You can understand why Atari might rest on their laurels. From its introduction in 1977 as the Video Computer System (VCS), their 2600 video game console and the plethora of games for the system have a lock on the top of the sales charts. It is under the threat of the graphically advanced ColecoVision being developed at Coleco that Atari finally introduces a new addition to their home video game line, during a reception held the night before the opening of the 1982 winter CES in Las Vegas.
The project to develop a successor to the 2600 goes through a number of different names. It is codenamed Pam while under development: Video System X, Advanced Video Entertainment System, Atari Super-Game, Super Atari, and the 5200 Advanced Game System are all floated at various times by Atari as permanent names of the console to the gaming press during previews of the system. Officially hitting the shelves as the 5200 (2600 x 2, get it?) Supersystem in November of 1982, it initially sports a suggested retail price of a whopping $349.95. This is more than double the current price of the 2600, and Atari eventually sees the error of its ways and lowers the MSRP by $100 before release. Still, the system doesn’t offer any radically new technology as it is for all practical purposes an 8-bit 16K Atari 400 computer in a slick new console case sporting Atari consumer products designer Regan Cheng’s “black wedge” look. The design of the case, along with the look of the new system’s controllers, was originally created for the wireless CX-2700 Remote Control VCS prototype, introduced at the 1981 Winter CES but never put into production. The sexy case design will be also put to use with Atari’s early 1983 400/800 computer replacement the 1200XL, and used again for the 2600r., released the same year as the 5200. There is a 1.78 MHz 6502C processor inside the 5200’s sleek body, and the famous ANTIC graphics co-processor allows 256 colours with 16 colours onscreen. Cartridges for the machine contain 32K of ROM, while 16K of internal memory and four-channel sound driven by the POKEY chip round out the package.
The system had been conceived way back in 1978 as a next-wave videogame unit but was subsequently converted into Atari’s 400/800 computer line. However, enough changes are made in the redesign for the 5200 that the games from Atari’s popular home computer systems are not compatible with the new game console. Also incompatible is the vast catalog of 2600 cartridges, as planned built-in support for that system is dropped from the final design. More revolutionary is the control method, a direct response to the Intellivision controllers. The 5200’s joysticks, or ‘universal controllers’, are analog and feature 360 degrees of movement, along with a 12-button keypad which follows its competitors by allowing the use of overlays for extra commands. The nature of the joysticks also gives them the ability to regulate the speed of on-screen characters, depending on the force applied by the player in moving the stick. Two fire buttons are mounted on opposite sides at the top of each joystick, and each has a keypad button to Reset or Select games, as well as a button for pausing the on-screen action. Moving these buttons onto the joysticks allows the designers to keep the face of the console smooth and buttonless, save an On/Off switch. On the downside, the joysticks are not self-centering, making for frustrating play in games like Pac-Man and Space Invaders that feature strictly north-south-east-west movement. They are also rather fragile; highly prone to break down, the 5200 joysticks experience a return rate with consumers of over 25%. These shortcomings are addressed by third-party manufacturers such as Wico, who design more reliable devices for the console. By 1983, Atari themselves announce improved joysticks for the 5200, featuring both analog and self-centering modes, but these never materialize. The first production run consoles feature four joystick ports on the lower front of the cabinet, streamlined down to two in a later remodeled version. The Supersystem also has a distinct RF switch box, used to switch between game playing and watching TV. Doing double duty, the box serves as power supply, and can automatically switch modes as required. As an added bonus, the 5200 will black out the TV during cartridge changes, instead of disturbing everyone in the house with a squeal of static.
Same Old, Same Old
The original pack-in cartridge is Super Breakout, not the most thrilling of introductions to the new system’s graphics capability, although its paddle gameplay does highlight the idea of the new analog controllers as combination joysticks/paddles. Execution of this idea is not quite up to snuff, however, with the precision offered by the 5200 joysticks lagging considerably behind the paddles available for the 2600 or roller-ball control methods. Soon after introduction, the bundled cartridge is changed to an improved version of Atari’s port of Pac-Man, but this only serves to highlight the aforementioned directional weaknesses of the controllers. The thing that probably most hobbles the 5200 out of the gate is the anemic game library initially available for the system. Even half a year after introduction, there are only eight titles available for purchase. Even when new titles do trickle out, they are translations of well-worn Atari game hits like Missile Command, Space Invaders, the Pitfall! games, and Pole Position, among others. Over time, however, new titles such as Robotron:2084 and Joust are added to the library. In all, around 125 games for the machine eventually reach the market. Various hardware add-ons are also released, including a hard plastic carrying case and the 5200 Trak-Ball unit. Additional peripherals such as a voice synthesizer called the Voice of Atari, and an adapter to play 2600 cartridges are promised by Atari “sometime in 1983”. The VCS Cartridge Adapter does actually surface that year, although its clunky design of sitting straight up out of the cartridge slot of the 5200, waiting for a VCS cart to be slotted into it, leaves much to be desired from consumers.
