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Atari - A Tale of Two Systems
Atari 5200 and Atari 7800

by Bill Loguidice

The Atari 5200 SuperSystem, released in the US in late 1982, was the direct follow-up to the highly successful Atari 2600 (VCS), and predecessor of the Atari 7800 ProSystem. Atari chose to design the 5200 around technology used in their popular Atari 400/800 8-bit computer line, but was not directly compatible, unlike Atari's much later pastel-colored XEGS (XE Game System) console. The similarities in hardware did allow for relatively easy game conversions between the two systems, however, particularly when porting from the computer line to the 5200.

The Atari 5200, as designed, was more powerful than Mattel's Intellivision and roughly equivalent to Coleco's ColecoVision, both of which were the 2600's main competition at the time and the systems Atari had to target in order to remain technologically competitive in the console marketplace. Besides the unusually large size of the 5200 console, the controversial automatic RF switch box (incompatible with many televisions of the day without the included adapter) that also supplied power to the system and the innovation of four controller ports (the Atari 800 computer also featured four controller ports), the most notable feature of the system was the inclusion of analog joysticks, which to the frustration of most gamers were fragile and did not self center (or as "The Game Doctor", Bill Kunkel, put it, "dead fish floppo"), but had a keypad that accepted overlays and featured one of the first pause buttons. Part of the 5200's girth accommodated storage for these controllers to the rear of the console, as well as a wire wrap underneath.

Atari 5200

Alienating a significant number of Atari 2600 users, the Atari 5200 was not backwards compatible with the popular system, requiring the purchase of all new software. With a lackluster initial game line-up, featuring cartridges with versions of software like "Pac-Man", "Space Invaders" and "Breakout" that were already available on other systems, there was little incentive for many consumers to not consider the competition when upgrading consoles. With the poorly designed controllers, the few games that were otherwise impressive technically were difficult to control. For games actually designed around the non-centering analog joysticks, like Atari's own "Countermeasure" or "Space Dungeon", the system fared much better, but unfortunately these types of games were few and far between.

Realizing some of their mistakes, Atari released a smaller, two controller port Atari 5200 with a standard television switch box and independent power supply. In addition, the company released an Atari 2600 cartridge adapter to directly address an advantage that Mattel and Coleco had for their systems. Unfortunately, this add-on did not work with most of the 4-port 5200 models without significant modifications to the consoles themselves.

Despite all of these set-backs, the Atari 5200 had a slow, but steady user growth cycle. Other hardware, like the trak-ball, was well designed and received good overall software support. The joystick holders that came with certain games, like "Robotron: 2084", were appreciated by hardcore gamers for allowing arcade authentic simultaneous use of two joysticks. Third party software support was fairly limited, but there were many games in development right up to early 1984. Unfortunately, by 1984, the console game market as a whole was mired in the throes of the infamous videogame crash, which left no mainstream console survivors or software support.

Atari 5200 Trak-Ball

After the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) revived the console industry beginning in late 1985, in 1986, Atari chose to re-release a smaller Atari 2600 system and resurrect the fully 2600 compatible Atari 7800, which was in development in the latter stages of the Atari 5200's short life cycle. While slightly more advanced than the Atari 5200 in the areas of graphics and overall system capabilities, it was a more traditional design and featured an inferior sound processor. In late 1987, Atari released the Atari XEGS, (named after Atari's then current XE 8-bit computer line, the successors to the popular XL series, which superseded the original 400/800 systems) a console-centric Atari 8-bit computer, attempting to fulfill the 5200's unrealized potential years too late.

Today, there is a thriving Atari 5200 hobbyist community, second only to the Atari 2600's, still creating new games. Because of the 5200's relatively swift demise, there are also an unusually high number of prototypes, many of which have been made available. For the modern collector, the hardware units themselves are relatively easy to find, but the fragile controllers in good working order are not. Further complicating matters, the cheap controller contacts require regular cleaning, as they corrode whether the joysticks are used a lot or simply put in storage and not used at all. The usual fix is to open the controllers and clean the contacts with a pencil eraser, removing what looks like black dirt (the corrosion). Obviously, this type of cleaning can only be done a finite number of times before certain controller elements completely wear out or fail from the repeated maintenance. There were rumors that if the videogame crash hadn't taken place when it did, Atari was going to release a new generation of self-centering 5200 controllers. Instead, third party joystick solutions, including "y" adapters for regular Atari joysticks, as well as the first party trak-ball unit, were released, but are now difficult to locate. Repair kits, refurbished joysticks and adapters for other controller types are readily available, but tend to be a hassle for those without a serious dedication to the system.

