Recently, I rediscovered the Atari 5200, thanks to an emulator that fixed the console’s horribly flawed non-centering joysticks. Being released shortly before the 1983 industry crash, this system had a short life, so there weren’t many games released for it. Only one racing game was released, and it is a port of an ultra-popular arcade hit.
Pole Position (1983)
Yeah, Judas Priest knew what was up. Back then of course, nothing was as good as the arcade version of a game, and “Pole Position” was no exception. I’ve played a lot of the home console and computer ports of this game. In my opinion, they are all terrible. Because of this, I never understood why this game was so popular. That changed only recently for one reason. I was able to actually play the arcade original.
The Sega Dreamcast has a game called “Namco Museum“, and that includes the original arcade version of Pole Position. The emulation of the original game appears to be perfect, and the analog joystick control of the car is superb. If playing that version of the game is anything like what the arcade original was like, then I can finally understand why people raved about “Pole Position”.
But I’m here to review the Atari 5200 version. It isn’t the worst home port, but it isn’t even the best. It’s just kind of meh.
I’m compelled to compare this to the Commodore 64 version too. The fanfare music and blimp graphics are way better in this version. But that’s it. The C64 version has this beat in every other way.
Since this is “Pole Position”, you must “qualify” before you can begin the race. Your car must pass a certain number of other racers and you must do that and cross the finish line before time runs out. If you don’t you won’t race and it’s game over.
The same thing goes for each race after you qualify. You can see the info displayed above your car. You’ll note that you must shift gears in this game. Thankfully for me, who hates doing this, there are only “LO” and “HI” gear to contend with.
And I’m off and driving! One thing that pisses me off about the Atari800Win PLus emulator when I play this game is that it insists on emulating the wretched Trak-Ball controller.
Look at the size of this fucking thing! That’s not a controller! My god, you could use it as a desk! Atari sure was hellbent on making sure no one could properly enjoy games on the 5200. First the non-centering joysticks that fall apart from the inside out as soon as they’re made, then this heinous contraption that they expected people to want to use. Where the fuck are you supposed to put it, on your lap? It’s bigger than an NES! Probably heavier too.
Anyway, “Pole Position” allows for joystick or Trak-Ball control, and for fuck’s sake why does this emulator choose the most retarded method over the one it had so graciously fixed for me? It’s not fair!
Because the game thinks I merrily chose that Trak-Ball, it’s expecting different inputs from the way it would normally operate. Usually, left and right steer while up and down change gear. But with the Trak-Ball, left and right still steer, but 7 on the keypad switches to HI gear while 1 on the keypad switched to LO. It’s a good thing I had the D-Pad of my Logitech gamepad unused so I could map those keys to up and down.
Making turns in this emulated way is possible, but the way my gamepad handles the whole “pretending to be the Trak-Ball” is rather odd. The analog sensitivity one would expect is gone, and left or right to any degree are just hard left and hard right all the way. But surprisingly, the game can be played this way.
Just stay away from the sides of the road, and stay off the grass. That will slow you down, and if you go off the road completely, you may find it hard or impossible to get your car going again. Also, you might just crash into one of the billboards that go by, and we don’t want the car to turn into a burning fireball now, do we?
I finished qualifying. I know I blame having to take screenshots for my bad performance in these games, but it’s true. I placed 8th, and though you can’t see the number “8” flashing, it is.
And now comes the actual race. My car is actually flashing… and the above screenshot was taken while it was not onscreen.
During an actual race, you are counted down to start.
I said “Fuck the screenshots!” and raced my little Robotman heart out. I still didn’t finish this race.
There are a total of four races in all, and from what I could glean they progressively increase in difficulty.
I decided to go back and start another race so I could get a screenshot of that hot fiery death.
After having recently played the arcade version, I can appreciate what this game strives to be. But I can’t really have fun with it. It’s playable though, despite the issue I jabbered about above. The sound is pretty good too.
Can I recommend “Pole Position”? I don’t really know. It’s a very well-known game, and if you’re into classic gaming at all, you have very likely heard of it or played some version of it. It’s not a favourite of mine, and I think there are much better racing games out there. But if you do want to play “Pole Position”, play the arcade original. It’s been released officially by Namco for home consoles, so do some searching and you’ll find it.