevate it to new heights, it can also be the very factor that prevents its success.
In 1982, the beloved and incredibly popular Atari 2600 had already been in circulation for over five years. Atari was eager to unveil the next gaming marvel and the result was the colossal Atari Video System X, later christened the Atari 5200 Super System upon release. Initially designed to rival the then-thriving Intellivision, the 5200 found itself up against a much more formidable contender, the widely embraced Colecovision. Upon its launch, the system garnered mixed reviews, as is common with most game consoles, boasting both its strengths and weaknesses.
So, the lesson is clear: the controller can be the linchpin that elevates a gaming system to greatness, as the Wii has proven. Yet, a look back to 1982 reminds us that it can also be the Achilles' heel that hinders a system's potential, as seen with the Atari 5200 Super System's struggle to compete against its contemporaries.
The Atari 5200 had a lot going for it.
The Controller – Although the Atari 5200 had a lousy controller it did break some ground by adding a “Pause” button. As anyone who has played a game system since 1982 knows this has become standard issue on all game systems. The controller also featured a reset button allowing a player to reset their current game without getting up or reaching over to the system itself.
The 5200 also released a very cool Trackball system that was infamous for being as large as the system itself. Which for no technical reason I could find was ginormous (yes that IS a word).
The 5200 featured the first automatic TV switchbox, allowing it to automatically switch from regular TV viewing to the game system signal when you turned it on. If you remember fumbling behind your TV for your 2600 slide switchbox you know how awesome this feature is.
The Atari 5200 could generate 256 colors, which, for its time was a big deal. This, of course, resulted in much better-looking games.
The Atari 5200 Super System had some amazing arcade-style games. As you can see from the Pac-Man screenshot from above. The games were not a perfect match, to what you might see in your local video arcade, but the gameplay and graphics came very close.
This would not be a Retroist article if I did not make a reference to some sort of commercial. I love Joust and I love this commercial. It’s a sweeping epic that pulls YOU the player right into the Joust world with frightening results. I cannot confirm this but I think the player in this commercial is a young Arye Gross who played Willie in the film classic, “Just One of the Guys.”
The 5200 was full of promise, but sadly it had some things working against it.
If you ever picked one of these controllers up and tried to play a game with it you will see a problem right away. Its awkward to hold, the side buttons are difficult to push and the joystick will give you the symptoms of juvenile arthritis in a little under a day. The joystick is also not self centering, which led to some real awkward gaming experiences. Especially if you were used to playing games on the 2600’s controllers
Atari was a weird company and the controller itself was designed by a person who had never played a video game in their life. They were merely creating a controller they thought was innovative and would rival the Intellivision’s 16 point controller. The controller received miserable ratings from focus groups and was so poorly regarded in-house that Atari’s engineers circulated a petition hoping to have the controller changed before release. Sadly marketing prevailed and the innovative and difficult to use joystick with its 360 degrees of control was released to the public.
Lack of Games
You could not play your Atari 2600 games on your Atari 5200 Super System until an adapter was released a year later. This of course never sits well with consumers which is why you always see mentions of backwards compatibility on modern systems.
Check out the magic of beach Atari (okay this has nothing to do with selling anything. It just makes me laugh)….
Why Did It Fail?
The Atari 5200 Super System, though well-intentioned, found itself veering off-course due to an unfortunate case of feature addiction. Much like countless companies, their preoccupation with tacking on extra selling points seemed to overshadow the fundamental essence of gaming itself – that it should be an enjoyable experience above all else. While the games for the 5200 might have held the potential for fun, it was nearly impossible to confirm this firsthand, considering I spent an entire afternoon soaking my hands in ice water after enduring the agonizing effects of trying to play Pac-Man over at a friend's house.
Could the solution have been as simple as changing the joystick, resulting in a revamped system with renewed appeal? That's a question that remains shrouded in uncertainty. The gaming market of that time was already quite saturated, and most individuals who possessed an Atari 2600 were not exactly eager to shell out their hard-earned cash for a new system, especially in the midst of the economic gloom of the early '80s. Many hypothetical scenarios could be posed in relation to this system – "What if" situations that swirl in the realm of speculation. Yet, I'm willing to take a rather sturdy stand and assert that if the Atari 5200 Super System had managed to rectify its controller issues, offer backward compatibility, and found itself under more competent management, I might very well be immersed in a session of Dead Rising on my Atari 166400 Super Duper System today, rather than on my Xbox 360.