Atari 5200 Game Opinion Summaries 2021 Update, Part I, and the Atari 5200 Trak-Ball Controller

Yes, after far far too long, it’s an actual update on this website that people might want to read. (Yes, I have kept making Mario Maker levels, and will have more posts on my levels in the future. But that is for another time.) This is the first of what will probably be three parts of this Atari 5200 Game Opinion Summaries update, covering nine titles and also the 5200 Trak-Ball trackball controller.

Series Table of Contents

In Update One, This Post

Table of Contents
Introduction
The Atari 5200 Trak-Ball Controller

Game Opinion Summaries:

Blaster [Modern Rerelease of Cancelled Game]
Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom
Castle Crisis [PD Homebrew]
Countermeasure
Decathlon (aka The Activision Decathlon)
The Dreadnaught Factor
Frogger
James Bond 007 [1983]
Magical Fairy Force [PD Homebrew]

Rankings

In Future Updates

Mario Bros.
Moon Patrol
Pitfall II: The Lost Caverns
Ratcatcher [PD Homebrew]
RealSports Baseball
RealSports Soccer
RealSports Tennis
River Raid
Space Dungeon
Star Wars: The Arcade Game
Tempest [Cancelled Game Homebrew Release]
Wizard of Wor
Vanguard
Xari Arena [Cancelled Game Homebrew Release]

Introduction

In this article, I will cover the 23 Atari 5200 games I have bought between September 2015 and the present day in August of 2021. I quite like this system, so I have gotten a fair number of titles considering the small library. Some of these, as noted, are modern homebrew titles from AtariAge, while others are from the original 1982-1985 library. I have also gotten the system’s main controller accessories, the Trak-Ball controller and the joystick coupler. I got another 5200 as well; I now use a model one 5200, instead of the model 2 I used to use, because I like the auto switching RF box, it is very convenient. And yeah, as I said in my first article about the 5200 years ago, I still like the 5200 quite a bit; it is the pre-crash console I use the most. The controller isn’t nearly as bad as people say and has some pretty cool features, the graphics are good for the time, its game library makes up for with quality what it lacks in quantity, and I like the console’s design and style a lot as well.

Given the number of titles to cover, I will break this up into parts. These games are fairly simple so it won’t take long to get through all of them though. In this article I will cover the first 9. It’s a good mix of titles, covering both new homebrews and titles from the system’s original run.

The Atari 5200 Trak-Ball Controller

The Atari 5200 had a short life, and most software was designed around its standard controller. Atari considered a paddle controller, but did not end up releasing it. No digital controller was offered either, though third-party options do exist, working well with games that are not analog. I like the 5200 controller, but it does not work equally well for all games. A controller perfect for digital games might have been nice, but instead, Atari released a trackball. A trackball is basically an upside-down analog mouse. Instead of moving a mouse around that rolls a ball to represent movement, you roll the ball itself to move something around the screen. Trackballs were popular in early arcade games for titles that needed analog control, and while the 5200 controller is analog, its analog stick is not nearly as good as a trackball is for games designed for this kind of controller. Atari realized this and answered with the 5200’s only first-party controller accessory, the Trak-Ball. It released early in the system’s life, so they are relatively common. I got one complete in box a couple of years ago.

This very large controller, the Atari 5200 Trak-Ball, is perhaps best known for being big, but it’s also amazing. Indeed, of the classic trackballs I have, this one is easily my favorite! It works very well, has decent buttons, and makes the games that support it significantly better. The 5200 trackball may be as large or larger than your average console, but the ball rolls very well and it feels great to use. That heft helps the controller’s feel, I would say.

The Atari 5200 Trak-Ball works by basically emulating a joystick. As great as it is, this is its one fault — it’s not a “real” trackball, acting like a mouse. It’s really pretending to be a 5200 analog stick, which gives control a slightly floaty feel. See this Atari-Age thread for more. I don’t mind this at all, as there may be better trackballs out there for computers, but of the console trackballs of the ’70s or ’80s this is by a very wide margin the best one in my experience.

