Doomed from the beginning. This could be the tagline to describe in a nutshell the life of the Atari 5200, the forgotten son of the console that defined the videogame industry. Even though the console has never, NEVER been a success, I thought It would be anyway nice to talk a bit of it, just to try to remember what it could have been and what it really was. And to say quietly “Happy Birthday, 5200”.
The story in a nutshell
At the end of the 70s Atari was without any doubtthe leader in the worldwide home entertaiment market. Its Atari 2600 was everywhere and the company reached, at least in the US peaks of 70% of market share.
However, with the turn of decade, new competitors and new technology started to pose some threats to Atari predominance.
First of all the market started to be more populate: Mattel and Coleco had released their consoles, the Intellivision in 1979 and ColecoVision in 1982 and they started to steal some precious shares to the detriment of Atari. Other smaller companies, like Magnavox, even though they never matched their rivals numbers, manage to sell other millions of units in a market always more competitive.
Then there was the rise of home computers. 1977 sees the predominance of the “Trinity” composed by Apple II, TRS-80 and Commodore PET and in early 80s, after the release of the first IBM-PC, bloomed the industry of microcomputers, of which Commodore 64 and Sinclair ZX Spectrum are two marvellous examples.
Atari partially smelled the direction the market was taking and they launched in 1979 its 8-bit home computer line, of which the Atari 400 and Atari 800 are the two main specimens. They probably think they could have replaced their old console but the story tells us the things tunred out to be very different.
Probably when Atari released the VCS, later renamed 2600, they never thought its success would have been so great. However in the entretainment industry (now and then) there’s no room for complacency, but that’s exactly what Atari did. Pushing hard, too hard, on its flagship, they dedicated no time to improve its technology with the result that, on the brink of the crash, they were still rely on a 5 years old console. Their poor efforts to build something new were always slowed down by the fact that the sales of the games for the 2600 were still excellent.
But when the success of Mattel and Coleco started to be worrying it was probably too late. Atari re-converted the hardware used for the 8-bit line of computers and, after having canned the project of the Atari 3200 quickly developed what it would have become the Atari 5200 that was officially released in November 1982, 35 years ago, trying to regain some gound on the competitors.
The first model featured four joystick ports and no backwards compatibility with the Atari 2600. But having noticed that those games were still demanded and successful and that the ColecoVision peripheral to ensure the compatibility with the Atari 2600 games sold 150k units in less than 2 months in the face of roughly 1 millions of consoles sold, Atari quickly released a second variant with only two joystick port and the possibility to play on it the old 2600 games..
The core CPU of the Atari 5200 is a MOS Technology 6502C chip clocked @ 1.78 MHz
This chip is one of the most famous of the time, having been installed on iconic machines such as the Apple II, the Commodore PET, in ther Atari 8-bit computers line and later on the BBC Micro and on the VIC-20.
Atari 5200 was doomed not only for its ridiculous library of games, their quality, for its enourmous and useless dimension and for the heavy and even more useless power/video supply, but also for its terrible controllers.
The idea of something with a joystick, two “fire” buttons and a numeric pad was not new: the Intellivision (1979) was the first console that popularized this kind on controller, even though the older but less known 1292 Advanced Programmable System, released in 1976 had the same style. But the main problem was that they were very very fragile and prone to break easily, especially the two lateral buttons made with cheap rubber. Plus, the most annoying thing was that the joystick didn’t have an “auto-center” so it didn’t go back to the original central position when it was not used, affecting also the gameplay.
For this reason a lot of third parties started to release their own compatible joystick, even though someone decided it was better to play with the original Atari 2600 joysticks, sacrificing furthermore the gameplay. Not that the 5200 games had this wonderful gameplay tho…
The video signal of the Atari 5200 comes from two differente chips: ANTIC e GTIA. While ANTIC is the real generator of the signal, GTIA only gives an interpretation of these data and convert them in something that can be reproduced on the TV. CTIA also adds coplor to the signal, draws the sprites and detect the collisions.
Most of the games released were re-release of games already appeared on the Atari 2600, slightly improved in the graphics or ports/re-edition of games released for the Atari 400/800 with which the console shared a large part of the hardware.
One of the most successful game, just because it was shipped together with the console, was Super Breakout, sort of update of Breakout for the atari 2600 that didn’t showcased the superior hardware of the new console. If you compare Super Breakout with ColecoVision Donley Kong, bundled with the console you can quickly understand why Atari 5200 struggled to impose itself on the market
The miserable number of 69 games were released for the console. Even the homebrew scene seems like they have forgotten the console for the small number of “modern” titles developed through the years. Even now, as it was in 1982-1984, people are more prone to work on the 2600. However, even if the “new” titles are all but abundant is emblematic that, even an influential modern magazine like Retro Gamer, put in the top-10 list of games 6 homebrew titles, of which one of them in first place, 2010 game Sinistar.
Among the original games, just a few of them deserved to be remembered. Probably the best or one of the best is Q*Bert with smooth graphics and a well known gameplay that always helps.
Other two good titles are Zaxxon, a port of the original arcade for sure more accurate than the horrible 2600 version and Pitfall II: Lost Caverns that is hovever very very similar to the original version for the 2600.
The Atari 5200 wasn’t the end point of a concrete line of development but was more something that had to be put on sale for the fear to lose precious market shares. So from the beginning it was a sort of “unwanted son” both for Atari and for its competitors.
For sure its horrible design didn’t help the sales: it was ginormous, bulky, with an overdimensioned slot for the controllers on the back that could easily contain a bottle of Coke; it was also large and tall and the only useful improvement from the Atari 2600 is the more comfortable position of the controller ports, now finally on the front of the console, not on the back.
The console never outclassed the rivals ColecoVision and Intellivision even though it featured a superior hardware and its only merit was to extend the life of its famous predecessor, the Atari 2600. In a vicious circle, the poor distribution led third parties to avoid to develop software for it and the poor library of software descouraged the sales of the console. Atari itself preferred to keep selling and developing games for the old trusted 2600 that, despite 1983 video games crash, was still the best selling and the most widespread console, at least in America, until the advent of Nintendo.
With the market crash as a contributing factor, Atari quickly discontinued the production after only two years, after the extremely poor sales (around 1 million of units) turning the attention on the successor, the Atari 7800, announced in 1984 and released in 1986. Another unlucky console, despite Atari’s efforts.