The Atari 5200 is really interesting and kind of good. I grew up playing PC and Nintendo games, not Atari, so the 5200 isn’t a console I knew much about as a kid. Once I did hear about it, it interested me because of its short lifespan, small library, and poor reputation; this made me want to try it to see if it was better than people said, as such things often are in this industry. So, in the ’00s I played a lot of emulated games, and one thing I tried were the 5200 and 7800. I probably played 5200 games more than 7800 games, interestingly enough. I liked the games, I just wasn’t sure what I’d think of the very-unpopular controller. That’s the big thing most people dislike about this system, after all. So, the first Atari system I got was a 7800, which I got in early 2013. At the time I kind of wanted the 5200, but that wasn’t available locally then while the 7800 was, so I got one. It’s a good system and playing 2600 and 7800 games was interesting and often fun, but sadly that console mostly stopped working in early to mid 2014 — its power button died. I really, really need to get it fixed, but haven’t.
Instead, in early August this year, I got a 5200… and I like it for sure. One thing I’ve noticed about the 5200 is that while the library is small, it’s really high quality! Most of the 17 games I own are good, only a few are only average, and none are bad. All of the games are fun to play to some degree. Of course, almost all of the games I have are conversions of popular arcade games, so that does make sense — they are working from quality source material. And that is one issue with this system, its library mostly consists of ports. There aren’t many 5200-exclusive games, in fact there are very, very few. That is too bad, but at least the games it did get are mostly good, and often have some differences versus other versions of the games. The 5200 isn’t powerful enough to do perfect ports of early ’80s arcade games, so 5200 games are at least somewhat unique, and no 5200 game is available on any modern platform — while Atari and Activision have done collections and re-releases of many of their 2600 and 7800 games, 5200 games have not been re-released, unfortunately. This is a pretty nice system which I love to have. I have played the 5200 at least some every day since I bought it in early August, and am still having a lot of fun with the system. Even though it has some flaws, overall I definitely like the 5200 and it’s great I finally have one.
The Atari 5200 released in November 1982. It was a part of a new wave of consoles that released that year, which I consider to be the beginning of the third generation though most disagree. See my article on that issue for more on my thoughts on the issue of the ‘missing’ console generation of 1982-1984. This new wave of systems came two and a half years after the Mattel Intellivision’s release in late 1979. It is, essentially, consolized Atari 400 or 800-line 8-bit computer. Instead of designing an all-new console for their second home system, Atari decided to instead base it off of their already-existing computer line released in 1979. This meant that the hardware wasn’t entirely up-to-date. Computers are more powerful than consoles, in general, so the system is competitive with other consoles of the day, but it could have been a lot more powerful than it is. This can really be highlighted by pointing out that the much more powerful NES released in Japan in June 1983, only eight months after the 5200 did in the US. While the 5200 is within the same generation as the NES power-wise, it’s far behind it within that generation. The 5200’s main competition was the Colecovision, released in August 1982. The Colecovision sold much better than the 5200 and has about twice as many games released officially in the ’80s, 120-plus on Coleco versus only 60-something for the 5200. Nintendo took notice of the Colecovision, and supposedly designed the NES to be better than that console. This paid off when Sega decided to put the hardware behind the Colecovision in their first console, the Sega SG-1000; it released the same day as the Famicom (the NES’s Japaense name), but is far less powerful because the Colecovision and 5200 were probably a bit dated by the time of their release. Versus the Colecovision, SG-1000, or NES, the 5200 has very different looking graphics. All three of those systems have sprite-based displays, with mostly tile-based screens with sprites on them. On the 5200, though, graphics are much more pixelated and blocky, in that signature Atari style you see on the 2600, 5200, and 7800. The 7800 does have better sprites than the 5200, but it still mostly lags behind the NES in such things. It’s not a bad look, just different. You get used to it.
Design-wise, the Atari 5200 is a very large system. The system has a large space on the back that lets you store two controllers in the system itself, an unnecessary feature that makes the box larger than it needs to be. Atari was thinking of releasing a “5100” system which would have been smaller and removed the controller storage space, but it was not released. Design-wise, the 5200 is clearly the system that the Atari 2600 Jr. and the Atari 7800 both copied, because the 5200 and 7800 have nearly identical design stylings, apart from the 5200’s somewhat larger size. There are two 5200 models. The first has four controller ports and an external box with both power and automatic RF-switch components; the second model, only two controller ports and standard power and manual-RF switch ports. I have a model two; they are more reliable, but I do wish I had four controller ports. There is also an Atari 2600 adapter for the 5200, which works on all 2-port models but only certain 4-port ones. I tried to get one of these, but sadly it doesn’t work right — it’s got the CRAZIEST graphical glitching on screen. Too bad, I really would like to play 2600 games again. The cartridges are similarly a bit bigger, and like Western NES carts are mostly filled with air, with only a small circuit board in a larger case. They do look nice, though, so I don’t mind the large size. As with all consoles before the NES, you cannot save in 5200 games, and instead will just have to film the screen or write down your high scores on paper, if you want any record of your accomplishments. As almost all games are score-based games, keeping a high-score book is a good idea for classic console gaming, and I do do that.
Of course, no discussion of the 5200 is complete without discussing the great videogame crash of 1983-1984. In spring 1983, not long after the 5200’s release, videogame sales began to drop. There were many causes of this, but one major one was that the licensing model of console gaming did not exist yet, so third-party games made the first party absolutely nothing, and they had no control over them. In 1982 a huge number of third-party studios started up, and they flooded the market with mediocre and derivitive games. Many failed to sell. The first parties helped fill shelves too, by making games for their competition; if you can’t make money off of third-party games for your system, at least make money off of people who bought the other machines, the thinking was. So, there are Coleco games on the 2600 and Intellivision, Atari games on the TI-99/4A, Intellivision, and Colecovision, and Mattel games on the 2600. Interestingly, few arcade developers made their own home ports at this point, so numerous arcade games by a wide variety of developers were converted over to consoles by Atari, Parker Bros., Coleco, and some others. Some arcade companies did eventually make their own games, Sega did start releasing their own 2600 and 5200 games after initially licensing some out to Coleco, but most were not done by the original developers. So, in the list below I always list the original developer of arcade games not made by their publisher. This hurt Atari later on though, as on the Jaguar for instance they couldn’t just release new Pac-Man or Berzerk games — those games were not originally Atari properties.
Another problem that helped cause the crash was that Warner Bros., Atari’s corporate parent since the late ’70s, didn’t understand that new consoles would be needed, so even after the 5200 released, they continued to focus as much or more on the 2600 than they did their new system. The 5200 versions of games also on the 2600 are generally much better, but they didn’t get nearly the attention they needed, and the system badly needed exclusives, which it has almost none of. These issues confused gamers and delayed a transition to new hardware that needed to happen. Also, the industry was still quite young, so stores were not as used to videogames as they would later become and many thought that they were a fad which was starting to pass, so they ditched them at bargain-basement prices; consumers either stuck with their old systems or moved over to computers as the console industry faded; and sales began to crash. As the panic spread, record profits quickly turned into record losses for many companies. A lot of those studios founded in 1982 didn’t last two years before being shut down by their owners or corporate parents — CBS Video Games, Fox Games of the Century, US Games (a division of Quaker Oats), Parker Bros., and more stopped making games for years after 1984. Activision, the first third-party studio, did survive, but they were one of the few. Parker Bros. and Activision were the Atari 5200’s two strongest third-party supporters, I should add — Activision released 13 5200 games, and Parker Bros. eight. Most are ports, but they include some pretty good games. Atari’s first-party 5200 games are often pretty good too, as I have found out.
But just having good games wasn’t enough, and as sales dropped, Atari’s clueless owner, Warner Bros., decided to get out. After supporting the system well from release in Nov. ’82 until the end of 1983, Atari drastically cut back on 5200 support the next year. Almost all 5200 games planned for 1984 were cancelled. Some have leaked to the fans and been released as free downloads for those with flash carts or homebrew cartridges of the games, but others just vanished. The only 5200 game released by Atari in 1984 was Choplifter. Third parties did release games that year, so the 1984 release list isn’t too bad thanks mostly to Activision and Parker Bros., but the system was killed off far too early. Even worse, Atari bought up the rights to a new system designed by GCC (the designers of the massive hit game Ms. Pac-Man), which they dubbed the Atari 7800, and decided to release it in 1984, not even two years after they had just released a console! That’s just insane stuff, as bad a move as the worst of ’90s Sega mistakes. Killing a console that quickly and replacing it with a new one is NOT the way to get consumers to want to stick with your company, they will instead start to mistrust you! But after a test market of the system, it was put off because instead WB sold the console and computer side of Atari to Jack Tramiel. WB did keep the arcade side of Atari, though, which was dubbed Atari Games. Atari Games would become a semi-independent company partially or fully under WB’s control until being bought by Midway in 1996. Most of Atari’s game developers stayed with the arcade division, though, and Jack Tramiel didn’t hire on many of Atari Consumer’s employees, so when he finally did release the 7800 in 1986 it had an incredibly thin game library. In its four-year-plus lifespan, the 7800 only managed about as many game releases as there are on the 5200 even though its lifespan was, for the most part, twice as long.