Despite the way it works, the 5200 trackball’s only other fault is that it only works with games designed to support it. It may be emulating a joystick inside, but the bounds the trackball uses are very different from those used by a stick, and games not designed around the trackball rarely work well, or at all, with it. Atari did not put in a mode that fully emulates the regular controller’s analog stick. The other console trackballs that I have for older consoles work not only with games designed for analog, but also can emulate a standard joystick if you wish to play any other game with a trackball instead of a regular controller. The Colecovision trackball even has indentations in it for you to put controllers in, so you can use the buttons on the trackball base and the stick on a controller, to make a pretty nice arcade stick. That’s really cool. The Sega Master System trackball similarly has both analog and digital-emulation modes. I wish that the 5200 trackball had had something similar, it’d have been nice considering how few games support this controller.

However, what’s not as good about those other trackballs i how well they work, or rather, don’t work. Having multiple modes and more support is all well and good, but that’s only helpful if you actually want to use the trackball as a trackball! And with those other old trackballs I have, I don’t. The SMS trackball is absolutely horrible, with extremely slow movement regardless of game or mode. The Colecovision one has slightly better movement than that, but it’s still not very good. It’s a nice arcade stick but not a good trackball. The 5200 one, however, is outstanding! I love using this controller, and absolutely have bought some games, and some homebrew games, because they support the Trak-Ball controller. I would highly recommend a Trak-Ball to anyone with a 5200, they are fantastic, well-made, great looking controllers well worth the price. Every supported game is made significantly better.

And on that note, from my previous article, Super Breakout, Space Invaders, Centipede, Defender, Missile Command, and Pole Position support the trackball. Of them, Centipede and Missile Command are exceptional. Both are great with the regular controller, but are better with the trackball. These are far better versions of these games than any version relying on a d-pad or analog joystick for controls! Centipede alone might make the trackball worth getting, and there is more. Super Breakout is also better with the trackball than the regular controller, though I still find the game slow and kind of boring. The others work less well, though. Space Invaders and Galaxian are playable, but not better, the loss of precision of knowing where your stick is, as compared to a rolling ball, makes the games harder overall. Pole Position and Defender struggle even more, as you have to constantly spin the ball in an uncomfortable way. Defender is not fun to play this way with how that game controls, and Pole Position is just somewhat odd to control this way, I couldn’t get used to it and kept crashing. I’m sure there are some out there who like it, though. I will cover more trackball games in this series, two in this update. Fortunately both go in the good category of trackball games.

Overall, the Atari 5200 Trak-Ball controller is fantastic. Buy one. This is the best trackball for a classic console.

Atari 5200 Game Opinion Summaries 2021 Update, Part I

Please note: all games use the regular Atari 5200 controller unless otherwise noted.

Blaster [Modern Rerelease of Cancelled Game] – 1 player. Developed by Vid Kidz / Williams in about 1983. Was to be published by Atari, but was cancelled due to the crash. Released by AtariAge in the 2000s.

Blaster is a rail shooter from Williams. It was developed by their star programmer Eugene Jarvis at his short-lived Vidz company. After making Defender for Williams, Jarvis left in 1981 to make his own company, though all four Vid Kidz titles were published by Williams so he didn’t go far. This game was their last one, before being taken out by the video game crash of 1984. While an arcade version of the game was released in 1983, even though this Atari 5200 version was actually completed first, Williams’ arcade-first priority led to the home version eventually getting cancelled because of the crash. Fortunately completed prototype copies exist and are now available from AtariAge, complete with box if you want. Now, Jarvis is one of arcade gaming’s legends, but Blaster is by far the least well known and least popular of his four pre-crash arcade games. When your first three games are Defender, Defender II/Stargate, and Robotron 2084, though, that isn’t hard to understand; those three are some of the greatest classics ever. Blaster? It’s fun and I definitely like it, but it’s no Defender.

But what is Blaster? It is, again, a first-person rail shooter… on the Atari 5200. This game is a technical marvel and easily has some of the very best graphics this system has ever done! The graphical style may look like a strange mess at first glance, but play it a bit and everything is identifiable and looks great. Everything “scales” into and out of the screen extremely impressively. It’s probably very well done fake scaling of some kind, but regardless it looks amazing. However, the game has very simple gameplay, without the depth or challenge of Defender or Robotron. While fun, this game is more of a tech showcase than an amazing game. Even so, between its outstanding graphics and good gameplay I quite like Blaster overall.

