- ATARI 5200 CONTROLLER ALTERNATIVES -
by John Hardie
Most classic gamers are well familiar with the "curse" of the 5200 joysticks.
Even those that do not own 5200 systems have probably heard many a horror story
concerning the infamous analog controllers. Pay attention the next time you're
sitting around the campfire with your fellow gamers; I'll bet you hear at least
3 tales of 5200 sticks that are possessed by some evil entity or demon. Let's
take a brief look at the 5200 stick and see what makes it work. Or not. Then
we'll check into some viable alternatives.
Many gamers are quick to say "Those damn analog sticks!"; thus giving the
impression that they are bad because they are analog. The truth is, the main
problem with 5200 sticks is that they aren't self-centering. Analog sticks are
actually superior to digital sticks when implemented correctly. Just take a look
at the newest systems and computers as proof. Sony, Sega, Nintendo, and the PC
market all have various analog sticks available for them. Another problem is
the frequent breakdown of the keypad and fire buttons. Without getting into a
detailed lecture on repairing joysticks, I can tell you that the most common
fault lies in the flex circuit inside. Change the flex circuit to a Rev. 9
version. Then clean the discs on the back of the rubber keypads, fire buttons,
etc. Also, I rotate the fire buttons. Since the top buttons hardly ever get used,
they are usually in better shape. I would estimate that this will fix 9 out of
The 5200 sticks really aren't that bad! If you've ever played Gremlins or Space
Dungeon, you'll probably agree. But granted, for most games they are horrendous.
Precise movement and control is almost impossible which doesn't make Bounty Bob
or Pac-Man very playable. Sooooo....... What options are available to the 5200
Well, there's always the trak-ball controller!
Atari, perhaps realizing how much people disliked the standard sticks, did their
best to make more than a few titles trak-ball compatible. Pole Position or Jungle
Hunt with a trak-ball just doesn't do it for me, but obviously, classic trak-ball
games such as Missile Command and Centipede shine brightly.
The most commonly found solution is the Wico 5200 joystick.
These are analog sticks that either self-center or not depending on whether or
not you lock the joystick with the switches on the bottom. The stick has 2 fire
buttons and comes with a Y-cable adaptor. You still need a standard 5200 stick
with a working keypad and Start buttons when using the Wico. The Y-cable adapter
seemed to be a common solution used by different manufacturers. Wico also made a
replacement keypad to be used with their sticks. Unfortunately the keypad is even
harder to find than the sticks.
Coin Controls took a similar approach with their
Competition Pro Joystick.
This stick is much more solid and sturdy than the Atari or Wico sticks and has
more of an arcade feel to it. Instead of a seperate Y-cable like the Wico, Coin
Controls built the adapter into the actual joystick cable. This self-centering
joystick featured 2 fire buttons and also required a working keypad from an
Atari 5200 stick. It's a bit harder to find than the Wico stick.
The Fire Command Joystick
from GIM Electronics featured a rectangular, heavy-duty metal base. At the heart
of the unit is the self-centering joystick flanked by two fire buttons on each
side. This unit also implemented a y-cable adapter to make use of the standard
5200 sticks' keypad. I recently spoke with GIM (yes, they're still in business)
and was told that they threw out their entire joystick inventory about 2 months
before I called (*sob* I'm always 2 months late).
At the other end of the spectrum, a company called Entertainment Systems sold the
Control Guide 4-way adapter.
Instead of replacing the 5200 stick, they designed a unit that went over/around the
actual stick and limited its' movement to 4 directions. Even though the stick still
didn't center by itself, games requiring more precise movements were made easier to
control and more enjoyable to play. I've never seen a Control Guide although I would
think there would be plenty of them around due to the low selling price of $6.95 plus
The last alternative also happens to be the most useful. Electra Concepts saw fit
to bless us with the Masterplay Interface.
This miracle box enables the user to use any 2600 compatible joystick on the 5200. It
comes with an auxillary switch that functions as a second fire button, and can be velcroed
to the stick. Basically, the Masterplay plugs into the 5200 and has 2 ports. One is for
the 2600 type joystick and the other is for the standard 5200 stick. You still need a
working keypad from a standard stick to utilize the keypad/Start buttons. The main problem
with the Masterplay is finding one. They're almost impossible to find (I've never found
one in the wild myself) and if you are lucky enough to find one it's usually missing the
auxillary button. If you manage to locate one from a gamer/collector, expect to shell out
more than a few dollars for it.
make due with the Wico or Competition Pro joysticks. Unfortunately, these products
are not in abundance and the average 5200 gamer doesn't have the luxury of picking
the one they want. Basically, you take what you can get and make the best of it.