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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 its time.

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 machines.

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 noise.)

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!


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