The game has four stages, and after going through all four it loops back to the beginning but with slightly higher difficulty. After you complete each level, you go to the next one. The game shows your current stage on screen in a status bar along the to, along with your score, number of lives, and energy. Yes, you have a health bar in this game, you don’t die in one hit. It is essential considering how chaotic things get. The controls are good, sometimes slow framerate aside, and work well on the 5200 controller.

The first stage has you flying along a planet shooting enemies and avoiding walls, while flying through gates if you want. Everything on this level is made up of open rectangles. Enemies explode once you shoot them, which is a cool effect. It works once you get used to it and runs fairly well; there definitely is slowdown, but with how much this game is doing I don’t blame the game for it. It’s just impressive this system can pull off pretty good scaling at all! But it can, as Blaster proves. The second stage is essentially a bonus stage. There are no enemies here. It’s a warp zone with a cool ‘warp’ effect in the background where you try to pick up stranded astronauts in a warp tunnel for bonus points. I don’t understand why the bonus stage is the second segment of each level and not the last one, I think it would have been better at the end. Oh well. The third stage is a space battle. This returns to the enemies made of rectangles, except now you’rej ust fighting them in space, no land or gates. It’s a good level. The fourth and last stage in each level is an asteroid field. Shoot all of the asteroids coming at you before they hit you! This time the objects are rock sprites, not objects made up of those open rectangles. There are also some enemies who shoot at you here, and some stranded astronauts to try to pick up. It’s kind of like first person Asteroids.

On the whole, Blaster is a must-see title for its visuals. It really is amazing that the 5200 can do this, even if it slows down so much the screens full of what sure look like scaling sprites look incredible for the early ’80s! As for the gameplay, again, this is a simple game. You can move around a little, but only a little to avoid obstacles and such; you are mostly locked to your route, hopefully shooting anything that gets in your way as you go. The game starts out easy but does slowly get more difficult as you complete more levels, so there is a solid difficulty curve here, but some hits can feel unfair with how hard things are to make out sometimes. The health bar helps with this, though. Blaster is definitely worth playing, but is it worth buying considering the cost of buying a copy from AtariAge? For me, yes, no question. For others, though? Well, definitely play it, at least. While definitely not Eugene Jarvis’s best Atari 5200 game, Blaster is a solidly good game that is impressive to see.

Also released in arcades. This is the original version, though that one is enhanced over this release. This Atari 5200 version is exclusive, though the arcade version is available in Midway Presents Arcade’s Greatest Hits: The Midway Collection 2 (PC / PlayStation) and Midway Arcade Treasures [1] (GameCube / PlayStation 2 / Xbox / PC). Unfortunately it is not in the newer Midway Arcade Origins collection for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.


Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom – 1 player. Developed and published by Sega in 1983.

Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom, or Zoom 909 as its original Japanese arcade game was titled before they added the Buck Rogers license to the Western release, was one of Sega’s first super-scaler style games. This game is a behind-the-ship rail shooter, and in arcades and on Colecovision it has many different stage types along the way through each loop of the game. It’s a good title and I like the various ways enemies come at you in the different ‘stages’, though determining 3d depth can be hard, you will often miss enemy ships you think you are lined up with. This flaw applies to all versions of the game except for one, the Atari 2600 version.

However, this is not the Colecovision version, or the 2600 version. It is the Atari 5200 version, and as with all versions other than the Colecovision, the game is dramatically reduced in stage count. As with most non-Colecovision ports, this version of Buck Rogers has “five” stages per level: first three parts on the planet, as you go through gates and fight enemies. The game calls this multiple rounds but it’s basically one, you just go through gates in the start then fight one type of enemy and then several before you leave the planet. Once you leave, first you fight a formation of enemies and then a boss before you move on to the next level. It’s a decent formula, but it is hard to forget that the Coleco version has something like twice as much stage variety, or to get over both versions’ common flaw, how hard hitting enemies can be with the 3d perspective. The audio is also extremely basic, with no music and only simple sound effects for your gun and engine noise. The analog controls help slightly, compared to other home versions of Buck Rogers, but not enough to make me want to play this.

