Like most classic gamers whose interest in video games goes back further than the NES, I’m a little obsessed with the game crash of 1983: why it happened, how it happened and what companies were actually to blame. Atari generally gets the brunt of the blame – perhaps unfairly, perhaps not. Yes, they did rush supposed-worst-game-of-all-time E.T. to market and overproduced the number of cartridges, but that is really more of a symbol of the crash than the actual cause. Worst thing they did with E.T. is overestimate the literacy of young Gen Xers by expecting them to actually read the manual (seriously, the game is not that hard, folks).
However, I have come here not to hail Caesar but to bury him. There are marketing decisions made by Atari back then I simply do not understand. For one, I still cannot figure out for absolute certainty whether or not the Atari 5200 was even released in my homeland of Canada. Not even the interwebs offer a rock-solid conclusion on this. The best info I could find was that it was released on a limited basis to a handful of retailers.
I distinctly remember marketing blitzes for the Atari 2600, Intellivision and the new Colecovision around Christmas 1982, but nothing for the 5200. Nothing in the Sears Christmas catalog (odd considering that chain’s historical relationship with Atari), no kiosks in department stores, no TV advertising. Not only that, but throughout 1983 all of Atari’s television ads I can remember focused on the 2600 system and its games. The video game retailers I frequented had kiosks full of 2600 games with no third-generation Atari product in sight. This continued all the way to the network premier of Star Wars in 1984, when there were a few spots highlighting recent 2600 releases such as Jungle Hunt.
I was certainly aware of the existence of the 5200 from comic book ads. Parker Bros, for instance, would often run print ads highlighting the graphics of all their games’ ports. It was clear that the 5200’s graphics were superior to those of the 2600’s and at least on par with the Colecovision. I even remember entering a DC Comics contest in which one of the big prizes was a 5200 (I wound up winning a Superman III soundtrack on vinyl – sweet.). But where was it?
Can you imagine having to wait for the latest console from Sony or Microsoft while your neighbouring jurisdiction got to enjoy it? To make matters worse, while doing so they give no indication as to when or if the console was going to be released on your soil in the future? Canada loved and continues to love its video games (the West Edmonton Mall in Edmonton, Alberta was once home to one of the biggest arcades in the world), so why would Atari ignore or limit that market?
Personally, I don’t think Atari was hugely confident in the 5200 in general. Look at its selection of games: of all games you could have packed with a system in 1982, they choose old ‘70s standby Super Breakout? Rather than grabbing the newest and most exciting licenses, they relied on tried, tested and true titles such as Space Invaders, Galaxian and Defender. Don’t get me wrong – those games are all fun, but two out of those three games weren’t even released in the ‘80s. Video game technology evolves quickly and these games were already last-gen titles.
There’s no doubt that the 5200 came with its problems. Critics complained about its size and its horrible controllers and rightly so. It’s funny how in this supposedly advanced age that we’ve come to expect the 1.0 versions of new consoles to be defective in some way, with some opting to wait until the bugs have been worked out. Why couldn’t Atari have made a course correction a few months after release rather than scuttling the entire system about a year-and-a-half later?
Anyway, to get back to my original focus, do you have any more information on the 5200’s retail history in Canada? Did you own one yourself back in the day? If so, where did you or your parents buy it? Was it hard to find cartridges and peripherals? Looking forward to hearing your stories.