What is MyMedia Games Network Retrospective?
MyMedia Games Network Retrospective is a regular feature that will take a look at various video game systems, technological advancements and accessories from the past. This may be a trip down memory lane for some people or a history lesson for others. Over time many companies have contributed to the video game industry in their own way, whether it’s a revolutionary step forward for others to follow, or a prime example of what not to do. With that said, let’s take a peek into the past.
The first Atari 5200 featured 4 controller ports
The Atari 2600 enjoyed a long impressive run and was Atari’s cash cow for many years but the system eventually started to show its age. At this point in time the 2600 was quickly becoming saturated with mediocre titles and Atari was beginning to feel the pressure from the competitively priced Mattel Intellivision and the up and coming Colecovision. Both of these systems had hardware that made the 2600 look dated. In 1981 Atari began developing a new system that went through a number of production names such as Sylvia, Super-Stella, PAM, Atari System X and the 3200. This new system was built around a 10bit processor that could produce much better graphics at higher resolution, featured more memory, improved audio while still remaining compatible with 2600 games. Everything was travelling on schedule until software programmers complained about how difficult the new system was to program for and refused to develop games for it. Atari had no choice but to abandon the new system and think of a quick solution before they were muscled out of the industry by their competitors.
The unreleased Atari System went by many production names
Atari’s quick fix solution was to utilize some of their older tried and tested technology and customize it to suit the home console industry. So in 1982 the Atari 5200 Super System was introduced otherwise known as the Atari 5200 for short. Atari boldly introduced some ground breaking new ideas to the gaming industry with the 5200 many of which have carried on through the following generations of videogame consoles right up to the present day. Some may have noticed a distinct pattern with hardware that comes out of Atari inc, cleaver ideas often off set by bad design choices and the 5200 was no exception to this pattern.
The 5200’s hardware architecture was extensively based on Atari’s 8bit home computer series the 400/800 which was more than adequate to play videogames and easily exceeded the 2600. A number of design alterations were made to suit. Some changes were made such as the relocation of the GTIA and POKEY chips, the original 10 KB operating system was swapped for a simpler 2 KB BIOS with 1 KB allocated to the built-in character set, controller and input handling had to be changed to suit the new analogue controllers input with the obvious absence of a keyboard. The first version of the 5200 featured four controller ports built into the console which Nintendo, Sega and Microsoft later on used in some of their systems. The majority of videogame systems use a video cable and a power cable/adaptor but the Atari 5200 had its own automatic switching box that combined the two together which was first for any home console. This system helped reduce the amount of cable running across the floor and conveniently switched between TV viewing and the 5200’s signal automatically but it came with a two faults. First off if the switching box fails you can’t simply go buy a generic power adaptor to replace it only the original will work. Secondly the switching box didn’t exactly project reliability and safety. A loud clicking sound would be emitted when the 5200 is powered up and you could see sparks from the switching box when you plugged it in. Pictured above.
Throughout the 5200’s short lifespan only around 70 titles were released but the majority of these were good quality titles. Arcade ports, 2600 updates and handful of original titles were among this list. Nearly all the games released were developed by Atari themselves as third party developers were scared to jump aboard due to the 5200’s shaky introduction and design faults. One would be led to assume that because the 5200 shares virtually identical hardware to the 400/800 games from that system could be transferred over with ease. Unfortunately the minor hardware changes Atari made was enough to prevent original 400/800 game code to be made into 5200 games without some significant work. Backwards compatibility could have expanded the 5200’s game library to include the huge range of 2600 games but this feature was left of the first version of the 5200.
The large space behind 5200 is for controller storage
Roughly a year later Atari realised the mistakes they made with the 5200 and released a second version in an attempt to rectify the already nose diving system. The second version did away with the automatic switching box and went back to the traditional separate RF cable and power supply. Sturdier more reliable controllers were packaged with the system and compatibility with 2600 games and controllers were now possible through an adaptor. Further information available below To lower costs Atari reduced the number of controller ports to two. Atari did have plans to release a slim downed cheaper version of the 5200 that went by the code name Atari 5100 or 5200jr. In 1994 it was game over for the 5200 when the system was discontinued. A string of design mistakes, the lack of software, Atari not giving the 5200 full support, competition from a number of other consoles and the epic video game crash of 1984 all contributed to the failure of this system. The Atari 5200 will always be remembered for introducing new ideas to the industry but at the same time it will be remembered for its faults.
