In 1982, Atari introduced the Atari 5200 Supersystem to the gaming public. Still enjoying the massive success from their last home console, the Atari 2600, Atari decided to produce a game system based on its popular line of 8-bit computers, which were also quickly becoming a popular gaming platform. Games could be ported very easily from the Atari 400/800 line of computers to the Atari 5200. In the eyes of Atari management, this would encourage third-party development for the 5200 system as their 8-bit computers already had a dedicated group of developers. However the design for various parts of the 5200 would not only differentiate the console from Atari's own product line (Atari 2600, Atari400/800) but would also differentiate itself from its home console competition ( Intellivision/ ColecoVision).
The largest difference between the 5200 from Atari's 8-bit computers and 2600 is the unique analog joystick. The controller allows for full 360-degree movement. Additionally, it has a second firing button and a keypad. The joystick does not self-center and is therefore prone to getting stuck, making it more difficult to play particular games such as Asteroids.
The 5200's keypad holds overlays, similar to the Intellivision's controller. Many Atari 5200 games came packed with overlays, as did third party games from Activision and CBS, while Parker Brothers packed only Frogger with an overlay. Brands other than CBS include an overlay holder on the cartridge back. Another innovative feature of the 5200 controllers was the inclusion of a pause button, making it one of the first consoles to allow users to pause the action at any point.
The controllers were prone to failure. This led to several third-party vendors (most notably Wico) to release third-party controllers of varying quality and devices that would allow the use of the 9-pin 2600 joysticks on the 5200.
Later, Atari would release a trackball-based controller, akin to the Marble Madness arcade controller. Reception for this controller (officially called the Trak-Ball Controller), like the console itself, was lukewarm. The controller was as big as the console and was inconsistent in tracking movement. Atari later released a redesigned trackball controller with better motion detection and a more compact design, but by that time the 5200 had already failed to captivate audiences.
The original 5200 also came with a unique RF switch box that supplied power to the 5200 on the same cable that fed audio and video to the television. It reduced the number of cables running across users' floors, but was more expensive to manufacture and replace. The 5200 was incompatible with alternative adapters, making replacements harder to find. Atari later released a redesigned second generation 5200 system that was compatible with any normal power supply and RF switch box. The second generation 5200 had two joystick ports, unlike the original that had four (like the Atari 800 computer).
Far fewer games were released for the 5200 than that of competing consoles from Intellivision and ColecoVision. Few third-party game developers adopted the console because the 2600 already had 20 million users while the 5200 struggled to maintain 1 million users. Also development for the 2600 was cheaper and didn't require newer technology. The few games that were released for the 5200 were mostly designed or produced in-house by Atari. The console's short life span, due in part to the infamous game crash of 1984, curbed further growth of the console's game library.
Reception and Market Failure
The Atari 5200 was not well received by consumers when it was released and was never able to completely recover from its lukewarm reception. Various design and technical flaws, which ranged from an unreliable controller to an unusual RF adapter, discouraged users from adopting the console. The first wave of 5200s were also incompatible with 2600 games, requiring users to buy a separate adapter to play their back catalog of 2600 games. Atari officially announced the system was discontinued in 1984 upon the announcement of the 7800 (which would not be released until two years later)
Beyond the hardware, poor business decisions helped further seal the 5200's fate. First, Atari failed to motivate third-party development for the console. Second, Atari management decided to devote most of their resources to the already oversaturated 2600 market while leaving the 5200 idle. Atari had numerous replacement consoles for the 5200 in the works before they decided to invest research and development into the Atari 7800. Atari Inc. originally planned on developing a smaller, cost-reduced version of the Atari 5200, which would have gotten rid of the controller storage bin. This prototype was called the Atari 5100 and would have been a more simple and user friendly 5200, but the project was eventually canceled. Before settling on the 7800 Atari's originally planned sequel to the 5200 was a system called the 3200, but its development halted because it was too difficult to develop for.
- CPU: Custom MOS 6502C @ 1.79 MHz
- RAM: 16 KB
- ROM: 2KB on-board BIOS; 32 KB window for standard game cartridges.
- Graphics: ANTIC and GTIA chips similar to those in Atari's 400/800 home computers
- Sound: 4-channel POKEY chip
- Screen Resolution: 320x192 resolution
- Size: 13" x 15" x 4.35"