What one is left with when examining the life of the Atari 5200 SuperSystem, is a look at a relatively powerful game console with an interesting, if somewhat small software library, and one of the overall worst default mainstream controllers in the history of electronic gaming, from a company that should have known better.

The aforementioned Atari 7800 ProSystem was originally scheduled for launch in late 1984 as the follow-up to the misguided 5200, but didn't see a full release until 1986 in the US. Instead of competing with comparatively weaker systems like the 5200 and ColecoVision, the later release date for the 7800 brought direct competition from the more robust NES, released in late 1985, and the Sega Master System (SMS), which, like the ProSystem, was released in 1986.

In late 1984, despite having had successful showings at trade events, an extensive and enthusiastic preview in one of the top video and computer game magazines of the day (Electronic Games), retail orders already taken, and warehouses full of stock, Atari management decided to shelve the system and its launch games in favor of their computer line when it became apparent to them - and seemingly everyone else in the industry - that the videogame depression had become an irreversible crash. Also put on the shelf was a redesigned 2600, dubbed the Atari 2600jr due to its diminutive size. These moves have often been criticized in hindsight, but for those around at the time, it was clear that videogames were being supplanted by low cost and powerful personal computers as the more flexible game machines of choice, and a game system in the traditional sense simply wouldn't be financially sustainable.

All this changed in 1985, however, when Nintendo test marketed their successful Japanese game system in America, the Famicom (short for Family Computer), as the redesigned NES. Interestingly, Nintendo originally approached Atari in early 1984 about marketing and distributing the Famicom in America, but many factors, including management changes and the rapid decline of the videogame industry, led Atari to pass on the opportunity and force Nintendo to partner with Worlds of Wonder (the makers of "Teddy Ruxpin" and "Laser Tag"), and eventually go it alone. With a full product roll-out and clever marketing, by 1986, Nintendo caught the buying public's fancy and rejuvenated the videogame market. Atari, and soon Sega, took notice of Nintendo's success and quickly released systems of their own to try and capitalize on Nintendo's momentum.

Atari 7800

Atari, with no real interest or time to develop new technology, decided to take the Atari 7800 and its existing warehoused software and release the system as-is. Unlike the NES, which was seemingly full of new ideas, the 7800's deployment strategy was straight out of 1984, as were the initial games. The cartridge included with the 7800 system, Pole Position II, looked primitive and simple in comparison to one of the NES' included titles, the now legendary Super Mario Bros. Surprisingly, around the same time, Atari also released the 2600jr for $50 (USA), supposedly as the system for gamers on a budget, despite the fact that the 7800 was fully backwards compatible, with the ability to utilize nearly all existing 2600 software and peripherals. Finally, there were even a few releases of remaining stocks of 5200 software, including titles that didn't make it out during the system's short prime, like "Gremlins".

With lack of an innovative initial line-up of games, retailer indifference, absence of any real third-party software support due to Nintendo's infamous contracts, and lackluster marketing, the 7800, despite eventually selling a few million systems, never really caught on. To further add confusion to Atari's renewed videogame initiatives, a third system (not counting the abandoned 5200), the XEGS, a console-centric Atari 8-bit computer, was released in late 1987, complete with keyboard and an Atari 2600/7800 compatible light gun, bringing the company full circle to their original vision with the failed 5200, but further removing company and development resources from the 7800.

