Curse of the Atari 5200 Joysticks
by John Hardie

Most classic gamers are well familiar with the "curse" of the 5200 joysticks. Even those that do not own 5200 systems have probably heard many a horror story concerning the infamous analog controllers. Pay attention the next time you're sitting around the campfire with your fellow gamers; I'll bet you hear at least 3 tales of 5200 sticks that are possessed by some evil entity or demon. Let's take a brief look at the 5200 stick and see what makes it work. Or not. Then we'll check into some viable alternatives.

Many gamers are quick to say "Those damn analog sticks!"; thus giving the impression that they are bad because they are analog. The truth is, the main problem with 5200 sticks is that they aren't self-centering. Analog sticks are actually superior to digital sticks when implemented correctly. Just take a look at the newest systems and computers as proof. Sony, Sega, Nintendo, and the PC market all have various analog sticks available for them. Another problem is the frequent breakdown of the keypad and fire buttons. Without getting into a detailed lecture on repairing joysticks, I can tell you that the most common fault lies in the flex circuit inside. Change the flex circuit to a Rev. 9 version. Then clean the discs on the back of the rubber keypads, fire buttons, etc. Also, I rotate the fire buttons. Since the top buttons hardly ever get used, they are usually in better shape. I would estimate that this will fix 9 out of 10 problems.

The 5200 sticks really aren't that bad! If you've ever played Gremlins or Space Dungeon, you'll probably agree. But granted, for most games they are horrendous. Precise movement and control is almost impossible which doesn't make Bounty Bob or Pac-Man very playable. Sooooo....... What options are available to the 5200 owner?

Well, there's always the trak-ball! Atari, perhaps realizing how much people disliked the standard sticks, did their best to make more than a few titles trak-ball compatible. Pole Position or Jungle Hunt with a trak-ball just doesn't do it for me, but obviously, classic trak-ball games such as Missile Command and Centipede shine brightly.

The most commonly found solution is the Wico 5200 joystick. These are analog sticks that either self-center or not depending on whether or not you lock the joystick with the switches on the bottom. The stick has 2 fire buttons and comes with a Y-cable adaptor. You still need a standard 5200 stick with a working keypad and Start buttons when using the Wico. The Y-cable adapter seemed to be a common solution used by different manufacturers. Wico also made a replacement keypad to be used with their sticks. Unfortunately the keypad is even harder to find than the sticks.

Coin Controls took a similar approach with their Competition Pro Joystick. This stick is much more solid and sturdy than the Atari or Wico sticks and has more of an arcade feel to it. Instead of a seperate Y-cable like the Wico, Coin Controls built the adapter into the actual joystick cable. This self-centering joystick featured 2 fire buttons and also required a working keypad from an Atari 5200 stick. It's a bit harder to find than the Wico stick.

The Fire Command Joystick from GIM Electronics featured a rectangular, heavy-duty metal base. At the heart of the unit is the self-centering joystick flanked by two fire buttons on each side. This unit also implemented a y-cable adapter to make use of the standard 5200 sticks' keypad. I recently spoke with GIM (yes, they're still in business) and was told that they threw out their entire joystick inventory about 2 months before I called (*sob* I'm always 2 months late).

At the other end of the spectrum, a company called Entertainment Systems sold the Control Guide 4-way adapter. Instead of replacing the 5200 stick, they designed a unit that went over/around the actual stick and limited its' movement to 4 directions. Even though the stick still didn't center by itself, games requiring more precise movements were made easier to control and more enjoyable to play. I've never seen a Control Guide although I would think there would be plenty of them around due to the low selling price of $6.95 plus S&H.

The last alternative also happens to be the most useful. Electra Concepts saw fit to bless us with the Masterplay Interface. This miracle box enables the user to use any 2600 compatible joystick on the 5200. It comes with an auxillary switch that functions as a second fire button, and can be velcroed to the stick. Basically, the Masterplay plugs into the 5200 and has 2 ports. One is for the 2600 type joystick and the other is for the standard 5200 stick. You still need a working keypad from a standard stick to utilize the keypad/Start buttons. The main problem with the Masterplay is finding one. They're almost impossible to find (I've never found one myself) and if you are lucky enough to find one it's usually missing the auxillary button. If you manage to locate one from a gamer/collector, expect to shell out more than a few dollars for it.

In terms of usefulness, the Masterplay can't be beat. However, most gamers can make due with the Wico or Competition Pro joysticks. Unfortunately, these products are not in abundance and the average 5200 gamer doesn't have the luxury of picking the one they want. Basically, you take what you can get and make the best of it.

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Last updated Tuesday, February 13, 2007 06:01 PM