The Atari 5200 SuperSystem, released in late 1982 for $270 (USA), 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 extra 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, 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.
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 thinking of upgrading or changing 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 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 console survivors and no software support.
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 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 amount 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, and a first party trak-ball unit, were released, but are now difficult to locate.
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.
Information on this page has been sourced from Armchair Arcade.