Bigredcoat

Videogames, politics, science, all the important things in life.

Bad Controllers– The Atari 5200

Posted by nfinit on October 30, 2009

I want you to do something for me– chances are if you’re reading this you’re the type of person that keeps a gamepad handy.  I want you to take that gamepad and play around with the thumbstick.  It’ll look something like this:

Note: Not to be considered an endorsement of the Gamecube or it's awful controller

Go ahead, thumb it for a bit.  It’s alright, it likes to be thumbed.  Okay, you notice how the thumbstick wants to snap back to the center?  Now, you probably don’t think about this sort of thing (because you’re not insane and obsessed with controller design) but it might strike you that that ability to snap back to center looks pretty important.  I mean, it’d suck if you had to manually move the thumbstick back to the center every time you wanted to, say, keep your guy from moving off the side of the screen.   That’d be an awful way to design a controller, right?  I mean, it’d probably be the very first thing you made sure your controller could do properly, or at least near the top of the list along with “make sure the innards of the controller aren’t prone to random vaporization” or “don’t put the reset button on top of the controller itself

 

I mean, you and I know all that, and we’re not even paid to design gamepads.  We’re just strangers on the internet didddling thumbsticks.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I present you with the 5200 joystick.
the fucking stick doesn’t center
You push the stick to the right, it just sorta…stays there.  Admittedly, the rubber boot around the joystick makes a valiant, albeit doomed effort at pulling the stick to center, but it’s in no way a subsitute for springs, of which Atari was too cheap to build into the joystick.  You want to move it to the center, you have to manually move the stick vaguely toward the center and hope you have it in the right position.  Now this may be fine for certain applications.  Let’s say you somehow managed to put Windows 95 on your 5200 and thus were in need of mouse.  While you were there you could use it to play Mech Warrior.  Pac-Man?  Not so much.

The 5200 being a product of the pre-Crash arcade industry, pretty much everything in it’s catalog was based in some way off Pac-Man.  Dig Dug?  Underground Pac-Man.  Mario Brothers?  Italian Pac-Man.  Mrs Pac-Man?  Female Pac-Man.  Point is, the controller wasn’t just deeply flawed,  it proved incompatible with almost every game  ever released for the system.

The main reason this happened was so Atari could advertise that the 5200 had 360 degrees of movement.  Apparently how many directions your controller could point to was a huge issue for videogame marketing departments in the early 80’s– The Intellivision touted 16 points of contact vs the 2600’s paltry eight– Atari decided end the argument and implemented full analog control for the 5200.

And that’d have been fine if Atari was somehow expecting a slew of Missile Command and Centipede-like games, where the player controls a cursor.  Only there was only ever those two, and no reason to think there would ever be a huge demand for games of that nature, and even if there did prove to be an explosion of cursor-controlled games, gamers would be far better served using the only pheriphrial Atari would go on to release for the 5200:

Doubles as a bowling ball cleaner when not used to play Missile Command

The above magnificent bastard, who’s very existence instantly invalidated the reason for the 5200’s controller to exist in the first place.  Atari released a gimped controller that was only serivcable for two games in the console’s entire lifespan and then released a controller specifically built around those two games.

Anything else about this controller sounds petty in comparison, but as long as we’re here anyway–  the construction quality stinks; build tolerances were purposefully made low as to prevent the stick from locking up; as a result the controller feels like it’s on the verge of breaking apart in your hands.  As I alluded to previously the button contacts  desentigrate.  That’s not hyperbole, they quite literally disappear over time; and not in the metaphysical “the universe is prone to entropy” sort of way, but the “you’ve owned the controller for a month and the contacts have oxidized into dust” sort of way.  Finally, for reasons that remain unclear Atari engineers saw fit to put a Reset button on the controller itself, right beside the Pause button.

I want you to think about that for a while.  The Reset button rests beside the Pause button.  No one says anything about this simply because the rest of the controller is such a magnificent train wreck.  It’s like ATF agents were combing through the smoldering remains of the Branch Davidian complex and found out David Koresh had been selling bootleg shota hentai the entire time.

The 5200 controller was such a stunning failure that it may have been the single greatest determining factor in the demise of the system itself, or at least made it exponentially more difficult to gain traction ahead of the Crash of ’84.  Not that the 5200 didn’t have problems outside of the controller, of course.  Atari was the very first system to fall victim to a shortsighted lack of backward compatibility with it’s predecessor, a mistake Atari would correct in the 7800–but by then it was 1986 and no one cared about the 2600 or Atari.

***
You might ask exactly what the hell was going on in Sunnyvale, California that no one thought that any of this was a bad idea– After all, Atari wasn’t exactly operating out of Nolan Bushnell’s garage anymore.  By 1982 Atari was the fastest growing business in the history of American business– billions of dollars and thousands of jobs depended on every decision this company made.  So how could the smartest, fastest, most sophisticated corporation of it’s time allow this to happen?

There’s something we need to keep in mind when presented with America’s obvious insanity during the 1980’s, whether it be Macho Man Randy Savage, the inexplicable popularity of Phil Collins or The McDLT, and it’s this:

Whether it was a side-effect of cold war paranoia or a natural extension of the excesses of the 70’s or just a lot of rich people with nothing better to do with their money than fuck up their sinus cavity, if you were rich and powerful in the 80’s you were doing massive amounts of sweet, sweet Columbian blow.  Rock stars were doing it, the entirety of Major League Baseball was doing it, apparently every single person with any authority whatsoever inside Atari hq was just eyeball deep in the stuff.

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One Response to “Bad Controllers– The Atari 5200”

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