Worse, I also can’t help but to compare this game to the outstanding Atari 2600 version of the game, which I covered in a summary years ago. I absolutely love that game, it’s one of my favorite 2600 games! While the key design is mostly the same as this 5200 version in terms of it stage layout, the 2600 makes one major change, probably due to lesser hardware power it makes the game play on a flat plane. Removing the ‘where is the enemy actually?’ problem is a huge help, and as a result the 2600 has easily my favorite version of Planet of Zoom. It has the best audio by far as well, with some really cool sounds that you won’t find in this 5200 game. Yes, the 2600 both plays and sounds better than the 5200 version of this game. This is probably the only time I will say that, but it’s true here. Overall, Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom is an average game at best, and is deeply disappointing compared to the Atari 2600 version. Probably don’t buy this, get the 2600 version for the best version or the Colecovision one for the one that is the most faithful to the arcade game. I got this game knowing it wasn’t the best but wanting it anyway because I like this system, but it probably wasn’t really worth it.

Arcade port. Many versions of this game were released, most notably on the Colecovision, but also on Atari 2600, Sega SG-1000 (note, this is NOT the same as the Colecovision version despite near-identical hardware!), PC, ZX Spectrum, TI-99/4A, Commodore VIC-20, Atari 8-bit computer, Commodore 64, Apple II, MSX, and Coleco Adam. The arcade version is pretty good, but of what I have played I think I actually like the simple, 2d Atari 2600 version the best.

Castle Crisis [PD Homebrew] – 1 to 4 player simultaneous. You can use the regular controller, but the game also supports a paddle controller if you have a prototype or homebrew one. Homebrew title published by AtariAge in 2004.

This game is a Warlords clone for the 5200. If you know the Atari classic Warlords, you know this game; it is Warlords, with a few additions. Warlords is one of my favorite games on the 2600 and the 5200’s analog controller is a great fit for controlling a paddle, so it’s fantastic that a fan decided to do waht Atari didn’t and make a 5200 version of this classic. This game is based on the arcade version more so than the Atari 2600 game.

Warlords, on the 2600 or arcade, is a four player block-breaking game. Instead of just breaking a wall like Breakout, here there are four forts made of blocks in the corners of the screen, with a paddle protecting each one. The game starts with one ball, or fireball rather. You must protect the warlord inside your fort. One of the buttons holds the ball, so you can launch it off from the point you choose. You defend your fort while trying to bounce the ball around the enemy paddles and destroy the warlords in the three other forts. Each time one of the four players is knocked out, another fireball is added to the field. The game will also add a second fireball early on if nobody hits anything for a while. It’s a fantastic game with great controls, a paddle might be neat but the analog stick works extremely well here. This is a challenging, fast-paced, and frenetic game that can be incredibly fun. The game has absolutely no slowdown and gets the feel of the arcade game down exceptionally.

For game modes, there aren’t many. The single player has only a single difficulty level, and it’s tough. The game keeps a score in this mode if you want to write down best scores, and if you win a game you go right into a new one until you lose. One loss and it’s game over. The two player mode is like the single player, but with two people. It’s co-op basically, and you don’t get game over until both players lose in the same level. Three and four player games are single-round versus only matches which don’t have a score or progression. All of these modes are just like arcade Warlords. In any mode, all non-human players are filled with some pretty tough AIs. More options might be nice, but they aren’t really needed. Really, the only negative is that this is an extremely faithful unlicensed clone of an Atari game, but at least they changed the name, most homebrew conversions like this don’t even do that. AtariAge and Atari may have some kind of deal anyway, AtariAge uses Atari’s logo and such without issue.

There is one issue however. On the 2600 four player play is easy, since 2600 paddles come two to a cable. On the 5200 it is trickier however, as controllers are one to a cable and only the first model of the console has four controller ports, the second model dropped to two since Atari released basically nothing using more than two controllers, Super Breakout excepted, but it’s just an alternating mode there anyway. Had they released games like this back then perhaps the model two would have kept four controller ports, because this is a fantastic time! I wouldn’t call the controls better than the 2600, since paddles are a really good fit for this kind of game, but the analog joystick works just about as well.