As described earlier, the Atari 7800 came bundled with a Pole Position II cartridge and one controller-a digital joystick with two side buttons similar in shape to the Atari 5200's analog controllers, but having no keypad. Atari kept the design simple, which had worked well for the Atari 2600's controllers, but the build quality was not as high, and some found it uncomfortable. The 7800's single joystick controller contrasted sharply with the then revolutionary NES and SMS gamepad designs, but, for the European release of the ProSystem, Atari instead packaged two of their own interpretations of a gamepad in with the system, as well as built "Asteroids" directly into the console's memory. Unfortunately, the original configuration in North America remained the same in that region throughout the rest of the system's production cycle. In fact, the NES, and eventually the SMS, were available in various interesting boxed configurations, including those with light guns and various other peripherals, while Atari never came out with anything comparable for the 7800, eventually only going as far as releasing a few compatible games for use with the XEGS light gun. Ironically, Atari had plenty of exciting peripherals either developed or in development, such as a keyboard add-on and high score cartridge, but Atari's management decided each time to pass on a release.

As mentioned earlier, one of the major criticisms - perhaps unfairly - of Atari's 5200 when first released, was that it wasn't backwards compatible with the most popular system of the day, their own 2600. Atari rectified this situation by designing the Atari 7800 from a base of 2600 technology, providing almost perfect backwards compatibility, with the few inconsistencies due to several minor 7800 production revisions over the years. A type of encryption key was used to determine whether software should run in the system's 7800 or 2600 modes, and also acted as a way to ensure only authorized software ran on the system, something not possible on prior Atari consoles. While Atari, unfortunately, did not update the 7800's base sound capabilities beyond the 2600's level, there was an ability to add a custom sound chip - the Atari 5200's excellent "POKEY" - internally to a cartridge to enhance audio, usable either by itself or in conjunction with the built-in sound processor. Atari did update the graphics and other functions internally within the 7800 via several new chips, the most important of which was the "MARIA", which could allow over 100 objects on-screen at one time and provided for very stable, flicker-free images, particularly in comparison to the competition.

Much the same as Atari's management refused to release any peripherals for the 7800, and split already limited company resources across two other consoles and several different computers, an executive decision was made to keep cartridge RAM (memory) sizes small to minimize costs. Unfortunately, this in turn limited how advanced games could become, creating unfavorable comparisons to both NES and SMS software, which were under no such restrictions. Worse, there were even rumors that Atari purposely downgraded certain Atari 7800 titles so as not to outshine their own XEGS. In spite of this, a few games did eventually get released that demonstrated the ProSystem's potential and created more favorable comparisons, albeit too late to make a difference in the hotly contested marketplace of the mid- to late-1980's. As for the 7800's outdated internal sound technology, only two games implemented the POKEY chip option, creating too few examples of the system's extended audio capabilities. In short, these limited uses of the system's power, combined with the fact that many Atari 2600 games were also labeled for use on the 7800, gave many the false impression that the system wasn't competitive.

The 7800 ProSystem's history, like many Atari consoles, is that of a system whose full potential was never realized. Atari's management was responsible for many of the system's implementation blunders, but ultimately, the 7800 was a victim of bad timing, first with the 1984 videogame crash, and second going up against Nintendo and their eventual greater than 90% share of the videogame market, and all the industry influence that entails.

While it will probably never have the sizable hobbyist communities of the 2600 or 5200, there nevertheless is a growing movement for new developments, which bodes well for collectors, as the system and a lot of its software is still fairly easy to locate on the used market. Despite some difficulty in finding original working two-button controllers, unlike the 5200, there are readily available third-party solutions, and many of the games use standard single-button 2600-style controllers anyway. This type of controller is always easy to find, and even most SMS and Sega Genesis/Megadrive controllers work for all single button games without modification.

                              by Bill Loguidice

A small selection of Atari controllers through the years. From left to right: Atari 2600 VCS pack-in joystick, Atari 2600 VCS paddle controller (1 of 2), Atari 2600 VCS keyboard controller (usually 2), Atari 2600 VCS racing controller (essentially a paddle controller that spins freely), Atari trak-ball controller (compatible with all Atari systems up to Jaguar), Atari 2600 VCS video touch pad, Atari 5200 pack-in controller, Atari 7800 US pack-in controller, Atari XEGS pack-in controller (same as 2600 pack-in except different color) and Atari Jaguar joypad. For a company that got so much right with their first Atari 2600 VCS pack-in joysticks and did so well designing alternative controllers, the pack-in controllers for the Atari 5200, 7800 and Jaguar were particularly disappointing for many game players.

This article originally appeared in the premiere online edition of Armchair Arcade.
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