There is one exception to that short lifespan issue, though — Jack Tramiel discovered that they had warehouses full of Atari 5200 games and software when he bought the company, including three completed and packaged but not-released titles. He decided to sell it off at a discount, and it sold fairly well. The three new games, Gremlins (1986) and two Lucasarts titles, Rescue on Fractalus and Ballblazer (1986 or 1987, it’s not clear), were nice additions to the system’s library. I definitely want Fractalus, that looks like a pretty interesting game. I think that the good sales the 5200 had at this point help show that Atari made a mistake by deciding to abandon the system so quickly in 1984. Yes, the games industry was collapsing, but giving up on their console only helped it go down even faster. I always say that game companies need to either not release a system at all, or support it for a full life. If Atari was going to release the 5200, they needed to stick with it. Release a better controller and smaller system model, for example, and actual exclusive games. It’s really too bad it got dumped so fast; if it wasn’t a good idea they should have released something better instead. The hardware is a bit dated so that might have been a good option, but it’s not too bad and does allow for some pretty good games. At least homebrew developers have helped fill in the gaps in the system’s library by porting dozens of Atari 8-bit computer games over to the 5200, though! They have at least doubled the size of the 5200’s library over the past decade-plus. I’ll definitely need to get a flash cart at some point so I can play them all. That’s the current state of the system — mostly ignored, but occasionally a new Atari 8-bit port releases. There are also three original homebrew titles for the system that I know of that have been released on carts; this is far, far fewer homebrew games than other classic systems have, but at least there are all those 8-bit ports to give it a good volume of homebrew content even if almost none of it is new.
So, yes, I do think that the controller is decent; once I put together a working controller I was pretty happy with it. It isn’t the most comfortable controller, admittedly, but it works well. The controllers are fragile, I had to buy two of them to have the parts to put together one good one, but if you get a good controller they’re fine. The 5200 controller is very innovative in some ways. It was the first controller with a pause button, as far as I know, and that’s a FANTASTIC addition! None of the other classic consoles let you pause your game, so that you can on the 5200 is really great. The system also has an analog joystick, two buttons (doubled on each side, but that’s just for left or right handed play, they aren’t different buttons on each side), and a 12-key keypad. The Intellivision popularized keypads on console controllers, and the Colecovision and Atari 5200 both copied the concept of a vertically-oriented controller with the stick/pad on top, keypad below, and buttons on the sides. The problem is that this design is not comfortable or good for your hands over long play sessions. And that is an issue with the 5200, after an hour or two of play it does get uncomfortable. Still, 5200 games are short, so I don’t mind this too much. The side buttons are often accused of being mushy, and this is true, but I think they’re fine, so long as they work well as mine do. And as for the stick, it’s analog and doesn’t entirely auto-center. It’s fantastic for analog games which make use of the analog nature of the stick, as some games do, but games which just use it as a big digital stick can have some response issues, I do admit.
Perhaps the biggest complaint about the controller, though, is that the stick doesn’t auto-center. I didn’t entirely understand what this means until I used the controller; I thought that maybe the stick would just stay where you left it, but that isn’t entirely true. Really, the stick partially autocenters, but not entirely. So, the issue is that the only centering this stick has is a rubber thing around the stick. This moves the stick back towards the center, but won’t spring it back to center when you let go of the stick as a good joystick should do. Atari really cheaped out with the stick design, and that’s really unfortunate because it hurt the console. The 5200 would have done better with a better controller, I think; it has other problems of course, but this is one of them. Still, I do think that the criticism the controller receives is overdone. The controller isn’t that bad, really! Games which do use analog really benefit from the stick, and some games play better with this controller than they would with any of the digital-only controllers which almost all consoles over the decade after this would use. I think that the 5200 controller was a good idea, and love the Start, Pause, and even Reset buttons that are right on the controller — it really is a huge improvement over other systems which either don’t have those buttons or, like the later Atari 7800 or Sega SG-1000 and Master System, put them on the system itself. The 5200 did it first and better. Even the NES doesn’t have a reset button on the controller! It’s quite handy, particularly for classic arcade games like these. I don’t like the keypad nearly as much, but you don’t need to use it much in games; most games use only the stick and side buttons. It works okay in the few games that do require you to use the keypad.
4. Super Cobra
3. Pole Position
- analog control required means that the game actually makes use of the Atari 5200’s analog joystick, so you have proportional control in some way. I thought this was worth mentioning for anyone who hates the controller and wants to use some adapter instead; these games won’t work well with non-5200 controllers.
-two buttons required mark games that actually use both of the side buttons on the 5200 controller. Most games only need one button, but some use two. Non-5200 controllers will only have one button on them that you can use.
- Keypad required means that the game actually uses the keypad ingame during play, and not only to select options. Almost all 5200 games use some keypad keys to switch game modes, select the number of players, and the like, but only a few actually have you using the keys during play.
- Trackball supported marks games that advertise support for the Atari 5200 trackball controller. I don’t have one yet, but I’d really like to get a 5200 trackball, it sounds great.
- When I talk about the other platforms these games are available on, excepting the Atari 8-bit (400/800) computer line, the other versions of the games here are not the same as these versions. No Atari 5200 game is available for legal digital download on any modern system, so if you want to play real 5200 games you need to either emulate or buy the real system.
Game Opinion Summaries – 18 total
Astro Chase – 1 player. Astro Chase is a pretty interesting space shooter game. This game is interesting for several reasons — it’s one of only two computer conversions I have for 5200; the other 15 games I have are all arcade ports. Parker Brothers released this port of an Atari 8-bit game by First Star Software in 1983. Astro Chase has good presentation, with nice graphics, an actual musical soundtrack, and little cutscenes after every four waves or so. The gameplay is good, but could be a bit better, though. The main drawbacks are repetition, control issues, and a low difficulty level for too long. In the game, you play as a flying saucer protecting the earth from waves of missiles. If even one missile reaches the planet, it blows up, game over. You can’t actually win, so Earth’s demise is inevitable; very few games of this era have endings, unless the game is very short. That’s too bad, but the gameplay is fun once you get used to it, even if it could be better. The play area has the earth in the center and a field of asteroids and planets around it. You have maybe a nine-screen area to fly around in, approximately; there are some barriers preventing you from flying any further into space. The play area doesn’t expand as you get farther, what you see is what you get. The planet and asteroid obstacles are probably randomly are-located for every level, though, so there is variety to the level designs. The gameplay is just basic shooting, though. As you fly around there are two types of targets, missiles and enemy ships. Missiles can’t hurt you, but you must shoot them all down before they hit the Earth. They are small, and can be hard to hit because of the controls — you have only eight-direction movement and firing in this game, not full analog control, unfortunately. Full analog aiming and movement would have really helped this game. The second enemy type are various kinds of enemy ships which are trying to kill you; these can’t hurt the Earth, but will shoot or ram you if they can. Each wave in the game works the same way. You start near the Earth, and fly around looking for missiles to shoot at while avoiding or shooting down the endless waves of enemy shops that attack you while you do so. It’s fun for a while but gets repetitive. Still, I do like the game.
Visually, the game looks nice for the time, but as with a lot of games on this system there is only limited color variety. All planets, asteroids, and such are purple; your ship is one color; and each enemy type is a single color as well. I do like the soundtrack, it’s one of the better ones in a 5200 game I have; few of Atari’s 5200 games have full soundtracks. The controls are the thing that holds this game back, though. You move with the stick, in only eight directions, and while holding the lower button can fire. While holding the button you will autofire, and the stick will now aim your shots, while your ship continues moving in whichever direction it was moving before you hit the button. So, it’s a limited sort of twinstick mode, but it doesn’t work nearly as well as a real one because you can’t actually control your movements while aiming, you just fly along in a straight line. It is amusing to see your ship bounce off of everything as it does, though. When you hit things you lose energy, but you have so much of it that it won’t run out anytime soon. You won’t be getting game over soon either, because Astro Chase gives you a lot of extra lives! If you’re decent at the game a game can last a good while. The game does let you choose your starting wave at the beginning, though, which is a nice option. I would like to see all of the little cutscenes, I haven’t gotten them all yet. Overall, Astro Chase is a good but not great game. It’s perhaps not quite as good as I was hoping after seeing the nice visuals, but it is a decently fun game, if you luck into finding a cheap copy as I did. Still, it is great to see a 5200 game that clearly is “next-gen” compared to the system’s numerous enhanced Atari 2600 ports, and isn’t available on that older platform. The sound and graphics are good as well, and the gameplay decent. Analog aiming, a better difficulty curve, and an ending would be great features to add to this game, but it’s fairly good as it is. Despite my criticisms, this is a pretty good game for sure. Atari 8-bit computer port not available on any other console.