Overall, Castle Crisis is great. This is a fantastic conversion of one of the best pre-crash games. Whether it’s worth the money or not is up to you, as it’s a full-price game on AtariAge and as great as the single player is the multiplayer is a huge part of the fun and you’ll need a 4-port system to get the most of it, but even just for single player play it’s a great, great game which I definitely recommend. That it isn’t an original idea, but a homebrew port, is really my only criticism here.

This game is only released on the Atari 8-bit computer and Atari 5200, but it is a very faithful port of the arcade game Warlords, which has been released on many formats, most notably the Atari 2600. Warlords has modern remakes as well.

Countermeasure – 1 or 2 player alternating. Released by Atari in 1982.

Countermeasure is an early 5200 game from Atari, and it is their only released 5200 game that is exclusive to this system, this game wasn’t released on arcades, 2600, or Atari 8-bit computer. Control here is not analog, but it does have eight-direction shooting and aiming. The game does make full use of both action buttons and has some complexity to it. Reading the manual is highly recommended before playing this game.

Countermeasure is a decent, but perhaps overly difficult, overhead tank action game with some complexity to it. The game scrolls upwards vertically, infinitely so I believe, though each level has a timer and you move slowly so you will usually only get a few screens up if you are playing well. Along the way you will find enemy turrets that rotate and shoot at you when you are in their line of fire, towers that contain clues to the code you need for this level, rocket silos to touch if you know the code and wish to end the level, and terrain obstacles which slow you down and block your fire. You slowly drive upwards in your tank, shooting enemies and trying to save the world.

For controls, you move with the stick. One button shoots, and the other, when held down, will rotate the turret to the direction you press. So, turning your turret is easy here, which is pretty nice. The very slow movement speed can make the game frustrating, though. The controls are responsive, but while this game is solid it often feels unfair, the enemies often seem to be able to shoot farther than you and hit you when you can’t hit them. Again, your slow movement speed also makes avoidance tricky. Staying alive in the main levels is hard, those towers are merciless! Still, the way that your movement speed and fire distance vary depending on terrain is pretty cool, and advanced for 1982. The graphics are alright, with solid sprite art and recognizable terrain. The sounds are good, though there is no music, a far too common issue on this console.

As I suggested in the previous paragraph, your main goal here isn’t just to get to the end of each level. Instead, as the game’s name suggests, you need to find the countermeasure code to stop an oncoming enemy nuclear attack. You need to find the three letters of the launch code that will save America from the enemy nukes! Each launch code is three letters long, and there are three letters that can go in each spot, O, L, or E. Letters can repeat in multiple spots though so you do want to find the clues and not just guess. Each clue tower will tell you one of the three letters of the code.

Once you get the code, or enough of it, or are running out of time and have no choice, go to a tower. The enemy helpfully waits to launch their nukes until you get into the tower to stop them. Once you touch a tower you CANNOT leave and must enter the code before the tower’s countdown ends. Note, this is a separate timer from the one in the level before. If you fail to input the code, it is Game Over and a skull appears over the world map on the screen. Ouch. If you succeed, it’s on to the next level, where the colors may change to give the game some variety. As with most games of the time the game never ends, every time you save the world you just start again on the next, slightly harder, stage until you eventually run out of lives. Each level is short, and the game starts out easy. There are ten difficulty levels available, which adds some replay value. The launch code on each stage also randomize so you can’t just memorize them.

Overall Countermeasure is okay. This game can be fun and definitely is a tense and challenging experience, but the frustrating difficulty and slow gameplay hold it back. I like overhead vehicular action games and was hoping for something great for one of Atari’s only 5200 exclusives, but this game is a slow and bland game that is above average, but not one of the system’s best. Atari’s best 5200 exclusives were never released, unfortunately. Still, with a low price and decent gameplay Countermeasure is probably worth picking up if it sounds interesting.

