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Schadenfreude Fridays: The Atari 5200, the Console that Never (Should Have) Existed

The Atari 5200 was supposed to be the next step forward for an early video game giant. Instead, the company tried to pretend it never existed, even after selling a million consoles.

The 5200 weighed in at a sleek 74.2 pounds.
The 5200 weighed in at a sleek 74.2 pounds.
Daniel McConnell

Remember that time Atari suggested that you could plug their video games into the beach?

The Atari 5200 didn't change the way you played video games. In fact, it barely lasted 18 months. Atari brought the video game revolution into this world in 1972. Like an angry parent, they tried their damnedest to take it right out when they unleashed the 5200 ten years later.

The Atari 5200 was a behemoth of a console, and that is in no way a metaphor. The most anticipated gaming system of 1982 was the size of a coffee table and just as playable. 16-color graphics meant you could count every pixel of Pitfall Harry's hat, but its clunky gameplay, counterintuitive controls, and limited selection of new games made sure that while "Atari" would be synonymous with "video games," the same would never be said about consistency.

via Daniel McConnell at Wikipedia

And for only $189 - $460 in 2015 dollars - all that could have been yours.

But first, let's go back to the beginning to fully understand what a colossal disappointment the 5200 really was. Atari became the first name in home video games with their Video Computer System (later known as the 2600) , a console that took huge liberties with the concept of the Olympics by making half its events Pong-based in their 1977 release. Thanks in part to the Pong phenomenon (Pongnomenon?) and the presence of arcade titans like Pac-Man, Frogger, and Space Invaders, the company sold 30 million units of the beloved console. Atari saw entertainment value in folks' desire to combat amphibian roadkill from the comfort of their own living rooms, and America emphatically agreed.

Atari released their follow up in November of 1982, but a swimming pool company decided that above-ground pools weren't the only way to cater to negligent parents and beat them to the punch. Coleco altered the video game landscape with the ColecoVision home console - a bundle of circuits and a multi-color display that faithfully recreated Donkey Kong's barrel throwing terrorism away from the sticky-floored, Culture Club-soundtracked arcades of the early 80s. They were a pioneer in creating next generation consoles, and their expanded processing power made a huge impact on a society that wanted nothing more than an excuse not to leave their homes.

The ColecoVision went to the market in August of 1982 and sold 500,000 units in less than four months. They even released an expansion pack that allowed users to play Atari games, somehow avoiding the temptation to mold their hardware into the shape of a giant middle finger in the process. That fall, the only real reasons to leave your living room were to purchase Olivia Newton-John's Physical or to buy more cocaine.

The 5200 attempted to capitalize on that trend, but it was never fully realized as a product. While plans had been in place to succeed the VCS since 1977, time constraints scrapped many of them. This latest machine was a stripped-down version of the company's 400/800 home computer. The rush to market meant that it wound up cross-breeding a computer with a gaming system while keeping the best traits of neither. This is like if Apple, instead of creating the iPad, mixed their MacBook and iPhone and created a rusty bucket instead. The Atari 5200 couldn't run the 2600's games or run any of their home computer's software despite having similar specifications.

The system clocked in at 829 cubic inches, meaning it would require a mule team to get it to the actual beach. Once you got there, bikini clad women were more likely to ask you why you brought a full sized suitcase to the ocean than try to play Pac Man in the sky. In all, the second-generation Atari product only lasted 18 months on store shelves before the American electronic juggernaut decided to respond to all queries about the system with "Say, what's that over there?" and then running away in haste.

So why did the Atari 5200 fail so impressively? Aside from not being beach compatible, the biggest difference between the successful 2600 and the abortively awful 5200 was the controller. The original Atari system relied on a classic, but intuitive, button-and-joystick system. It doesn't get much more simple than this:

via Evan-Amos at Wikipedia

However, Atari designers knew what American gamers really wanted; the reliability of a Chevy Corvair and the smooth handling of a touch tone phone:

via Evan-Amos at Wikipedia

There's actually quite a bit of innovation in that controller, but the Atari engineers decided that it was better to just throw all their good ideas at the wall at once rather than making them usable. The 5200's joystick included a unique 360 degree rotation that allowed you to deftly maneuver around oncoming race cars, ghosts, and space caterpillars. Unfortunately, that rarely lasted more than a few months; the cheaply made rubber gasket failed to hold the hardware in place. That rendered the joystick useless but did allow players to tell their friends that they had a super expensive space calculator when guests inevitably asked what the piece of crap on their living room table was.