Berzerk – 2 player alternating. Berzerk, from Atari, released in 1982 and is a port of an arcade top-down shooting action game by Stern, much better known now for its pinball tables. I covered the Atari 2600 version of this game previously, in my 2600/7800 thread, but now I have the 5200 version as well. Berzerk on the 5200 is a lot like the 2600 version, but with better graphics, some voice samples, and gameplay more accurate to the arcade game. As with the 2600 version, though, while I do like this game, I don’t love it; in games like this the limitations of this kind of very basic design really stand out to me. Berzerk appears to be a maze game, but it really isn’t. This game is made up of an infinite number of randomly-designed static screens. You play as the one human, trying futilely to escape from a robot army. You move with the stick, and fire by hitting the button while pointing the stick in the direction you want to shoot. 8-direction firing (with two sticks or something) would be awesome in this kind of game, as it is the controls feel a bit limiting. The controls are a bit slow thanks to the 5200’s joystick, but do work. The walls are electrified and kill any human or robot who touches them, and enemies will all shoot at you as well, and move towards your position. The game has a top-down perspective, and each room has a different wall layout. The grid isn’t too small, though, so you don’t have any complex mazes to navigate, just a couple of walls here and there. There are also exits on all four sides of the screen, unless one has been locked as they sometimes are; then you need to use a different exit. Your goal is to get as many points as you can before you die, and you get points from killing robots (or luring them to their doom by getting them to bump into walls) and from point bonuses you get after leaving a screen. If you take too long on a screen, the killer smilie face Evil Otto will appear and start chasing you. He is pretty much invincible, so get off the screen when the voice sample announcing his presence plays. This game can’t play voice samples during gameplay, so the game will always pause when one plays, or play them between stages. Still, this is the only 5200 game I have with voices, and it’s great that it has them at all. I wish more 5200 games used voices, but I imagine it took up a lot of cart space for the tiny amounts they had for these games. And that latter issue is my other, main issue with this game — it feels like there is no point to this game! You can’t escape the robots; there is no real maze, only an endless number of always-new random rooms (so if you go back through a door you just go to a new random room, not the last place you were); and your only real goal is to play for points. I do enjoy score-attack play sometimes, it’s fun enough in Galaxian for instance, but in Berzerk I’m left wanting more. At a minimum, actual mazes to work through that then loop endlessly once completed would have been a huge improvement over the endless succession of random rooms you have here. Still, Berzerk is a classic for a reason, and the game does play well. This version of the game is not was good as the arcade original thanks to not-quite-as-good graphics and slower controls, but it is still a solid game that’s fun for a while and shows off the system’s voice capabilities nicely. Arcade port also on the Atari 2600 and Vectrex. There is also a sequel, Frenzy, released exclusively on Colecovision and arcades.
Centipede – 2 player alternating, analog control required, Trackball supported. 1982’s Centipede is a port of one of Atari’s most popular arcade hits. It is yet another shooter, this time a static-screen shooter. You can move around a box on the bottom of the screen, and shoot up at centipedes, spiders, mushrooms, and more. Centipede has been released on innumerable platforms over the years, so there is no particular reason to get this version, but if you do it is a good version, particularly if you have the trackball; sadly, I don’t have one yet, though I do want one. Comparing this version to the Atari 7800 version of Centipede, the main question is, do you want minutely better graphics and some neat simultaneous multiplayer modes (the 7800 version, since it has those while the 5200 is alternating only), or do you want better controls (the 5200 version, since the 7800 is digital only)? Or just get both as I have, and have both options available when you want them, that works too. 😛 For single player modes the two versions are the same — both are Centipede, with four difficulty settings and graphics that aren’t quite up to the arcade games’ standard. Visually the two versions look very similar, but spiders look slightly better on the 7800, as they use two colors instead of one, so I guess it has a tiny visual edge. Your ship, the centipede segments, and the mushrooms look slightly different on each system, but are about equivalent artistically. The 5200 version stretches the game to fullscreen while the 7800 runs in a border to maintain a more arcadelike look I guess, but really they’re about the same visually. In terms of sound, as usual the 5200 sounds better, thanks to its superior sound chip. This game doesn’t have music, only sound effects and such, but they do sound nice.
Gameplay is fast and frenetic. The analog stick gives good analog control over your ship, and you have analog speed control as well — you move at several speeds depending on how far you push the stick. The centipedes are your main target, but watch out for the spiders, they get tough to avoid very quickly! Some centipede segments drop new mushrooms when they die, filling up the screen. You need to keep shooting to clear out those mushrooms, they can’t hurt you but will redirect the centipedes, hastening their trip down the screen. Each time you kill all parts of a centipede the screen’s colors change. In addition to centipede parts and spiders, there are also a couple of other enemies that appear once in a while, including one type which drop down the screen and another that move across the upper part of the screen, giving you a point bonus if you can hit them. Centipede is a difficult game, and games are often short, but definitely has a strong “just one more game” factor that can keep you playing for a lot longer than you initially meant to. It’s a great classic and I definitely like it, this version of Centipede is pretty good! Sure, Centipede is on dozens of platforms, but I think this one was worth getting. It’s surely even better with the trackball. Arcade port, also available (in slightly different forms) on dozens of platforms.
Defender – 2 player alternating, two buttons plus keypad required, Trackball supported. Defender for the 5200 is Atari’s version of the Williams arcade side-scrolling shmup of the same name. An absolute work of genius, the original arcade version of Defender released in 1980 and is one of the greatest games ever made. Eugene Jarvis’s first game might be his best! Robotron 2084 and Smash T.V. are also fantastic, but I like Defender even more. And fortunately, Atari did a fantastic job with this port of the game. Light-years better and more accurate than the mediocre 2600 “Defender” game, Defender for the 5200 is fantastic and one of the best games on the system. The graphics and sound are very close to the arcade game, the controls are great, and gameplay is about as good as it gets. Really the only flaw with 5200 Defender is that it’s easier than the arcade game. This game is challenging, but it’s not quite the crushing challenge of the arcade game, particularly on lower difficulty settings. I have always loved Defender, with its simple but very stylish graphics, droning sound effects, and monumental challenge. So, it didn’t take long to fall in love with this version! The game may be easier to control and play than the arcade game, but it’s still amazing.
In Defender, you try to save humans from an alien armada. Of course, as in most games of this era the game is an endless game you can’t win, and are instead just playing for score. I prefer being able to beat games, but good endless score games can be lots of fun too, and this is one of the best. This is a scrolling spaceship shooter, or shmup. Each level is a horizontal looping stage, so if you keep going in either direction you will go endlessly through the stage. There is a map of most of the level on the top of the screen, and the play window below. The map shows nearby enemy Lander and human locations, and where you are, so it’s vital. You move up and down with the Y-axis on the stick, move with the X-axis (but remember that the ship will have to reverse directions before you can go the other way, so you can’t just shoot at things on both sides of you without a delay), fire with the lower button, bomb with the upper one, and warp by hitting any keypad button. The arcade game had only buttons with no stick for movement, so control here is a bit easier I think. Gameplay is fast and furious, and at times the screen is filled with enemies. I have always liked the very cool white line graphic that Defender uses for your shots, and it looks great here. 5200 Defender is lower-resolution and blockier than the arcade game, but otherwise looks fantastic and is a great representation of the game. All of the enemies are here, from the landers trying to capture the humans, to the tougher enemies that home in on you if a lander captures a human, to the small UFOs, block things, and more that try to kill you. You do get extra lives, but between the many enemies and their bullets, you’ll die eventually. If all humans are killed, the ground blows up and you have to fight some tough battles in space before continuing on a new land area, as in the arcade game. Defender is a frenetic game where you fly back and forth, blasting away at enemies as you try to save the humans from the landers. The engine, shot, and droning intro sounds are just like the arcade game, and gameplay is as close as you could get on hardware of this era. Overall, Atari 5200 Defender is one of the better versions I have played of one of the best space shooters of all time. It is easier than the arcade game even on the hardest setting, but it is still a hard game that will take a long time to master, and sometimes it’s nice to play a slightly easier version of Defender. An arcade port, versions of Defender are available on many platforms old and new.
Dig-Dug – 2 player alternating. Dig-Dug is one of several Atari ports of popular Namco arcade games that Atari ported to the 5200; others I have include Pac-Man, Galaxian, and Pole Position. The game is a sort of top-down and sort of side-scrolling action game. The game is set underground, and you dig tunnels as you move. You play as a guy with a pump, and inflate monsters until they pop as a way of killing them. You have to kill all the monsters on each screen to progress, though when they’re down to only one left it will try to run away. There are also rocks scattered around which you can try to get to fall on enemies. If you drop 2 rocks on a stage, a bonus item will appear for extra points, so get them. You can chase it down for more points, or let it go. It’s a simple but well-made game. I don’t have great memories of Dig-Dug, but I bought it anyway because it’s a 5200 game and the price was reasonable. Previously I thought the game was okay, but not as good as its clone (of sorts) Mr. Do. Mr. Do is like Dig-Dug, but with improved gameplay variety; it’s a pretty fun game. Dig-Dug, though, doesn’t have anything to it beyond just doing the same thing over and over. You go around the screen, kill the monsters, and repeat. However, I found myself having fun this time! I’m sure the 7800 version that I also have is just as good, so I’m not sure why I like this more than when I last played that version a year or so ago, but I do. Dig-Dug was one of the bigger surprises here, I wasn’t expecting too much but I actually find it pretty fun.