The system is adapted as the 5200 Arcade Unit for use in arcade cabinets in Latin countries, as well as the 5200 Spectravision Hotel Unit, installed in hotel rooms and switchable between games, television, and movies. Atari engineers also try to mitigate one of the problems with the 5200, its dauntingly large dimensions, by redesigning the system into a smaller case. By removing the controller storage bins at the rear of the unit, prototypes of this streamlined system remove a third of the size of the original. Named the 5100, the shrunken console never leaves the prototype stage.
Initial sales of Atari’s 5200 Supersystem are respectable, but hamstrung by a combination of managerial incompetence, product line overextension, an initially weak game library, the incredible success of Commodore’s C64 as a gaming platform and the collapsing of the home video game market, the console never has a chance to prosper and even a series of drastic price cuts from Atari fail to spur sales. Production of the 2600’s successor ends abruptly in the spring of 1984.
Sources (Click to view: inert links are kept for historical purposes)
Creative Computing, “International Winter Consumer Electronics Show,Video Game/Computer Systems, Atari” by David H. Ahl, pg. 62-63, Mar 1981. “Atari, the acknowledged leader in video games, unveiled a remote controlled video system.”
Electronic Fun with Computers and Games, “On the home front: hot home games of 1983” by Mark Trost and Suzan Prince, Feb 1983. “…product introductions included the Voice of Atari, a speech and sound synthesizer for the 5200…”. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, EFWCG collection, Sep 8, 2015.
Atari Age, “Atari News – New Advanced Home Game System Unveiled”, pg. 7, Vol. 1 Num. 1 (relaunch), May/Jun. 1982 Image of the controller overlay for RealSports Baseball from AtariAge Atari Age, “Sneak Peeks – Atari 5200”, pg. 8, Vol. 1 Num. 3, Sept./Oct. 1982
Videogames ’83, “Atari 5200” by Danny Goodman, pgs. 62-64, Jun 1983
5200 gets new control! (1983, September). Electronic Entertainment, 7. Atari has announced the development and production of brand-new controllers for their 5200 Super System…
Linzmayer, Owen. “Have a (Track) Ball.” Creative Computing Dec. 1983: 154. Creative Computing Magazine (December 1983) Volume 09 Number 12. Internet Archive. Web. 27 Feb. 2016. A contact at Atari has revealed that the return rate of the joysticks is in excess of 25%.Staples, Betsy. “What’s New for ’82, Video Games, Atari.” Creative Computing May 1982: 68-70. Creative Computing Magazine (May 1982) Volume 08 Number 05. “…the introduction of the new advanced game system (5200 SuperSystem) unveiled by Atari at a reception the night before CES opened.” “The suggested retail price is $349.95.” Internet Archive. Web. 05 Nov. 2015.
Image of Summer 1981 CES attendees playing the Remote Control VCS from Electronic Games, “What’s Next for Electronic Games?” by Bill Kunkel and Frank Laney Jr., pgs 34-36, Winter 1981. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Electronic Games magazine collection
Antic, “Game Machine Grows Up” by Robert DeWitt, pg. 31, Apr 1983
Image of the 5100 prototype and VCS/2600 cartridge adapter box taken at the Videogame History Museum exhibit, CGE 2014 in Las Vegas
Image of the 1200XL home computer from Wikimedia Commons, “File:Atari 1200XL.jpg”, by Daniel Schwen (Dschwen) Retromags – www.retromags.com Santa Ana Orange County Register, “New Atari is on the way, but old unit not obsolete”, by Michael Blanchet, pg. D5, Sept. 3, 1982 Blip: The Video Game Magazine, “Where’s the Software”, by Mike Meyers, pg. 24, Vol. 1 Num. 6, July 1983 Syracuse Post-Standard, “Video Players All Wired Up”, by Carol L. Cleaveland, pg. D-1, Dec. 14, 1982 5200 game box images of Super Breakout, Space Invaders, Pitfall! and Robotron: 2084 from EmuMovies: http://emumovies.comImages of the CX-2700 and controllers from videogamemuseum.com, “Rare Game Showcase, Systems” Jul. 9, 2010 Electronic Games, “The Atari 5200 System”, by Arnie Katz, Jan. 1983