This game is officially a Atari 5200 exclusive, though I believe that a homebrew Atari 8-bit port exists.


Decathlon (aka The Activision Decathlon) – 1 or 2 player simultaneous. Developed and published by Activision in 1984.

Decathalon is a port of the Atari 2600 game of the same name. As with many of Activision’s 5200 ports of 2600 games, it is a graphically enhanced version of the game that changes almost nothing in terms of gameplay other than making the game harder to control. The audio isn’t much improved either, expect only very basic sound effects and minimal start and end music. So, there is very little reason to get this game on the 5200 specifically versus the 2600 version unless you really like this system. That said, Decathalon is a decently fun olympic sports game that can be fun, so for cheap enough it’s worth a thought despite how similar it is to the original version.

As with the original version, this game has only one mode, the decathlon, and you don’t really have AI opposition, only one or two humans. You do get points based on your performance, though. There is an AI racer running on screen with you in the track running events, but their times are not recorded anywhere after the races and they do not compete in the jumping or throwing events, so this really is just a score or multiplayer-only game. I wish it had more full AI opposition, that would add to the game.

As with most Olympic sports games, Decathlon is, at its core, a button-masher, or stick-twister in this case. Konami’s Track & Field used two alternating buttons to run, but this one uses alternating between left and right movements on the stick to run. You have a meter on the screen for each player showing your current pace, and can affect it with proper stick-movement rhythm. You will also use a button for jumping or throwing in those events. As you might expect, the 5200 controller’s loose analog stick makes running a bit trickier than it is on the 2600 with its tight digital stick. This game is playable, but the constant stick-waggle gameplay is tiring and gets old fast. Playing this a lot would be bad for your hands, I would say.

As the name suggests, there are ten events in this title as you go through the ten parts of a decathlon track and field event. You’ll run the 100, 400, and 1500 meter track races and a hurdles race, jump the longjump and high jump, throw the discus, javelin, and such. Most events are simple to control, but getting the timing right for the jumping events can be challenging and will definitely require practice and perhaps a read of the manual. The graphics are nice and are enhanced over the 2600 version. This game is far from essential even on the 2600 but is an amusing enough game once in a while. The controls on this version do hold it back a bit, but it’s alright. This game has definitely aged, with its very short runtime and lack of AI opposition, but even so is an above average game on the edge of good. This game could have been a lot better but is okay.

Atari 2600 port. Also released on Atari 8-bit computers. Other ports of the game were released on Commodore 64, MSX, and Colecovision.


The Dreadnaught Factor – 1 player. Released by Activision in 1983.

The Dreadnaught Factor is one of Activision’s few console games of the early ’80s that isn’t a port of an Atari 2600 games. This game is an early scrolling shmup. The game was only released on the Intellivision and 5200, and the two versions are quite different — this one is vertical scrolling, while the Intellivision version, as you might expect, has worse graphics and is horizontal scrolling. This game is one of those titles which shows what the Atari 5200 can do, and it is impressive. The graphics here are really good, with nicely-drawn sprites and some cool effects as the enemy ships approach you. Audio work is also great. This is the kind of thing this system can do when it wasn’t just getting last-gen ports!

The Dreadnaught Factor is a shmup where you fight against a finite fleet of enemy battleships. Yes, finite — this is one of those rare pre-crash games that you can actually beat and last more than a few minutes! The game has different difficulty levels, each with more battleships than the last. The easy modes are quite simple to complete, but the 100-dreadnaught hardest mode will be much more of a challenge; this game does have limited lives and no continues. In the game you fly upwards, facing off against the dreadnaught one at a time. This game has full analog control, so your side-to-side and forward speed are proportionally controllable. You cannot stop or turn around however, only slow down to a crawl. One action buttons shoots lasers that hit turrets, fighters, or bridges, and the other drops bombs that go in exhaust ports or engines. Yes, this game makes good use of the 5200 controller’s strengths.