Visually, Dig-Dug looks a lot like the later 7800 version. The game has good graphics which look like the arcade game, though as always they are lower resolution and don’t quite match the arcade games’ sprite detail. Still, the game looks good, and is a bit more colorful than many 5200 games seem to be, which is nice. The 7800 version does look a bit better, as it has multi-colored sprites instead of one-color sprites like on the 5200, but this version looks good despite that. The sound is very accurate to the arcade machine as well, both in the music that plays during the game and in the ingame sound effects. The audio is better than in the 7800 version for sure, the music plays more and both music and sound effects are better. The gameplay is as good as any version of this game, too. The game controls well, and you can move around and fire easily. I had no issues controlling Dig-Dug. This game requires a bit of strategy, because as you move around the screen digging those tunnels you have to think about where you want the tunnels to connect. Monsters can travel through the rock, but only can walk normally along their starter tunnel areas or in the tunnels you dig. You also move faster while in a dug tunnel than while digging, sort of like Pac-Man while he’s eating dots versus when moving faster in a cleared corridor. Still, this is for the most part a fairly simple arcade shooter. The pump mechanic is weird, as few other videogame characters use such a weapon and you have to repeatedly tap the button in order to kill an enemy, but it does work. The gameplay is simple, repetitive, and fun, and I’ve played this game more than I thought I would as I try to get farther in the game. There are only two enemy types in this game, but there are at least some new dirt colors as you progress to mix things up a bit, that’s nice. Overall, Dig-Dug is a pretty good game that I definitely like. I do still like Mr. Do and its added variety more, but Dig-Dug is a good, simple arcade shooter with a little bit of a thinking side, and it’s good fun stuff. Thanks to the better audio I think I’d rather play this version than the 7800 one. Arcade port, other versions of Dig-Dug are on probably dozens of platforms.
Galaxian – 2 player alternating, analog control required, Trackball supported. Galaxian, another 1982 release from Atari, is a port of Namco’s arcade single-screen shmup that is probably more famous as the predecessor to the all-time classic Galaga. I have always liked Galaga a lot, as I said in my Atari 7800 list, but Galaxian is a game I have mostly overlooked in favor of its more famous sequel. Well, playing this version of the game now, Galaxian is a pretty great game too! And this 5200 version of the game is fantastic, as well. 5200 Galaxian has great graphics, very good controls, eleven difficulty levels to choose from, and great, classic static-screen-shooter gameplay. As in most games of this kind, gameplay is simple: you move left and right with the stick, and fire up with the lower button. Only one of your shots can be on the screen at a time, so try to get used to the aiming, it is important. You will autofire by holding the button down, but with only one shot at once on screen I find it often better to press the button to shoot, so you can aim better. In Galaxian there is a formation of enemies at the top of the screen, and some regularly dive down at you from their places above. The key to scoring points in Galaxian is that you get more points for hitting diving enemies than enemies in formation at the top. In this version, unlike the arcade game, there is actually a different sound effect for hitting diving enemies than ones in formation, which helps encourage you to try your best to shoot at the diving enemies, not just to wipe out the barely-moving formations. I really like this. The sound effects as enemies dive down at you are also great stuff and add to the game. Like most 5200 games this game doesn’t have music, but it does have great sounds.
The other major addition to this 5200 version of Galaga is pretty nice: analog movement controls! Unlike the digital arcade game, here you have two movement speeds, so you will move faster if you press the stick harder, and slower if you don’t move it as far. It’s a great feature that helps you dodge through the forests of fire that can fill the screen in this game. Maybe digital controls would be better, but I think 5200 Galaxian controls pretty well, this game is great fun to play. Galaxian is a nice-looking game, with a great starfield background and enemies of several colors. The yellow enemies are the boss enemies, brown are their guards, and the others are the normal enemy ships. You get more points for killing yellow enemies if they dive down with guards and you take out the guards first and then the boss enemy — you get only 150 points for a solo diving yellow boss, but a full 800 for if you kill two guards and then the boss enemy they dove at you with, all in one pass. Figuring out the timing to hit enemies is tricky, but this game rewards practice. The numerous difficulty levels are nice as well, as they scale up from tough to crazy-walls-of-bullets hard. On that one though, 5200 Galaxian does have one flaw: lots of slowdown! When a lot is going on on screen, Galaxian will slow down significantly. I don’t know if the hardware really can’t do better than this or if this is just a symptom of an early title for the system, but it is unfortunate. Otherwise though, this is a great static-screen shmup. I had never really played much Galaxian before getting this game, but I sure will be in the future! It’s too bad that the 5200 didn’t get a version of Galaga, to see what it could do compared to the great 7800 version of the game, but this is also a pretty good game. It’s more traditional and Space Invaders-styled than Galaga is, but it’s also a fantastic game. The 5200 version of the game looks, sounds, and plays great, and is one of the bigger surprises here for me. Arcade port; the arcade version is available on numerous platforms, but this version is 5200-only.
Joust – 2 player simultaneous. Joust, from Atari, is a conversion of the Williams arcade game. I have never loved Joust all that much, so I got this expecting to not like it that much, and unfortunately, that is accurate. Joust has an awesome story, but the gameplay is a bit frustrating. Joust is a side-view arcade action game. You are a jousting knight riding a flying ostrich, and have to defeat other jousting knights. So yeah, the story is awesome, but that gameplay… I don’t know, it’s a good game, but ever since I first played Joust as a kid I haven’t liked it that much. Nintendo’s Joust clone Balloon Fight might be slightly better. Still, Joust is at least an okay game, but that’s about it. The stick moves you left and right, and the lower button flaps your bird’s wings, making you ‘jump’ higher into the air. The 5200 version of this game is good, but not the best version of Joust; I don’t mind the 5200 controller, but it’s not ideal for this game. Flap control is essential in this game, and the fire button, while decent, isn’t the best. A bigger issue than the controller is the game itself, though — Joust is an INCREDIBLY floaty game. It’s very hard to go where you want to in the air because you’re floating all over. That’s not just this version, that’s Joust in general and it’s always been one of my biggest problems with the game. Balloon Fight has tighter, better controls.
Joust is a combat game. You defeat an enemy by hitting them from a higher altitude, so the higher lance wins when two sprites collide. Good luck, you’ll need it. This is a single-screen arcade game, so on each screen you need to defeat all the enemy knights. Defeated enemies turn into eggs, which then fall down to earth. If they land in lava they burn up, but if they land on the ground you’ll need to walk over them to defeat them and get points or the enemy will respawn. There is only one basic stage, but as you progress sometimes some platforms will vanish, giving the game some variety. There are also several different enemy types. Still, Joust has little variety, every stage is similar. Of course that is how most games of this era work, but I don’t have quite as much fun playing this game as I do many of the other 5200 games I have. Every attempt I make at playing Joust ends with me frustrated at the controls, and I never have been able to stick with it long enough to get good; I’d rather play a game I like more instead. Still, this is a fine port of the game and looks and plays well. The graphics look a lot like the arcade game, the sound is good, and it controls like Joust, for people who like how this game controls. Arcade port, also available on dozens of other consoles.
Kangaroo – 2 player alternating. Kangaroo is another arcade port by Atari, this time of a game they published themselves in the arcades, though Atari may not have developed the arcade version. Kangaroo is a Donkey Kong clone single-screen platformer. It’s a decent game with badly flawed controls. You play as a mother kangaroo, and have to reach your joey (your kidnapped baby kangaroo) in order to beat each screen. As in Donkey Kong, there are four screens in the game, each harder than the last. Your enemies in this game are a legion of monkeys who are dead-set on stopping you. They climb up and down the sides of the screen and sometimes come onto the platforms, and throw things at the kangaroo that you’ll have to duck under or jump over. You can attack them with your punch attack, used with the lower button. There are pickups along the way for points, and if you hit the bell more will appear that you can go back for if you wish for a higher score but some added risk. You need to be perfect with your jumps between platforms here too, because falling even a single pixel means immediate death, which is kind of annoying. Kangaroo is a hard game, and I haven’t yet beaten all four screens though I have reached screen four. Kangaroo is also on the Atari 2600, and I have that version. I like that this version has four screens, that one only has three. Visually Kangaroo looks okay, but certainly doesn’t push the 5200. This version is a step over the 2600 version and everything looks much clearer, but it’s still only an average-looking game. As fopr sound, there is a song that plays before you start, but as with most 5200 games, there isn’t ingame music most of the time. A little tune does play when you hit the bell, though. The audio is decent, but seriously, more 5200 games should have had soundtracks, the audio chip can handle it!
