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Video Games :: 5200 Super System

1982 - The 5200 was devised to once again crown Atari as the leader in the home video games market.  By now, the 2600 was up against a lot of competition from Coleco Vision and others, and Atari wanted to launch an updated video game console with superior technical abilities, and to a lesser extent,  try to quell the rising tide of third-parties infringing on their copyright, as had happened with the ColecoVision 2600 cartridge adapter (which enabled you to play 2600 games on the ColecoVision console) and some foreign 2600 video cartridge copying devices.

Development of the 5200 began at Atari in 1981, and a system called the 3200-System X was being prototyped and tested.  Trouble with this project, namely difficult programming, led Atari to utilise their home computer technology to speed-up the project, and this is the basis of the technology found inside the final System X.  With the technology from the computer line used inside the new system, familiarity ensured programming was less complicated and titles could be easily produced.

Project PAM (Personal Arcade machine) (info byte)

Finally, the Video System X was named the 5200 and launched with much fanfare in 1982.  It was a big event, this was Atari's second video game system, (the 2600 being the first, launched way back in late 1977) and Atari's dominant position relied upon the 5200 being warmly received by the gaming public.  The packaging was bold and bright, and the box was large - inside was the most advanced home video game system ever produced, and Atari wanted you to notice it in the stores.

The new 5200 design was made to be noticed, even the trackball controller available separately was about the same size as the 5200 itself!  Big meant better in the early eighties, and the 5200 was no exception.  The joysticks were of an advanced design, incorporating a full 360 speed sensitive yoke, and a keypad for more advanced gaming options, which also included the Start, Reset and Pause buttons so you didn't have to touch the unit from the moment a game had been inserted.  You could even plug-in up to 4 joysticks, just like the Atari 400 and 800 computers.

Everything seemed to sound perfect on paper, and the gaming magazines were excited about the prospect of the 5200.  Unfortunately, the 5200 was a system that wouldn't get the positive reaction Atari had hoped for.  The 5200 had a number of initial flaws, and this could be due to the rushed nature of the System X, especially since the original 3200 had to be scrapped, and a new solution needed to be found quickly to rectify the project.

And it wasn't just one chink in the 5200 armour that dogged its launch.  The 5200 Joysticks were uncomfortable to use for a prolonged period, and they tended to break easily.  The system which had been originally planned to be backwardly compatible to the 2600, wasn't.  The 5200's main rival, the CBS ColecoVision, had a 2600 compatible module in the stores before Atari had, and this in itself ensured further bad press for the new system.  But new hardware needs new software, and the 5200 library was just a who's-who of 2600 remakes. 

Although the remakes were much better (well, some of them) on the 5200, it was hard to justify the purchase just to play "updated" Atari classics.  Atari even advertised some 2600 and 5200 titles in the same print promotion.

With all these problems surfacing, Atari made some fixes to the 5200 hardware.  A new 2-Port version of the machine was launched, and this could utilise the new 2600 VCS cartridge adapter (CX-55), allowing the majority of 2600 titles to run on the 5200 (The original 4-Port 5200 required an Atari Service Centre upgrade, which at least, was free of charge!).  Some 5200 only titles were released, and the joysticks were under almost constant revision.  In fact, when the 5200 was eventually cancelled in 1984, Atari had gone through 9 different revisions of the 5200 Joystick!

Retailers weren't especially enthusiastic about the 5200, and sales were an up-hill-battle.  The market was now flooded with numerous video game systems and multiple versions of Pac-man and Space Invaders, the industry would soon implode as consumers took a break from video gaming (and for good reason), and the 5200's fate was partially decided by economic conditions as it was by Atari itself.

With losses looming at Atari and Warner unhappy with a string of mistakes, engineers were egger not to repeat the fiasco that was the 5200, and prove again that Atari was the leading video games company...

The 7800 was coming...

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