Your main objective is to blow up all of the exhaust ports on each ship. Destroy those and you will blow up the ship. In order to do that though, you will need to destroy many turrets, bridges, and engines on the ship in order to slow the ships down and make them shoot at you less. The game has some nice strategy to it as you consider what to attack. Now, I mentioned speed control, but you can’t stop, so each time you fly over the dreadnaught without dying you will automatically fly back around for another pass. Dreadnaughts advance after every pass however, and if you take too many passes and a dreadnaught reaches your base, it’s Game Over. You can get shot down many times and keep going as you have many lives, but the game ends if they reach the base. The game doesn’t have a lot of variety, but makes up for it with its quality. Sure, you just fly up, avoid enemy fire, and shoot targets on the various types of dreadnaughts, but with good graphics, good controls, and well designed, high quality action that pushes its genre forward in ways rarely seen at the time, The Dreadnaught Factor is a pretty impressive game for the pre-crash era.

How great is this compared to the top shmups of the NES, though? Well, it’s no Gradius and it is a more limited game in some respects, with less graphical variety and a slow difficulty curve, but it makes up for it with great gameplay. There is challenge eventually, there are different styles of dreadnaughts with different designs so you aren’t just shooting the exact same ship every time, and challenge the loop is a lot of fun, though, so I don’t mind the pretty minor flaws much at all. I also really like that you can actually beat this game. This is a standout game for the 5200 and one of the best shooters of the pre-crash era.

Also released on Atari 8-bit computers, without the analog controls there of course. The game was also released on the Intellivision, though that version is fairly different; it is a side-scroller instead of vertical.

Frogger – 1-2 player alternating. By Parker Bros., 1983 (licensed from Konami).

Frogger is one of the early arcade hits and it has been ported to dozens of platforms, past and present. The Atari 5200 version is a solid port, but this game is a very poor fit for the Atari 5200 controller. I mostly like the 5200 controller, but certain types of games don’t work well with that analog stick and a precise digital-control game like Pac-Man or, here, Frogger is at the top of that list.

I imagine most people know how Frogger plays, but I should describe it. This is a single-screen arcade game. You are a frog and need to get across a road and a river in order to get to the other side and score points. You move space-by-space, trying to avoid the oncoming cars in the first half and then trying to stay on the logs and alligators in the second half so as to not fall in the water. For some reason this frog can’t swim, which is quite silly. The game has nice graphics that well respresent the arcade game. It is a simple but addictive arcade game.

The game looks and sounds nice and plays correctly, just as Frogger should. the issue is the controller. You have two control options here: either you can use the stick and a fire button, or the keypad. For the stick option, you use the stick to choose which direction you want to move, and a fire button to jump. The stick is more comfortable to use, but its drawback is how much you have to move it to make Frogger change directions. This delay makes quick reactions very difficult, and it is the controller’s fault and not the game. The keypad option is simpler, hit # to go into keypad mode and then you just push the 2, 4, 6, and 8 keys on the keypad to move in the four directions. A complete copy of the game comes with an overlay that leaves the 2, 4, 6, and 8 digits exposed, though it is quite unnecessary once you remember that those are the directions. The keypad is a quicker and more reliable way to move, but these sunken-in rubbery keys were not meant to be main action buttons, just supplimentary ones, so I find this less comfortable. I’d almost rather use the stick honestly, even if it makes the game harder. The four buttons are also far apart from eachother.

So, both control options have good and bad points. Parker Bros. did the best they could with the controls in this game, but as good as the 5200 is its controller is not equally suited for all kinds of games. As I have said before, this issue is why modern controllers have both a d-pad and an analog stick on them, each one has its own advantages and disadvantages depending on the type of game being played. The 5200 controller was highly innovative and I like it, but this game shows that it is better for some kinds of games than others.

Arcade port. This version was also released on Atari 8-bit computers, there with simpler digital controls. Other versions of Frogger have been released on dozens of platforms. Frogger is surely one of the most-ported games ever.


James Bond 007 [1983] – 1 or 2 player alternating. By Parker Bros., 1984.

This is one of the many Atari 2600 to 5200 ports on this platform. This game is generally unpopular on the 2600, and unfortunately this is an accurate port. Parker Bros. made some great 5200 games, but while this game has improved graphics and sound over the original 2600 version, the gameplay is the same and that is the main problem here. While not bad, this is, unfortunately, a below average game.