The biggest issue with this game, though, are the controls. The controls have not been improved over the 2600, and thanks to this joystick might be even worse here. On the 2600, up for jump was a sad necessity, you punch with the button and there is no second button to jump with on that controller. The 5200 does have two buttons, though… but you still must use up to jump! It’s horrible, and kind of ruins the game. Getting used to the jumping in this game will take some serious practice. You need to push the stick in the direction you need to go in, then diagonal forward in that direction, then back down or you’ll keep jumping and maybe jump into some hole up ahead. It’s clumsy and doesn’t work well. Why in the world couldn’t they have let you use one of the buttons to jump with, the game would be pretty good if they had done that! As it is though, Kangaroo is an okay game with a big learning curve. Because you need to recenter this stick after each move, you really need to pay attention to every move in this game, and make sure to move the stick back to center after each jump or duck. It does work, but better controls, that is a jump button, would have helped a lot. I have started to get more used to the game with some practice, though, so it is playable. The stages have some nice variety; I like the stage with the tower of monkeys you can knock down if you wish, that’s fun stuff. Still, overall, Kangaroo is only average thanks to average visuals and the awful jumping controls. Still, as one of the few officially-released platformers on the 5200, it’s worth getting if you have the system. As flawed as it is, as a platformer fan I do like that I have this game, it can be a fun challenge. Arcade port, also on Atari 2600.
Missile Command – 2 player alternating, analog control required, Trackball supported. Missile Command was one of Atari’s biggest arcade hits of the early ’80s, so they made sure to port the game over to the 5200. This is an endless missile-defense game with a side-view single-screen view. You have six cities to protect from missiles, planes, little homing triangles of doom, and more. You move a cursor around the screen, and each press of the lower button fires off a missile from your centrally-located silo. The arcade version had three silos, each with a button, but this version has only one, like the 2600 version. It’d have been nice to see two, at least, one for each main button on the controller. Fired missiles explode once they hit the point you targeted, and your goal is to destroy the falling enemy warheads in those explosions. These missiles will also blow up in the air, maybe causing chain reactions. The missiles come in waves, and after each wave your score is tallied. You have a limited number of missiles per wave, and get a replacement city each 10,000 points, which the game will remember if you have all six intact. Missile Command is a simple game, but extremely difficult! This is one of those brilliant classics, perfectly designed to be fun for a minute but to take many hours to master.
This 5200 version of the game may have worse graphics and simpler gameplay than the arcade original, but thanks to the analog stick in the controller it does have pretty good controls. The 5200 joystick makes a pretty solid trackball or spinner replacement, as this game, Centipede, and Super Breakout all show. I imagine the controls are even better with the 5200 trackball, but they work pretty well with the standard controller too! This game controls great and is a lot of fun to play. Sure, the graphics definitely could be better; 5200 Missile Command looks better than the 2600 game, but this system can do a lot more than this. And while the sound is decent, it’s nothing great. But with great controls and constant action, 5200 Missile Command is a very good game despite its simplified design and lacking presentation. Missile Command is one of Atari’s great classics, and even without the trackball this is a fantastic version of the game. Missile Command does get very hard very quickly, but it’s supposed to be that way. This is a game about a nuclear war. You are doomed and can’t win, just like it would be in a real nuclear war, something which felt much more likely when this game was released during the Cold War than it does today. Each game ends with a pretty nice THE END screen, on a red background, which then starts blowing up. With gameplay this great, though, you’ll want to try again right away for sure! Missile Command is great, one of the upper tier of 5200 games I have in terms of fun factor. Arcade conversion; the arcade version has been ported to innumerable consoles, though this specific version is 5200-exclusive.
Pac-Man – 2 player alternating. Another Atari port of a Namco classic, Pac-Man for the 5200 is a pretty good port of one of the most popular arcade games of all time. While I don’t hate the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man as much as many people do, this version is worlds better as it actually looks and plays a lot like the real thing, something that cannot be said for that game. Pac-Man, the most popular maze game, is a pretty good game but has never been one of my favorite classic arcade games; it’s a great game, but while I do like it and think it’s a fun game, I’ve never gotten hooked by Pac-Man enough to want to get good at it; it’s something I’ll have some fun with for a few minutes here and there, but don’t love enough to take too seriously. So, while this version of Pac-Man is great technically, and plays fairly well though it does have some control issues, it’s not one of my most-played 5200 games because I don’t love this game as much as some of the others I have for the system.
Still, I can’t deny Pac-Man’s greatness, or its importance. I guess I just prefer a bit more complexity in a game like this, either through more complex game systems and more variety, as you see in Turtles for the Odyssey 2 (and arcades); that game is very obscure, but fantastic. Pac-Man is a simpler game. You are a yellow circle with a mouth and eyeball, and have to eat all of the dots in each level’s single-screen maze. Four enemies called ghosts chase you around the maze, trying to kill you. Near the four corners are power pills, time-limited super-dots which let you eat the ghosts instead. Everything works here just like it does in the arcade game. The stage is identical every time, but as you get farther the enemies get faster and bonus item types change. There are also several in-between-level skits to see. It’s nice that they kept those in this version of the game. Visually, the game looks like a slightly downgraded version of the arcade game. Everything looks similar to the original, but as with most 5200 games, the resolution is lower, objects blockier, and colors duller than in the arcade game. Still, for a 1982 console game this looks fairly good. It doesn’t quite match up to the NES version of Pac-Man visually, but it’s close and plays just as well. Other than the screen resolution and detail, the biggest difference between the two is that the NES version attempts to replicate the arcade games’ vertical monitor and has a sidebar, while the lower-rez 5200 version is full-screen. This makes the maze a bit different looking, but it’s still clearly the Pac-Man maze, and the gameplay is the same. For sound, it’s a decent approximation of arcade Pac-Man’s sound effects.
There is one issue with 5200 Pac-Man, though, and that is the controls. Games with analog controls work great on this controller, but digital games are more hit-or-miss. Some control well, like Defender, but in Pac-Man, the stick definitely takes some getting used to. Because the stick is loose and has a lot of throw, you need to move the stick a good ways to make each move. You’ll need to get used to moving the stick to the direction you want before the turn in order to make corners. I still sometimes miss a turn I wanted to do. Also be sure to move the stick back to center, to avoid unwanted extra turns. I may mostly like the 5200 controller, but it isn’t as good for Pac-Man as it is for many other games. Still, the game is entirely playable, and once you get used to the stick the game plays fine. Overall, Pac-Man is a very good game, but probably isn’t one of the best 5200 games. Still, this game probably should have been the original 5200 pack-in game, not Super Breakout — it’s a good port of one of the most popular games of the time. Arcade port; other ports of the arcade game are available on many, many platforms.
Pengo – 2 player alternating, Trackball supported. Pengo, a 1983 Atari release, is a port of the arcade game by Sega. Pengo is the game that Hopper on the TI-99/4A is a clone of, for anyone who read my TI list. Versus Hopper, 5200 Pengo has more variety but perhaps slightly worse graphics. Pengo is an okay top-down arcade action game with some strategic, or perhaps puzzle, elements. You are a penguin, and have to crush your enemies by shoving blocks at them. This is a tile-based game, so you move from space to space with each push of the stick. Each level has a random assortment of blocks scattered around the screen, and you can push them by walking into them. If the block runs into some enemies before hitting a wall, you’ll kill the enemy. A level ends after a certain amount of time or if you kill all, or all but one, of the enemies. As in Dig-Dug, when only one enemy is left it’ll try to run off. Catching them is harder here than in that game, though, because you have to rely on boxes being positioned in the right places in order to kill enemies, so they often escape on me. That’s okay. You get a point bonus after each level based on how fast you finished the stage and how many enemies you took out. There are a few more gameplay elements, such as a bonus if you line up the three special-looking indestructible blocks in a row, but those are the essentials. It may sound simple, but Pengo is a decent game which requires more strategy than most arcade action games do. If you just randomly push blocks around you will quickly run out of usable blocks and the enemies will get you, so think carefully before pushing blocks! Enemies will destroy blocks as they run into them, so if both sides are wiping out blocks too soon you’ll be left with nothing. Also some blocks will turn into enemies; these flash with an enemy at the start, so if you can remember which they are, you'[ll get a point bonus for destroying those blocks before the enemy comes out of it. While definitely not one of Sega’s best early arcade games, Pengo has some nice strategy and is a fun game. I like games which make you think, and this game does do that.
