Death by Controller – The Atari 5200 Super System
A game console can have advanced graphics, a large collection of games and a decent price tag, but as we see from our current console market, and the success of the Nintendo Wii, sometimes its the controller that can make the system. The Wii is flying off shelves and it outselling both the Xbox 360 and the PS3 which arguably have better graphics and a larger selection of game available. Yet I dare you to try out all 3 systems and tell me that the Wii, with its innovative control system is not a joy to play. The Wii is an example of the controller saving a gaming system, but if you jump back to 1982 with me you can see an example of just the opposite, the Atari 5200 Super System.
In 1982 the venerable and super popular Atari 2600 was already over a half-decade old and Atari was looking to launch the next great system. What they came up with was the gigantic Atari Video System X. Which, when it was released, became known as the Atari 5200 Super System. Originally designed to compete with the, then ascendant Intellivision, the 5200 actually wound up competing against the much more popular and well-ensconced Colecovision. The system release was greeted with mixed reviews and like all game systems, it had its pros and its cons.
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 5200 was a well-intentioned system that was led astray by feature addiction. Like many companies, they seemed to be so obsessed with adding an extra bullet point to the box that they forgot the main rule of gaming. They need to fun. The Atari 5200 Super System games may have been fun, but it was difficult to confirm that after soaking my crippled hands in ice water after spending an afternoon playing Pac-man over at my friend’s house.
Could it have been that simple? Change the joystick, sell the system? It is hard to tell. The game market was already pretty saturated, and most people who had an Atari 2600 didn’t feel it was worth it to pony up money for a new system in the early 80s economic doldrums. There are a lot of “What Ifs” associated with this system. Yet I would go out on a fairly sturdy limb and state that if the Atari 5200 Super System had a better controller and allowed for backwards compatibility (and of course Atari had better management), I might be enjoying a game of Dead Rising on my Atari 166400 Super Duper System instead of my Xbox 360.