At one point from the years 1978 to 1982, the video game frontier was ruled by the Atari 2600 console. This small unassuming black plastic console had taken America and the world by storm and satisfied an insatiable thirst to play at home video games that at one time could only be played in arcade rooms.
Atari’s dominance of the home video game market was short lived, however. Mattel’s Intellivision, Coleco’s Colecovision(see previous Classic Home Toys for details on these console) as well as early home computers were dishing up games that had superior graphics, more advance multiplayer options, and more complex game play. With this looming on the horizon, Atari went back to the drawing board and in 1982 offered the Atari 5200. Sleeker, slightly faster and with better graphics than the Atari 2600, Atari hoped that 2600 users would place their old consoles in the closet and plunk down several hundred more dollars for the 5200. Unfortunately for Atari, they didn’t and the 5200 console became yet another obsolete home video game system that was obsolete almost from the day it was released. Although a financial failure, the 5200 would earn its rightful place as a classic home toys and find a niche in the annals of video game history.
In designing the 5200, Atari was more responsive the needs of those users that invested in 2600 units. In laying out the console, Atari really seemed to have spent a great deal of time speaking to and noting feedback from longtime Atari fans concerning what they did and didn’t like about the 2600 console. First and foremost, the 5200 had a sleeker, more advanced “computer” look with the grain wood edges of the 2600 console now replaced with dark black edging. Other changes besides cosmetic ones included a built in RF converter which eliminated the need for the user to use a slide switch fitted to the television set. Also, the back of the 5200 console had four joystick ports instead of the two that the 2600 had. This allowed for more people to play games at one time and allowed Atari to created more complex multi-user applications.
The 5200 also had a more advanced joystick controller which allowed the user to reset and pause games from the controllers handle as well as a self- centering paddle controller. Another major tweaking over the 2600 was the speed of the console’s CPU. The 2600 ran at 1.19 MHZ while the 5200 clocked in at 1.79 MHZ.
All of these changes were right on the money and were precisely what users were demanding in a second-generation game system, however, the 5200 was deemed a failure almost right out of the starting gate. The most notable and obvious flaw was the system’s inability to play the 2600 console games. Apparently, and much to the chagrin of Atari’s marketing executives, users were slow to abandon their 2600 consoles and embrace the 5200. Many smaller game developers, such as Activision, had made leaps and bounds in providing entertaining game play with the miniscule bits of RAM and ROM in Atari cartridges and many users were disappointed they could not carry these games over to the 5200.
Atari did make changes to the 5200 based on users requests. The next wave of 5200 consoles features an adapter which when fitted into the 5200 cartridge slot allowed a user full compatibility with 2600 games. Other changes involved doing away with the automatic RF switching feature since it interfered with the consoles power supply. On the original line of 5200’s, the automatic RF switching and the power supply were one unit.
Atari also was planning on releasing a 5200 console that was smaller and less expensive called the 5100 (some Atari insiders say it was nicknamed, the Atari 5200 Jr.). However, the 5200 Jr. never saw past the design phase. A downturn in the video game market and stiff competition from Coleco and Mattel forced Atari to abandon the 5200 in the hopes of achieving success with a new line of game systems.