Visually, Pengo looks okay. The game has decent graphics, though it’s not great looking. Your penguin looks like a penguin, and the enemies like other creatures. As with most all 5200 games the game is low-rez and pixelated; 5200 graphics really look different from the sharp-sprites look of the Colecovision or NES. I don’t mind, that’s just how it is. The game could use more color, a common problem in 5200 games; most everything is monochromatic. Still, the blocks and enemies look different. The sounds are fairly basic stuff, just sound effects here with no ingame music, as usual on this system, or for arcade games of the day. The game does control well; I’ve never had an issue with the controls, the stick works fine here. As with many 5200 games, this game is light on options; there are some difficulty settings, and the usual two player alternating mode, and that’s it. Still, Pengo is above average at least, for sure. This somewhat puzzley strategy of thinking about which blocks to push, and when, is fun, and it’s always satisfying when you crush multiple enemies with a single shove. The playfield isn’t too large, so even with only a few enemies danger is always nearby. Catching that last enemy when it runs is difficult, but you move on either way. I like the time bonus for finishing a stage fast, it rewards better play. However, Pengo does get repetitive and a bit boring after a while; as with most games of this era the game does only one thing, and it can get old eventually. Overall, Pengo is above average but not great. Because of somewhat more complex gameplay this is probably better than Hopper on the TI, but the game is a bit slow for an action game, and isn’t as great as the great puzzle games, either. Still, Pengo’s worth a play, at least. Arcade port, Pengo is also available on the Atari 2600, and, in Japan and Europe only, the Game Gear. I have the Japanese Game Gear version, it’s the same basic game but has better graphics than on the 5200. There are also various old computer ports of the game. Pengo has few sequels, but there is a Japan-only Genesis game and a modern widescreen remake that only released in Japan (arcade/Xbox 360).
Pole Position – 1 player, analog control and two buttons required, Trackball supported. Pole Position for the 5200, from Atari, is a racing game, and a port of the Namco arcade game of the same name. This is a ‘linescroll’ style racing game that gives you a sense of motion by moving objects towards the screen. Pole Position for the 5200 has very blocky graphics, only one track, the game ends after a single race, and teh game is five minutes long, beginning to end, on the default setting. It’s only maybe twice that long on the hardest mode, if you can beat it. However, despite the seriously lacking amount of content here, Pole Position for the 5200 is a great game! Sure, it badly needs more, but thanks to fantastic controls and smooth gameplay, 5200 Pole Position plays so well that the flaws are somewhat mitigated. Indeed, the key to 5200 Pole Position’s greatness are those controls. This game shows off the 5200 controller better than almost any other I have! The analog joystick gives you extremely smooth control of your car; the not-entirely-autocentering stick works great in a driving game, you don’t want the wheel to immediately spring back to center the moment you let go of it; and the two buttons give you independent controls for gas and brake. The controls work great, and with a little practice I was weaving between cars with only a few crashes. The analog controls here really show how unfortunate it is that there aren’t any racing games with analog controls on the NES, SMS, TG16, SNES, Genesis, and such — digital controls cannot match analog precision in a driving game! However, the great controls do help make this game even shorter, as they help you move through traffic more easily than you probably could with a digital stick. How much durability does a game that is this easy to finish really have? Sure it’s really fun, and you can make it harder with the higher difficulties and longer races, but that only adds so much. Pole Position has four difficulty settings, but all that really affects is the number of cars that will be on the track and how much time you start with. You can also change the number of laps of the race from one to eight. An eight-lap race on the highest setting is a challenge, you’ll need to never hit anyone to finish it. Still, the track itself is too easy; this game really needs more challenging courses! Also, you aren’t racing against the other cars here, really; this is a score-based game. As fun as it is, in a racing game I want more than just to play for score.
Visually the game is smooth, but all objects are super blocky. Cars look like lumpy blocks of pixels, and roadside signs have no text, they are just rectangles on a pole. The actual car sprites of 7800 Pole Position II look better, but you do get used to this game, and the simple look has a certain charm to it for sure. I kind of like the look of these lumps of pixels. The sound is good, with a nice rendition of the opening theme first, and well-done engine sounds for your and the other cars during the race. It’d have been nice to have a full ingame soundtrack, but the engine sounds do give you a good idea of where the other cars are.
In Pole Position, you start out with a qualifying lap. You have plenty of time for this lap, so just try to finish fast enough to place in the top eight. If you don’t finish in the top eight you will keep going, but the timer won’t refill and you don’t have time for a second lap, so just reset the game and try again. To reset, hit Pause, then hit Reset. Some 5200 games reset by just hitting Reset, while others require you to pause first; this is in the latter camp. If you finish in the top eight, it’s on to the main race, a one to eight lap race lap race on the games’ only track, Fuji. This is a somewhat easy circuit with only one tight turn. Apart from that one turn, the main challenge in this game are the other cars, not the course itself. Later linescroll racing games like this do a much better job of actually having challenging courses, but this game doesn’t have it. The four difficulties each have a name, and oddly the default one, difficulty 2, is called the “Malibu Grand Prix” for some silly reason, though this is obviously in Japan thanks to the mountains in the background. The higher settings are the Namco and Atari Grand Prix, and the lower one Practice mode. In the main race, your time is quite limited. If you want to finish all four laps, even on the default difficulty you’ll need to crash one time at most, maybe two if you otherwise race really well. On the top setting, anything more than a one-lap race really will require no crashes. Any more than that and it’s over, you’ll run out of time, game over. After each completed lap you get more time, just barely enough to get around the track again if you don’t make any mistakes. So, skill is required to finish the game, but it’s not too hard to do thanks to the smooth controls. At the end, whether you finished the race or not, your score is tallied. Remember, there are no real other racers in this game, they are just obstacles. You get points for how many cars you passed, how much time was left on the clock when you finished, and such. Overall, Pole Position is a pretty good game that is a lot of fun to play. This is the only racing game released for the 5200 during its active life, but at least it’s a great one! I do find it quite unfortunate that the game has only one track, but at least there are a few difficulty settings to add a little more life to the game. Still, this is a very short game. Even so, Pole Position for the 5200 is one of the best 5200 games I’ve played yet! The TV ad for this 5200 version of the game, the one with the Pole Position song in it, is also absolutely incredible, one of the best videogame TV ads ever! Look it up. Pole Position is available on numerous consoles both old and new, on its own on older systems or in Namco collections on newer ones. This version is a bit different from the arcade game, though, and is only found on the 5200. The game also has a sequel, Pole Position II, which has four tracks instead of just one, a needed improvement. The Atari 7800 version of that game has better graphics than this game, and more content, but the superior controls of the 5200 version are a big point in its favor; the 7800, of course, has only a digital control stick, not analog. The 5200 game has better sound as well, of course.
Popeye – 1 player. Popeye, a 1983 Parker Bros. release, is a port of a Nintendo arcade game. Of Nintendo’s arcade sidescrollers of the time, for some reason the 5200 got Popeye and Mario Bros., but not either Donkey Kong game. I haven’t played Popeye much at all before, so I was interested to try this game. As with those other games, Popeye is a side-scrolling game, but in Popeye you cannot jump, which makes this game play quite differently from Donkey Kong or Mario Bros. I definitely prefer to be able to jump, so I don’t think this game is quite as good as DK is, but it is a good game that has been mostly forgotten, and hasn’t seen re-release since the NES version probably because of licensing, since this is a licensed game. The story is that Shigeru Miyamoto liked Popeye and wanted to make a Popeye game, but couldn’t get the license so he made Donkey Kong. Well, after its success, they got the license, and this game is the result. Popeye is a classic cartoon, so it’s interesting to see Nintendo make a game based on it.
So, considering that this is sort of a followup to Donkey Kong, why does it play so differently? I was hoping for a game that played like Donkey Kong, but this game isn’t that. Instead, your goal is to pick up items which slowly fall down the screen. You play as Popeye, of course, and have to collect the various things Olive Oyl is dropping from the top, while avoiding Bluto, who runs around chasing you, and objects the Sea Hag throws from the sides of the screen. The lower button punches, and the stick moves. If you punch the things the Sea Hag throws they won’t hurt you, but don’t bother trying to punch Bluto, it won’t work. There are flat horizontal platforms to walk on, and ladders and staircases that connect the platforms. There are some gaps in platforms in some stages which Bluto can get over but you can’t, but you can walk around one edge of the screen to go to the other side (unless the Sea Hag is in the way) while Bluto can’t do that. There’s also a bounce pad in one stage (helped out by Wimpy) and a moving platform on the third stage, but the level designs are mostly fairly simple. For offense, if you get a rare spinach can you can knock out Bluto for a bit, and on the first screen if you punch the thing in the top level you can knock him out for a moment if the falling object hits him, but mostly you just have to avoid Bluto. The game has four single-screen stages, like DK and DK Jr., and loops endlessly after you finish all four screens. Levels in this game take quite a while to finish — you need to collect between 18 and 24 items per stage, and they only slowly drop down the screen one to three at a time. The slow pace is one of this game’s bigger problems, while Popeye is fun it can get boring because of how long the levels take. Bluto isn’t too hard to stay away from, but sometime he’ll get you, and avoiding him while also hitting the things the Sea Hag throws at you can be tricky. It’s often easier to try to get to another floor, instead of timing punches to take out lines of thrown stuff.
