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WHAT IS THE ATARI 5200 SUPERSYSTEM?
The Atari 5200 SuperSystem premiered in 1982, and was the successor
to the venerable VCS (2600) which dominated the first wave of
cartridge-based home videogame systems. The 5200 offered improved
graphics and several features not found on any other system during
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When the 5200 was first unveiled, Atari had solid reasons for
optimism. After all, beneath the sleek, uncluttered exterior of the
unit lurked the throbbing power of a 16K computer designed
specifically to play high-quality games. The heart of the Super
System was, in essence, an Atari 400/800 computer, the most powerful
8-bit home computer system of its era, and thus games could
theoretically be easily (and rapidly) ported between the two
The controllers have a small calculator-sized numeric keypad and two
fire buttons are located at each side. The controller was a gallant
attempt at cross-breeding the trak-ball and conventional joystick. It
uses an analog control mechanism, offering a full 360 degrees of
mobility instead of the usual 4 or 8 positions. There is a speed
control built-in, which, on specific cartridges, allows the player to
speed up the action. The harder the stick is pushed to any given
direction, the faster the on-screen moving object will zip across the
playfield. Also found on the controller is a "pause" button which
enables the player to put any game on hold for as long as he likes.
This now-standard feature on modern systems was first pioneered on
the 5200. Atari's attempt at revolutionizing the joystick, however,
turned out to be a mixed bag. The controllers do not self-center,
making games like Pole Position and Star Raiders a joy to play. On
the other hand, games that demand precise, 4-way input from the
player (like Pac-Man) can be an exercise in frustration for many
gamers. In addition, the joysticks are infamous for being among the
most unreliable controllers ever made.
In addition to the then-futuristic but flakey controllers, the
SuperSystem offered several other advancements in hardware design.
4-port 5200 systems utilized a special switch box where the power
supply plugs directly into the switch box and not the system itself.
Furthermore, the switch box was automatic, meaning the user was no
longer required to walk to the back of the television and select
between "TV" or "Game" each time to select the mode he or she
desired (later 2-port systems reverted back to the standard RF
switchbox found in just about ever other game console.) In
addition, a special feature only found in the 5200 put the screen
on silent black when you change cartridges (no more raspy white
Although the 5200 enjoyed moderate success during its heyday, the
gaming public never completely warmed to the SuperSystem, and the
"Great Videogame Crash of 1983" helped to seal its fate along with
the rest of the home videogame consoles. It should be noted,
however, that the 5200 was outselling the Colecovision when Atari
decided to pull the plug on its advanced video game system in 1984.
The software selection at launch consisted mostly of proven but tired
classics that failed to utilize the 5200's audio/visual talents.
Titles such as Super Breakout, Galaxian and Space Invaders were
unsuccessful in generating excitement among gamers who were looking
for the "next wave" in console gaming. Once the system passed
through its introductory period, however, Atari began to liberally
salt the 5200 library with glittering new gems like Qix, Vanguard,
Robotron:2084, Space Dungeon, Pengo, Joust and Ms. Pac-Man. Atari
also had first call on games marketed by its coin-op arm, which
brought arcade hits such as Dig Dug, Pole Position and Centipede
home. By the time the 5200 was settled in with a respectable library
of quality titles, however, it was too late. The Great Crash of 1983
was well under way, and the 5200 joined the likes of Colecovision,
Vectrex, Intellivision and others as the home console market came
crumbling down. As a result, there is an inordinately high number of
prototypes which exist for the 5200.
Upon hindsight, the reasons as to why the 5200 never became the sales
success that Atari had hoped are quite apparent. Despite being a
large company for its time, not even a behemoth like Atari had the
means to support four product lines with quality games for each
(2600, 5200, 400/800 and coin-op). Resources which should have been
allocated for 5200 game development went instead to the 2600, a
system which was on its last legs and already saturated with software
from Atari and its third party publishers. In addition, the fact
that the 5200 was not compatible with the 2600 put off many 2600
owners who had accumulated a substantial library of games for the
system (a VCS adapter which allowed 2600 games to be played on the
5200 was later released). Furthermore, although the 5200 was a
quantum leap beyond the 2600 in terms of technology, the SuperSystem
was not that much better than Colecovision and Vectrex. But perhaps
the main factor that led to the doom of the 5200 -- and, for that
matter, the entire home gaming industry -- was the result of the
rapid price drop of affordable game-oriented computers like the Atari
800XL and Commodore 64, both of which were sub-$300 gaming machines
that also doubled as computing and productivity devices.
Today, the Atari 5200 is a favorite among retrogamers, nostalgists
and collectors. While many of the coin-op translations have
subsequently been improved upon by modern systems, there are
an abundance of compelling games that no gamer should be without.
Space Dungeon, Rescue on Fractalus, Qix, Beamrider, Gremlins, Bounty
Bob Strikes Back (the spectacular sequel to Miner 2049er), Pengo,
Wizard of Wor, Berzerk, Missile Command and Centipede are some of the
shining stars among the impressive repertoire of 5200 cartridges.
The latter two are especially enjoyable when played with the optional
Trak-ball controller. For those who are more gamer than collector
and have $125 to burn, he or she can purchase a 5200 multicart from
Sean Kelly. Not only does the multicart contain every released game
in the 5200 library, but virtually every prototype game known to
exist is included as well! And that's a good thing when you consider
that the SuperSystem has an outrageously large amount of prototypes,
some of which are fantastic. (Jr. Pac-Man, Xari Arena, Meebzork,
Millipede and Track and Field come to mind).
Despite its relative small library of games and being a lukewarm
seller in the early 1980s (compared to the 2600), the Atari 5200
has a significant following of die-hard enthusiasts and collectors
who recognize its excellence as a gaming machine. And that, folks,
speaks volumes about a home videogame system that rode off into the
sunset over a decade ago!