Orphaned Computers & Game Systems

Vol. II, Issue 8    February 1999

A Strange Middle-Ground

The 5200's Place in the Gaming World

by Chris Federico

What I remember most about the 1982 advent of the Atari 5200 (or "SuperSystem") is that its promotion was centered around its ability to play reasonably accurate home adaptations of popular coin-ops. Coleco got into the licensing game late and, with the exception of Donkey Kong, had to bring home less popular coin-ops (what Adam likes to call "sleepers"); but like them, Atari was aware of gamers' dissatisfaction with a couple of major arcade translations that had appeared for the 2600 up to that point, and they used the 5200 to grab enthusiasts who wanted more faithful quarter-eater renditions.

But what this led to, in the case of the 5200, is interesting: It's the system with the fewest platform-exclusive games. Sure, the ColecoVision's own library is at least 80% arcade translations as opposed to original games, but many aren't available for other machines (Frenzy, Cosmic Avenger, Lady Bug and Victory, to name but a few). What does the 5200 offer that isn't available for other systems? The difficult yet somehow fascinating Countermeasure and the spectacular but very difficult Space Dungeon adaptation. That's about it, barring a few prototypes.

Granted, there's a reason for this: The 5200 was easy to convert games for, because it was an Atari 600 without a keyboard. Plug in virtually any 5200 game that's also available for the 8-bit, no matter which company released the title, and you'll realize that it's the same on both machines. This really sinks in when you use the Masterplay interface, an adaptor that enables the 5200 to support a 2600 joystick. One realizes that the analogue controller is the only thing that makes any of the games feel different than when played on an 8-bit computer. There are exceptions: Popeye and Berzerk are two games among the few that offer minor differences between the two platforms. But for the most part, the coding journey from the 600 to the 5200 seemed to involve little more than burning disk contents onto a cartridge ROM.

The 2600 supports digital sticks (each direction is either on or off, i.e. 1 or 0), while the 5200 requires its own special analogue sticks (returning a value for every position in which the stick can be placed, even between the cardinal and diagonal directions). The analogue controller is insulted a lot, mainly because it doesn't automatically center; but think about how uncommon such a controller was in that early gaming era. Some programmers did actually capitalize on its internal technology, making certain games better for having been rewritten specifically with that controller in mind. Super Breakout and Kaboom! use the stick's ability to detect how far the player's pushing, giving more minute control than the 2600's often awkward paddle controllers; and the only thing that tops the analogue stick in the cases of Centipede and Missile Command is the Trak-Ball, which is of course the same controller that's found in each of the original arcade cabinets.

However, this very finite detection was applied where unnecessary in certain vertical shooters (CBS's Gorf conversion immediately comes to mind), making them much harder than if only the direction itself were detected. Gyruss, inversely, could have really benefitted from strict analogue-style detection, giving the player the ability to rotate in a literal fashion around the playfield's perimeter; but Parker Bros. took the easy way out and just directly ported their 8-bit version, trying to make a 2600-style control scheme work within the analogue system and therefore making the game cumbersome. To their credit, they actually let the player opt to exclude the joystick altogether in their two Frogger games, allowing the hero to be hopped via the numbers on the controller's keypad.

I don't perceive the 5200 joystick as the problem it's made out to be. I simply avoid the games that it even hampers after a feel for the controller's interaction with the graphics is attained -- such as maze games. I just load those up on the 8-bit when I get that ol' craving to play them. The analogue stick is certainly better than the Intellivision controller, for instance. So the problem isn't really the general design of the joystick; it's the fragility. Finding a working 5200 controller is among the more difficult errands in the classic gaming hobby. The sticks wear out or internally break far too easily.

Adam actually had to get two repaired to gift me with a complete system. He could have just given me one, had he not wanted to provide me with the full Robotron: 2084 and Space Dungeon experiences. These are two of the best games on the SuperSystem, and their control methods require the manipulation of two controllers simultaneously (one for movement and one for firing direction). They're held fast by a plastic double-bracket that was included in the original game packages. Unless the player accomplishes the difficult feat of finding two working controllers, these supurb games can't be played.

The 5200 joystick was definitely a pioneer in efficiency; START, PAUSE and RESET are all there at your fingers. A little harder to find, hidden as it is on the back of the controller, is the AUTO CENTER button. (Made you look!)

Two sticks can be stored within the mammoth console itself, although they're difficult to fit because there's not quite enough room. The common cord-dangling problem is solved well, though: You can wrap it in a snug furrow underneath. One really weird thing about early 5200s is that the power cord plugs into the TV hookup box, rather than into the machine itself. I'm not sure what this was supposed to accomplish.

What 5200 owners basically had was a machine that was somewhere between an 8-bit computer and a game system that was remarkable for its era. What they didn't have was what it was ballyhooed as: a new-generation box superior to everything that came before. Those with 5200s could conceivably be called 8-bit owners, from a gaming standpoint; if they bought 600s but only cared about the games and the potential of the game-related qualities, they may as well have bought 5200s. The SuperSystem holds a unique place in gaming history, as it's the only successful box that can be considered by fans of the classics to harbor game quality equal to that of its keyboard-laden forerunner. It goes to show us that form was an aspect that companies had to take into account when targeting an audience for its systems. Why didn't Atari just drop the price of the aging 8-bit and let fly with a new campaign for it, aimed at game fans? Because programmers and would-be programmers wanted their computers to appear "proper," and certainly not like toys; and game-players wanted a system to plug their cartridges into without worrying about any "complications."

And it hasn't changed. The processor in the Nintendo 64 has a bit width identical to that of the early Pentium chips, but people in our culture have been too saturated with customs of decorum to buy complex-looking computers if they just want to sit down and play action games, or use science-fiction-like game systems that might be outfitted with keyboards and disk drives. And other people want to feel like they own COMPUTERS, dammit, and those computers better be single-colored and look "professional" among the office furniture.

It's a good thing that the average video game isn't as boring as the average person. Maybe that's why so many of us love that other world -- the one behind the screen.

The 5200 looks good on screen as well as off; it's smooth from both angles. Hook it up and join the superior ranks of the early gaming world. Just a little practice with the analogue controller yields high rewards, and you'll rediscover one palpable advantage it has over the 8-bit: You never have to wait on the disk drive. -- CF