The controller was also one of the first to include Start, Pause, and Reset buttons and even added four bumper buttons along the side of the joypad. However, the size of the equipment, the placement of these buttons next to the joystick, and the inclusion of a numeric grid ensured that you'd need three hands to take advantage of these new development. If that sounds familiar, that's because Nintendo would co-opt this strategy 14 years later:

via Evan-Amos at Wikipedia

Innovative or not, the 5200 controller was as well-received as a pile of rat turds. The buttons were unreliable to the point where some users had to resort to stabbing them with screwdrivers to make them register. The rounded edges of the original Atari hardware gave way to rigid corners seemingly designed to dig into their users' hands. Without the internet, the Atari 5200 was 1983's #1 way for teenagers to rub their palms raw at home.

The other glaring problem was that the games themselves weren't particularly interesting. Coleco had the hottest arcade ports, allowing users to dodge flaming barrels, escape eggs in a mad dash to stomp on meat, or overserve patrons at a comically oversized bar. The Atari 5200 had...more expensive versions of the same games players had been playing on the 2600. The newer system had a limited selection of titles that contained few exclusives. Many of the games minted for the new machine failed to take advantage of its processing capabilities. There was no Donkey Kong, no Burger Time, and no Tapper on Atari's hot new console.

Atari executives planned more releases over time, but they never got the chance. The 5200 crapped out after just 69 games. Its predecessor, the 2600, had over 500 titles minted. Its successor, the 7800, could play over 600 games (though only about 90 were specifically made for the console).

The Atari 5200 was introduced in November 1982. It was discontinued by May 1984. If you were one of the million unlucky customers to have purchased one, you were out of luck. The company planned on phasing out their crap console with a release that remedied all the headaches that came with their big ticket flop - the aforementioned 7800. Unfortunately, their timing was pushed back a 1986.

Why? Because it turns out that the 5200 wasn't just bad for Atari - it was bad for an entire industry. Atari's rushed product helped create a glut of underwhelming game systems that promised more than they delivered and pushed casual consumers away from home gaming and back to the toxic outdoors. In 1983, the Cold War hung over the country and the threat of nuclear winter was an extremely real possibility, but nerds from Washington to Maine would forever point to the North American Video Game Crash as the worse apocalyptic scenario.

The crash nearly ended home gaming as we know it. Atari (1982), Coleco (1982), Magnavox (1979), Mattel (1980), Bally (1977), Sears (1982), Krebstar (1992, licensed only in Wellsville), and Vectrex (1982) all flooded the market with consoles that had similar specifications and sparse diversity between gaming titles. Companies looking to capitalize on a hot trend produced games with little attention to things like graphics, gameplay, or whether or not playing them would make children want to experiment with drugs instead. That's how we got E.T., the Atari 2600 game so bad it was buried, along with hundreds of thousands of other unsold titles, in New Mexico. Much like a Las Vegas crime syndicate, the Atari higher-ups assumed that all their problems could be solved with a hole in the middle of the desert.

If game companies cannibalizing themselves wasn't bad enough, consoles also had to deal with an emerging home computer market. These machines had superior graphics and processing abilities along with a growing and diverse selection of third-party games. Atari knew this because they had gutted their own home computer line to create the 5200 - a move comparable to cutting off Shaquille O'Neal's foot, planting it in the backyard, and hoping that a new Big Aristotle would grow from the soil. Even worse, their computer and video game divisions had limited communication between offices and were fighting each other with little cooperation. Atari had become as much of an Atari enemy as Coleco or Intellivision were.

