Atari 5200 Let’s Play: START (Part 1)

Christmas morning, 1980. I must have been a good boy that year, because under the tree was a new Atari 2600 gaming console.  Along with the Combat pack-in cartridge and the seminal Space Invaders, I was in gaming heaven.  Many fond memories were had, but little did I know at the time that there was something bigger and better around the corner – the Atari 5200.

While the 2600 (or VCS as it was known at the time) was the 500-pound gorilla of the home video game consoles, by the turn of the decade it was getting a little long in the tooth. In the early days, the primary selling point of game consoles was the ability to play reasonable facsimiles of arcade games from the comfort of home.

There were a number of brilliant arcade ports for the 2600 – Space Invaders, Berzerk, Asteroids and more.  But the 2600’s limited hardware was simply incapable of keeping up with rapidly advancing arcade technology.  Games like Robotron 2084 would have been impossible due to the game speed and sheer number of objects on the screen.

Seeing Atari’s success in the market, other corporations swooped in to provide grander, more arcade-like experiences.  Mattel’s Intellivision had noticeably improved graphics and sound, Coleco was prepping the ColecoVision for a mid-82 launch, and home computers (including Atari’s own 400 and 800 models) threatened to completely change the landscape.

Atari responded with the 5200.  It was essentially a stripped down Atari 400 home computer with terrible controllers.  But the games looked great, and that was the important thing.  Compare the terrible 2600 version of Pac-Man with the 5200 version:

Screenshots of Pac-Man for the Atari 2600 and Atari 5200
Screenshots of Pac-Man for the Atari 2600 and Atari 5200

Night and day, right?

By 1982 I was following Atari religiously, and began bugging my parents for an Atari 5200.  Sadly, there was no new console under the tree that Christmas.  While I was disappointed, in retrospect I completely understand.   The 5200 was $660 in today’s dollars, for one. A lot of money had already been sunk into the 2600, game collection I had amassed.  Additionally, the concept of console “generations” was virtually unheard of at the time.  Today it’s a given that the current console generation will eventually be replaced by something newer and better, but back then?  I’m sure the idea seemed ridiculous to anyone who didn’t follow video games.  My existing Atari worked fine, and it was barely two years old.

Time marched on; by the following Christmas the Atari 5200 was old news and I was pining for a home computer instead.  But I never completely forgot about it.  I fell down the retro rabbit hole in 2004, ending up with two 5200 consoles, a handful controllers in various states of disrepair, a couple of devices to work around said controllers, the CX53 trackball, two dozen boxed games and even more loose cartridges and a 128 game multicart.

Now, what to do with all that stuff?  To be continued…