Probably one of the most poorly designed controllers for a home console, the Atari 5200’s controller had a number of crippling faults but at the same time bringing some the innovative ideas we have in today’s videogame controllers. The 5200 uses an analogue controller rather than a digital one like all videogame controllers prior. The difference between the two is a digital controller uses single electrical connections to read movement. You're either moving or you're not, on or off basically. Where as an analogue controller uses a continuous electrical activity running through potentiometers. This gives a number of variations between the on and off position allowing for more accurate control. The problem the 5200 analogue controller faced was its build quality. A cheap rubber boot was used to re-centre the joystick rather than springs. This rubber boot was prone to failure which caused the joystick not to re-centre. This issue was a large contributing factor to the 5200’s low sales figures but in 1983 Atari released a slightly more reliable variant of the controller. Many often wondered how such a design error made it past quality control and the short answer to that is cost.
The 5200’s controller featured a complicated numerical keypad and side mounted action buttons that proved to be un-ergonomic for long gaming sessions and some what of an overkill for the games available. One original feature that was quite the novelty for its time was a pause button. Having the ability to pause a game from the controller was something new for home consoles for this era and then later become a standard feature on most controllers after that to the extent we rarely think twice about. Rather than opt for the common controller plug connection used in the 2600 a new different shaped plug was used. Unfortunately this prevented 5200 owners using a readily available controller to replace the extremely fragile one provided. Even though the 5200 had a badly designed analogue controller you have to give Atari credit for introducing it into the home console scene. In the same year that the 5200 launched, General Consumer Electronics released the Vectrex
which also used an analogue controller. After that videogame controllers were mostly digital D-Pads until the Nintendo 64
was released followed by the Sega Saturn’s 3D controller.
The 5200 had a relatively short production life before being discontinued by Atari so there wasn’t a huge variety of accessories released. The majority of available accessories were aftermarket controllers or controller solutions since the 5200’s controller was prone to failure. There was numerous controller revisions and game specific controllers in production that never got released.
The Trak-Ball controller helped replicate the arcade feel of titles such as Missile command as well as providing an alternative to the standard controller. With buttons on both sides of the heavy duty trackball and system control buttons above it the overall size of this accessory matched the size of the actual 5200 unit its self.
To further enhance the game play of games such as Robotron 2084 and Space Dungeon this Joystick Coupler was packaged with the games. The Joystick Coupler allowed for two joysticks to be joined together side by side to suit the gameplay style. This accessory was only available with Robotron 2084 and Space Dungeon and was not released on its own.
One of the more popular aftermarket replacement controllers for the unreliable 5200 version thanks to Wico’s reputation for building quality joysticks. This controller came in two parts, the actual joystick featuring the basic action buttons and a separate keypad. The Wico controller had a Y-cable adapter on it that allowed compatibility with the original 5200 keypad.
An aftermarket self centring joystick made by Coin Controls. This controller featured the standard action buttons but with a more solid feel to it compared to the Wico version. Like the Wico controller the Competition Pro can use the 5200’s keypad but rather than use a Y-cable the keypad plugs directly into the actual controller.
Control Guide 4 way Adaptor
Rather than offer a different design to the original 5200 controller Entertainment Systems offered the Control Guide 4 way Adaptor which is a small add-on for the original 5200 controller. This accessory clipped over the 5200’s controller a reduced the amount of slack that as in the joystick. It didn’t how ever re-centre the joystick but it did improve the gameplay experience and it was much cheaper alternative to purchasing a new controller.
GIM Electronics Fire Command
A heavy duty arcade style joystick that featured a metal base. The Fire Command joystick had a self centring joystick with action buttons on either side. Just like the Wico Joystick the Fire Command had a Y-cable to allow the connection of the original 5200 controller.
Created by Electra Concepts the Masterplay Interface was another solution for the 5200’s controller issues but in the form of an adaptor. This accessory plugs into the 5200 unit and allows any Atari 2600 controller to be compatible. Since the Atari 2600 uses a very common controller plug the list of compatible controllers was huge. The Masterplay Interface featured two ports one for the 2600 compatible controller and one for the 5200 controller to allow access to keypad and system control buttons. The 2600 only had the single action button so an auxiliary button was used to make up the second button. This auxiliary button could be attached to the 2600 controller with the provided Velcro.
It wasn’t until the second revision of the 5200 that an adaptor was released that allowed backward compatibility with its predecessor console the 2600. Atari made revisions to the cartridge port address lines in order to make this possible in the second version of the 5200. This adaptor slotted into the top of the 5200 and 2600 cartridges fitted on top of that. 2600 controllers plugged into the adaptor but there was no black and white switch which some games required. A very small number of the first generation 5200 consoles were compatible with this adaptor. Although it was possible to make the VCS Adaptor compatible with the first batch of 5200 consoles but this required some modifications. With such an extensive library of 2600 games Atari should have made this a built in feature or at least factoring in the adaptor from the beginning. Atari suffered some criticism for not doing this.