Reassessing the Atari 5200

The Atari 5200 was a dud.  The story behind it is interwoven with the head-scratching tale of Atari’s journey from industry leader and juggernaut to has-been and bankrupt joke.  I’m going to have to insert another link to the Angry Video Game Nerd because you should watch his review of this console.

With my fondness for retro-gaming and home console emulation, I had always looked on this system with disdain.  This was mainly due to the lack of a decent emulator on which to play these games, and due to the non-centering joystick.

con_Atari5200

Oh god, the non-centering joystick.

When I did my Golfyssey review for “Miniature Golf” on the Atari 5200, I mentioned what a crappy idea it is to have a joystick that doesn’t return to the center when you release it.  I’d just like to repeat my opinion that this is just a bad fucking idea.  While I was reading up on this console on Wikipedia today, I was reminded that the prototype controllers were different than the infamously terrible crap packed along with the console.  Here’s the quote:

“The controller prototypes used in the electrical development lab used a yoke and gimbal mechanism that came from an RC airplane controller kit. This simple design gave smooth linear control and was highly reliable. The production controllers were quite different and a great disappointment to the electrical and software development teams. The design of the analog joystick, which used a weak rubber boot rather than springs to provide centering, proved to be ungainly and unreliable.”

Way to go, Atari.  This quote makes it sound like the joysticks were meant to be centering, but this is surely not the case, as I’ll explain below.

The emulator that I had used to try to play the Atari 5200 games was the MESS emulator.  This emulator specializes in no system in particular, so it’s kind of a last resort if there are no stand-alone emulators for a console or if no others will work.  Most of the games for this console are unplayable due to the non-centering joystick issue.  Let’s use Pitfall II as an example.

Pitfall II

You start the game, and you’re off and running.  You run to the right and you enter the next screen and immediately see your first hazard – a condor.  You have to time your passage just right so that you pass underneath him while he is at the highest point in his flight.  But what happens when you release the joystick?  Pitfall Harry keeps running to the right.  On every other console or computer with a port of Pitfall II, when you release the joystick, Pitfall Harry will stop like he’s supposed to.  Only on the Atari 5200 do you have to physically move the fucking joystick back to the center to get him to stop moving.

On an emulator this ranges from hard to impossible.  When I tried playing Pitfall II in MESS, I needed to make a movement with the joystick to the left to get Pitfall Harry to stop.  And sometimes it didn’t work.

Well, fuck this game console, and fuck these games.

(╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

I left this system alone for a long time until recently.  Then I decided to search again for a standalone emulator because I wondered if someone had somehow found a way around that joystick non-centering issue.

Lo and behold, I found Atari800Win PLus.  This emulator is mainly for the Atari 8-bit computers like the Atari 400 and Atari 800.  You see, the Atari 5200 shares much of its internal design with those computers, so this emulator can handle Atari 5200 games easily.  And there is one feature in particular that this emulator has that makes these games – gasp – playable:

Atari800Win PLus joysticks

“Center keyboard stick when key is released”.  Oh, you don’t know how much difference those words make!  This setting retroactively cancels the retarded decision that Atari’s engineers made when they designed the controllers for this console back in 1982.  Actually… hang on a second, it’s time for another digression.

I just read an article from a 1983 issue of InfoWorld that talks about the string of bad management decisions at Atari that led to their first nose-dive.  I had to read this part twice:

Atari 5200 quote

What the actual fuck?! If this is true, then Atari had first designed the 5200 back in 1977, when the 2600 was released.  I thought that shelving the 7800 for two years in 1984 was bad!  They fully deserved to lose their dominant position if this is an accurate statement.  InfoWorld supposedly interviewed many ex-Atari big-shots, so one would think that it’s true.

Because of the 1983 video game crash, and because it was just released too late and with controllers that crippled it, the Atari 5200 was not what people wanted.  Because of this, only 69 games were officially released for it.  And most of these are just updates of Atari 2600 games or arcade ports.  So there’s really nothing special going on with this console, and I really wasn’t missing all that much before I was able to play these games with the Atari800Win PLus emulator.

This emulator is rather buggy too, mainly in the control department.  But that’s where my handy Logitech gamepad and it’s keystroke-defining software save the day again.

Logitech44410

For whatever reason, the “fire button” does not work with any of my game pads on this emulator.  What I had to do was to set the emulator to use the “Arrow keys and Right CTRL” option as the joystick.  Then I created a new profile with the Logitech software for this emulator and started assigning buttons.  This actually works much, much better than the default joystick control would have worked anyway.  The Atari 5200 controller had two fire buttons, and this emulator maps one of them to the keyboard.  The  and # buttons also get used a lot in many games, and so do the 1, 2 and 0 buttons.  These are usually for setup options before the game starts, but sometimes they are needed within the game.  There is also a “start”, “reset” and a “pause” button on the controller, and all of these extra buttons have been mapped to available buttons on my gamepad.

This makes for a much more accurate and comfortable gaming experience than the original Atari 5200 could offer, I imagine.  Especially considering how the rubber components inside the original controllers would literally fall apart by themselves over time, whether they were being used or not.

I’m not finished playing through all the games I have for this system yet, but the very fact that I can play them at all is satisfying to me.  Most of these games I had played long ago as a kid when I had my Commodore 64, but some of these versions are definitely better.  Buck Rogers comes to mind as one.  Gorf isn’t quite as good though, mainly because a paddle controller is needed.  There are a few games that require a paddle, and sadly I don’t have one.

thats-a-paddlin-30027

It’s really baffling to me to think that Atari had this console developed when they released the 2600.  I really wonder what the games library might have been like for it had it been released earlier, maybe in 1979.  It might still have proved to be a flop because of that controller.  I can’t get over what a bad idea that is.

But I’m really glad that modern technology and software can cancel out the bad parts of this system and bring it back to life, even if it is more than 30 years after the fact.  Some of these games are a lot of fun to play in this emulated way, though I really don’t know if they would have been quite the same experience on the actual hardware, and again that damned, cursed joystick is to blame.