Visually, Popeye looks decent. This version does not look as good as the arcade or NES versions of the game, but it does look better than some other ports, and most of the sprites are recognizable as who they are supposed to be, though they’re a lot more pixelated than in the arcade or NES versions. All three screens from the arcade game are present, but the arcade version’s little intro and ending sequences sadly have been removed. The NES version doesn’t have the full intro or ending either, but does have a bit more than this version does. It would have been nice to see them, they add a bit to the game. The soundtrack did make it though, thankfully, and it’s a good rendition of the soundtrack from the arcade game. Overall, I like Popeye. It’s a classic Nintendo sidescroller that I hadn’t played much before, and it’s fun to play it now. This 5200 version of the game is pretty good and plays great, with solid controls and reasonably good graphics. The gameplay is a bit too slow-paced, and the absence of jumping is missed, so this game definitely isn’t a classic on par with Donkey Kong, but still Popeye is a good game well worth playing. Arcade port, also on a bunch of classic platforms of the early ’80s. There hasn’t been a new release of the game since the NES version, though.
Qix – 1 player, two buttons required. Qix is another 1983 Atari port of a popular arcade game, this one originally by Taito. Qix was a very unique game at the time, but because it was quite popular the game inspired a genre of similar titles that have released over the years. That’s really my issue with Qix; sort of like Tempest, as good as the original game is, I think that later games in the genre are better than the original. Still though, this is a pretty good game. So, in Qix you play as a little indicator mark, which moves around the edge of a square screen. If you hold down a button you will be able to move into the middle of the field, and if you then get back to the edge you will section off that part of the field, making your line into the new border of the screen. Your goal is to cover at least 65% of each screen in order to move on. Three enemies are trying to stop you: the Qix, a buzzing line which bounces around in the middle of the screen; little Sparx which move around the edge of the screen and will kill you if they touch you; and other sparx which start chasing you if you move out on a line into the screen and then stop moving — this requires you to not just stop in the middle of the screen while on a line, though the Qix itself also encourages you to keep moving, because if the Qix crosses your line before it you have connected again to the side, you lose a life. One button moves you quickly, and the other button moves you slowly. You get more points for a box made moving slowly the whole time than a box where you moved faster at any point. You get five lives per game.
It’s a great concept, and the game plays very well and is a lot of fun to play. However, the genre did improve after the original Qix. Later Qix-style games took the sectioning-off-the-screen concept to reveal a picture as you fill in boxes of the screen; this was particularly popular for ’90s Japanese arcade games with scantily clad women in them, but other games have less risque images to reveal. In this one, though, you just color in boxes. This genre is a bit better with pictures, not just colored boxes and a flat black background. Qix’s official followup Ultimate Qix (aka Volfied, for arcade, TG16, Genesis, and PS1) is better than this game, for example. Another issue with this game is that the screen resolution is pretty low, so the area you’re filling in is smaller than the arcade game or many later similar titles. The Qix is also a super-pixelated line, or two lines, once you have to face two at once. This game looks fine for a 1983 console game, but definitely isn’t one of the better-looking Qix-style games. The game also has few options, basically you just play the game. Still though, the core gameplay is good, so this is an above-average, high-quality game for sure. This isn’t one of my favorite 5200 games, but it is a good one. Arcade port also available on lots of platforms, though this specific version is as always 5200-exclusive.
Space Invaders – 2 player alternating. Released some time after the very popular 2600 version of the popular Taito classic arcade static-screen shooter, Atari’s 5200 version of Space Invaders is good, but not as good as the arcade or maybe even 2600 versions of the game. The main issue is, perhaps in order to make the game clearly distinct from the 2600 version, Atari made some significant changes to this version of Space Invaders which, overall, make it not quite as good as the original game. It does make it clearly a different game — 5200 Space Invaders is an original game, not an arcade port — but it’s not a better game. Versus the 2600 version, the graphics are better, but there are far fewer gameplay modes and the game is not as well balanced, and compared to other 5200 shooters like Galaxians or Astro Chase, Space Invaders looks very dated in both graphics and gameplay. As with the arcade game, in Space Invaders for the 5200 you control a ship on the bottom of the screen and have to shoot all of the aliens in each wave before they reach the ground. This is an endless game, so you can’t win, but instead play to see how high a score you can get. The game has 12 different modes, but it’s just a difficulty setting with 12 options; unlike the 70+ varied modes of 2600 Space Invaders, there is only one basic game here, no crazier variations like the ones in 2600 Space Invaders with invisible aliens and such. That’s really too bad, this game shouldn’t have fewer features than its last-gen predecessor!
Visually, Space Invaders looks only okay. Enemies are the usual 5200 somewhat monochromatic two-similar-colors-each designs color-wise, but do animate nicely as they move. The initial waves make sounds as they descend down the screen, but starting from wave 7 or so the next enemy type makes no sound other than a noise when they descend to the next layer closer to you; this makes these levels very quiet, apart from your shots. More sound would have been good, so many silent levels is unfortunate. Particularly in these waves, which there are a lot of, this game is too quiet. I do like the animating enemies, and some of them are nice bright colors, but overall the game looks and sounds somewhat primitive. The huge sprites don’t exactly show much of what the 5200 can do, and the background is just a flat black hue with nothing interesting going on, unlike, say, Galaxian. It’s kind of amazing that both this game and that one released within months of eachother, because otherwise I’d guess that that one is a much newer game because of its better graphics. Space Invaders does have a lot less slowdown than Galaxian, but that doesn’t nearly make up for the deficit.
Fortunately, the game is fun even if it’s not the best looking game, but it is flawed. The basic concept of Space Invaders is the same as usual, shoot the waves of enemies which move back and forth in formation, trying to kill all of them before one reaches the ground. If enemy shots hit you you lose a life, or if an enemy reaches the ground it’s an instant game over. Unlike other Space Invaders games, though, enemies in this game are huge, and take up much more of the screen than they would in other Space Invaders games. They also do not start in a screen-filling formation, but instead they fly in from the left side of the screen, one row at a time. They always enter from the left, never any other direction; that’s a missed opportunity to add at least a little more variety to this game. Because of this design, every wave starts with you on the left side of the screen, shooting up at the entering enemies. This makes the game easier, but the large size of the sprites somewhat compensates — enemies will move down the screen quite quickly once they are fully on screen because of how big those sprites are. Taking out the side columns of enemies is key. Also, the shields work differently from other Space Invaders games. This time bullets only do a one-pixel block of damage exactly where the shot it, and nothing more. This makes the shield last a lot longer than before. However, the shield doesn’t get repaired between waves. Instead, only every seven waves or so will you get new shields. Again this is different from the original game, but not as good — I much prefer the nicer-looking damage seen in the arcade games’ shields. Still, the basic gameplay is great, and the game does control well. You move left and right with the stick, and fire with the button. Holding the button down will autofire, but only one shot can be on screen at once. The controls work very well, and the game is quite fun to play. But as a Space Invaders game, it’s a bit disappointing. There definitely are worse Space Invaders games out there, but there are better as well, including the 2600 version. That version is more impressive for its system, and the huge selection of modes adds something to that game that this version doesn’t have. Still, if you have a 5200, pick up Space Invaders because it’s cheap and fun. Don’t search out the console just for this game, though. 5200 exclusive, but other versions of Space Invaders are on many platforms, both arcade and console.
Star Raiders – 1 player, analog control plus keypad required. Atari’s 1983 Star Raiders is a port of an Atari 8-bit computer game by Atari. Yes, a computer port from Atari, not an arcade port. And as you might expect from a computer game, Star Raiders is much more complex than most games on this system. This game is a 3d space flight combat game. You explore a section of the galaxy, destroying enemies, docking with starbases, and traveling around from place to place, until you have destroyed all the baddies and saved the day. If you play this game make sure to get the manual! You’ll need it, there is a lot to learn. I like that you can actually beat this game and that it’s not endless, it makes it feel a bit different from most 5200 games. This is a free-roaming game — you can go to any point on the map at any time, it’s not on a railed path. This game uses every keypad key, and has two functions on every key in fact, with the star and pound keys as modifiers to select speed mode or functions mode. In speed mode the 0 to 9 speeds change your speed. In the other mode, you have keypad keys to turn on and off the shields, targeting computer, and such; to look behind you; to use the map, which you must do before a warp or to see where the enemies are gathering; and to hyperwarp. Select a space on the map then warp to go there, or just warp randomly if you are in trouble. Ship control is nice and is analog, but the game only uses one of the side buttons, to fire your missiles. There are multiple difficulty levels available that add more and tougher enemies each time. In higher settings warping is tougher too, as you will have to keep on course with the stick while warping. You also have to pay much more attention to your ship’s energy meter in higher difficulties. Combat controls are much simpler than the relatively complex flight controls, though.