The rise of the PC brought Commodore, Apple, IBM, and Texas Instruments to the ring as competitors in an already swollen market. By 1984, games that sold for $35 years earlier couldn't find a buyer at $5. Atari quickly fell $536 million in debt and was sold off in pieces. The original innovator of home video gaming became a relic in just 12 short years.

The 5200 represented all the problems that led up to the gaming crash. It was underpowered and unoriginal. Its games were underdeveloped and overpriced. And it smelled bad (probably). This oversized relic was the last console that Atari would produce as a profitable company. The visionaries that brought arcade quality to America's living rooms were now the industry's white dwarf.

The Atari name lived on as the company was split. The video game wing was bought by Jack Tramiel, who not only helped create the Commodore computers that helped push Atari into Randy Quaid levels of debt but was also a crazy person (like Randy Quaid). While he helped launch a successful new generation of home computers with his new company, his reputation as a micro-managing miser cast a foreboding shadow over Atari's mea culpa for the 5200 - the once hyped and quickly forgotten 7800. Atari had already lost much of their public goodwill by losing the 2015 equivalent of $1.2 billion. Turning things over to a president who trusted his employees so little that he had to personally approve any expense over $1,000 failed to rehabilitate that image.

The 7800 was proof that Atari could still design a quality console. Their controllers were ergonomically designed for human hands rather than super intelligent golden retrievers. The backwards compatibility of their hardware ensured that users could play any game in the company's library. It was even cheaper than the 5200, clocking in at nearly $50 less than its predecessor. Plus, their advertising improved greatly after taking the time to understand their market and cater directly to their consumers. Out with the beautiful women in bikinis. In with the greatest professional athletes of their era:

However, the company's shifting leadership contributed to the delays that pushed the original 1984 release back to 1986. That was just enough time for a company named Nintendo to push Atari out of the American video game market.

Nintendo filled Atari's spot in the market by taking everything the American company did and doing it better. The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) hit shelves in 1985 and provided players with better graphics, iconic games, and a controller that became an industry standard and oft-chosen hipster tattoo 30 years later. Nintendo, once a manufacturer of playing cards, only needed a few years to undo all the damage that Coleco, Intellivision, and the 5200 had done to the gaming market. By 1988, annual sales of video games were back into the billions of dollars in North America.

While this may have stuck the knife in Atari's back, a failed deal between the two companies twisted it. And then pulled it out and stabbed them several more times. Nintendo needed a trusted name to sell their product in North America, so they turned to Atari. The two giants met at the 1983 Consumer Electronics Show to work it out, but Atari balked at the last minute after seeing the Nintendo-licensed Donkey Kong kidnapping princesses on a ColecoVision console. Atari execs threw a fit - they believed Dr. Kong was now their exclusive console property - and the negotiations were pushed back by several weeks. That was just enough time for the Atari's financial straits to come to light. Nintendo, an organization not run by idiots, saw this and scuttled the deal. They ran down distribution road on their own, keeping those sweet, sweet Hogan's Alley profits all for themselves.

Atari stuck around in the gaming market, but most of their successes after 1985 came in the arcade realm. From the late 80s on, the company was passed around like a poorly rolled blunt at a high school bonfire. Since the debut of the 5200, various parts of Atari have been owned or controlled by Namco, Warner Communications, Time Warner, WMS Industries, Hasbro, Midway, Infogrames Entertainment, Tramel Technology, and JT Storage. While the forgotten console isn't the sole cause for this turmoil, it was the first notable failure in a company that became defined by them.

In the end, the 5200 is notable not as a next-gen innovation, but for being an unreliable piece of hardware that takes up roughly as much space as an airline seat. It was the first step down in Atari's swift parabolic descent in the video game market. On the plus side, the Atari 5200 is the only gaming system to be rated #1 among all consoles named the Atari 5200 on Amazon:


So maybe it wasn't that bad after all.

EDIT: Thanks to video game historian Martin Goldberg for his help and edits, making my research a little less inaccurate. You can find him at @MartySGoldberg.