Star Raiders is a pretty interesting game, but it does have some issues. First, the graphics aren’t great and this game has the worst slowdown I have seen on the system. You have a first-person view in your cockpit, and never see your own ship. As usual on this system, the graphics are very pixelated, but do have a nice style to them. I like the starfield you fly through in this game, and it really is full 3d space even if everything is conveniently mostly in a 2d grid, but the enemy ships look very basic and simple, and your starbases don’t look much better. And when you kill an enemy they explode into a cloud of pixels, and the framerate nearly stops! It’s kind of crazy how slow the game gets during explosions. I really hope it’s a misguided intentional effect, because the 5200 has to be able to manage better than that… it’s kind of painful, and makes hitting other enemies during battle difficult at times. Aurally the game is fairly basic, with the usual engine and explosion noises. It sounds good enough, but a soundtrack would have been great; there are few of those in games from Atari on this system, I have noticed.
My other issues with the game are in the gameplay. Star Raiders is a good game for its time, but space combat in this game is a bit too simplistic. There seems to be no benefit to flying around during combat, it makes the most sense to just warp to a space with enemies in it, shoot at them while sitting there with your shield on, and then move on. Of course, things get harder in the higher settings where you can’t just use the shield all the time, but I had some issues getting the keypad controls to respond during combat — sometimes my ship wouldn’t start moving while fighting, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s the controller. Regardless, even if you are moving, you don’t dogfight in this game. The enemies just fly around, you try to center the targeting reticule in the lower right-hand corner on the enemy, and then fire when it’s lined up. For a game with as complex a universe to fly around as this game has, I was expecting a much better combat system, not something that’s basically the same as 2600 games like Star Raiders or Solaris. Solaris has more graphical variety than this game, too. I know that is a newer game than this one, but it is running on the 2600. 2600 Star Raiders does at least have a better starfield, as Solaris just has static white does in the background while 5200 Star Raiders has moving ‘stars’ that give you a better sense of flying through space. I just wish that the combat had more to it than lining up a reticule and firing a few times.
Still, even if combat is too simple, the game is fun to play, and the difficulty curve from easier difficulties to harder goes up nicely. Flying around is fun, and I like that you have full control over your speed, where you’re going, camera views, ship systems, and more. The map is great and very helpful. Overall Star Raiders is a good game and does a nice job of showing off some of the things the 5200 can do, but the horrible slowdown when enemies explode and the simplistic combat hold it back somewhat. I do like it though. Atari 8-bit computer port; there is also an Atari 2600 version, but it is much more simplistic and stripped-down. Solaris for the 2600 is the better 2600 game in this style.
Super Breakout – 1-4 player alternating, analog control required, Trackball supported. Super Breakout is a port of Atari’s second version of Breakout, the classic bounce-the-ball-off-the-blocks game. Breakout is an incredibly influential game which helped great a popular genre that I like, but as I said in my 2600/7800 thread, the original Breakout has aged badly in several ways. Unfortunately, this game is basically the same as the 2600 game I discussed there, just with better graphics. Super Breakout was the original pack-in game with the Atari 5200, and while it does do a good job of showing off the advantages of an analog controller as the analog controls with the stick work great, in terms of graphics and gameplay this is very definitely last-gen. As for sound, there are sound effects when the ball hits something and that’s about it; very basic audio here too. It’s not exactly the great show of the new system’s power that you would want from a pack-in game. This version does look a bit better than the 2600 version, but it’s still a very basic-looking game, with just a wall of blocks, a paddle or two, and a ball or three. The game has about five modes, each slightly different but all the same in concept: destroy a wall of bricks. One has a normal classic wall, one has one that slowly moves towards you, one gives you two paddles and two balls, and the last has two balls inside the wall that you can break out and use once they escape.
The concept may be simple, but Super Breakout is a crushingly difficult game. I haven’t yet finished one screen of Breakout in any of the modes, it’s that hard. Two things make this game hard, but the worst one is the same major flaw that ruins the 2600 games — you can only destroy one block each time the ball hits the wall of bricks. If the ball touches another brick after destroying the one it first hit, it’ll just pass through it unaffected. This atrocious design decision makes the game nightmarishly hard and ruins the fun factor! I love later, better Breakout-style games like Warlords or the great Arkanoid, but this game is a pain due to the one-block-per-time rule. At least Blockout!/Brickdown! on the Odyssey 2 lets the ball destroy bricks it goes through on the way back down, even if it doesn’t bounce off of them. This game needed to at least do that, but no, it doesn’t. The other thing that makes Breakout so difficult is that while at first the game is quite playable and fun, once you get a ways into the wall the ball will speed up, and then once the ball hits the top of the screen the paddle size gets cut in half. Keeping up with the fast ball with a half-sized paddle is quite hard even with controls as good as this game has! You do get five balls per game, but I always lose them quickly once the wall gets broken down a bit. This game is fun to play despite the high frustration factor, and I do like the controls and gameplay before your paddle gets shrunken down and I’m sure I will continue trying to get through a screen of 5200 Super Breakout, but overall I’d rather play a later, better Breakout-style game. Oh — the 3 or 4 player alternating mode requires a 4-port system. Only this game and some homebrew titles support more than two players, I believe. Breakout is too slow-paced and difficult to be one of the greats in the genre it created; it’s a classic that later titles improved on. Arcade port, other ports of the arcade game are on lots of systems over the years.
Super Cobra – 1 player. Super Cobra is another 1983 Parker Bros. release, this time a port of a Konami arcade game. Super Cobra is effectively the sequel to Konami’s first scrolling shmup, Scramble. Today Scramble is probably better known, but in the early ’80s it was Super Cobra that was ported to many platforms, while for some reason Scramble’s only ’80s home port was to the sadly unpopular Vectrex. I hadn’t really played Super Cobra before getting this game, but I was hoping it would be good because Konami’s Gradius series is my favorite shmup series, I love those games! Super Cobra is very different from Gradius, but it is also a horizontal shmup, and a good one. Super Cobra looks fairly nice, with well-designed areas, plenty of content for a game of this time, and several different enemies to face. Your ship definitely looks like a helicopter, too. The game doesn’t have a great variety of enemies or background art objects, but what it does have is well designed. I like the look of the game, it’s simple but works. For sound there is no music, unlike the other two 5200 Parker Bros. games I have, but it does have nice sound effects for your weapons and helicopter.
In Super Cobra you fly a helicopter on a mission to destroy the enemies and pick up a crate at the end. When you fire you fire both bombs and bullets. only a few bullets, and only two bombs, can be on screen at once, so while the game has autofire you often don’t want to use it. Learning the angle the bombs drop at, so you can hit ground targets, is tricky and takes some practice. The game is broken up into eleven levels per loop, each made up of two parts. When you die you start from the last beginning or midpoint of the level you’re in. There are no difficulty settings in this game, but it is more than challenging enough to challenge just about anyone, particularly if you want to try to play well — you get infinite continues in this game, so just finishing the game is only moderately challenging, but if you want a good score it’ll be a SERIOUS challenge. This is a hard game loaded with lots of enemies, missiles, and very narrow tunnels to make your way through. Fortunately the controls are as responsive as you’ll get from this controller — when you die, it was your fault. Sure, the game is cheap and can be borderline unfair, but if you’ve learned the game, when you die you messed up somehow. For enemies, the missiles from Scramble return, and are a danger, but this time the enemy turrets are the toughest foes. They only fire at a single angle, but it is the same exact angle that your bombs drop at so they can be tough to kill without being killed yourself. There are also several types of flying enemies that you face on occasion. The game has no bosses, unfortunately, but what’s here is good. As a sort of final boss replacement, there is that final, and super-difficult, challenge where you have to try to pick up that red box in order to beat the final stage, that took me many, MANY tries to succeed at. You need to be perfect to get it out of there without you, or it, dying. At least it lets you keep trying from the start of that section until you get it right.
On that note, there are several things that make Super Cobra’s controls unique, and challenging. First, you can only move up to about halfway forwards on the screen, and second, you cannot move backwards on the screen, only move forwards or hold in place. Also, upwards or downwards movements are somewhat diagonally angled because of the screen scrolling, not straight up or down. This means that when you move forward you need to be sure that you should be moving forwards — if you move forward in some places you will die if this doesn’t leave you enough room to move up or down to avoid some obstacle just in front of you. Learning the stages is key — when can you go up or down, when should you just hold the fire button and when should you carefully target certain enemies, etc. I had fun learning each level, even if I died a whole lot along the way. If you wanted to beat this game without using continues it would be a very difficult challenge! I don’t know if I’ll manage that, but I certainly will be playing this game more. Super Cobra is a great game and I like it a lot, it’s one of my favorite 5200 games so far for sure. Arcade port, also available on the Odyssey 2 (Europe only), Colecovision, Atari 2600, Intellivision, Adventurevision, MSX, Atari 8-bit computer, and Sord M5. It’s probably in some Konami collections as well.