What is the game, though? Well, James Bond 007 is a side-scrolling vehicular action game. Each of the three levels is loosely themed after scenes from different James Bond movies, but they all involve you driving in a car, car-boat, or such. The game tells you the movie name and your number of lives before your car takes off and the next stage starts. This game kind of plays like a much worse, more complex take on Moon Patrol with mission objectives that it doesn’t tell you except in the manual. You can move forward and back a bit with the stick. You jump by pushing the stick up, which is awful and very hard to control. If you hold the stick up you will keep jumping as soon as you hit the ground, so watch out. The game uses one fire button, which fires your two kinds of shots, anti-air missiles and bombs/depth charges, to hit enemies above or below you. Both attacks go diagonally forwards and you cannot turn around so if you miss an enemy it can be a problem, some will shoot you from behind. The game badly needed either separate fire buttons for the two attacks or a jump button, but no, it’s just a lazy 2600 port controls-wise. Oh well.

For graphics and sound it’s a mixed bag. While there are some nice graphical details here, particularly in the animated Bond waving and getting into his car in each level’s intro, this game both looks and plays worse than Moon Patrol on the 5200. The game does scroll smoothly, as expected on the 5200, but don’t expect any parallax here. There is a nice rendition of the James Bond theme on the main menu, but as sadly usual on the 5200 there is no in-game music.

Anyway, in each stage, you drive to the right. You cannot stop so you will need some good reflexes to survive. You need to jump over pits and shoot enemies as you try to accomplish the objective in each level, which generally means reaching the end of the stage. You do need to know what to do in order to complete each mission though, so read the manual. You should try to shoot the diamonds in the sky in the Diamonds are Forever level, for instance, and must jump onto and land on a specific oil platform in another level. You will do a lot of jumping here but cannot control your car in the air, so if you’re shot midair there isn’t much you can do, you lose a life. Similarly, you can also dive under the water in some areas, but only in a jump-style automatic dive which you cannot really control while underway. This game gets very frustrating far too often, as dodging enemy far is a huge pain. Practice pays off, but is it really worth the hassle? There are also three difficulty levels, with the easiest as the default.

And that’s the game. The graphical differences and moderate complexity of each mission is interesting, but the flawed, slow controls and sometimes very frustrating gameplay make this game much harder than it should be. Like most people, I haven’t finished all three levels yet and don’t know if I will. It probably loops afterwards, though. This is a below-average game that probably isn’t worth playing. If you do, get ready to memorize everything and die constantly. I don’t regret getting it, but can’t recommend this one to anyone other than serious James Bond diehards or 5200 collectors.

Released on Atari 2600 first, then also Atari 5200 and Atari 8-bit computer (this version), Colecovision, Sega SG-1000, and Commodore 64.

Magical Fairy Force [Homebrew] – 1-2 player simultaneous. Supports the Atari 5200 Trak-Ball controller or a regular 5200 joystick. Homebrew game developed by Average Software (aka Phaser Cat Games) and published by AtariAge in 2021. The game was completed and released digitally in 2020, but due to production delays the physical cart was not released until 2021.

Magical Fairy Force is an original homebrew title, something quite rare for the Atari 5200. I was looking forward to this game for some time before its release and it’s awesome to finally have a copy! It is from the same developer as Ratcatcher, which I will cover later. The game was loosely inspired by the versus Neo-Geo shmup Twinkle Star Sprites, but is its own, entirely original game. It isn’t as good as Twinkle Star Sprites, but it’s a 2KB game for much older hardware, it does what it can.

The primary influence Magical Fairy Force takes from Twinkle Star Sprites is that it is a two player splitscreen versus shmup. Unlike that game though, probably for technical reasons the split here is horizontal instead of vertical, so one player is on the top half of the screen and the other the bottom. Both players shoot towards the center of the screen, so they face eachother but cannot hit eachother due to a status bar between them. The game has two modes and no difficulty options, either one player versus a computer or two people against eachother. The game was mostly designed as a two player versus game. The single player vs. AI side of the game fortunately exists, but was not the focus. Sadly, I have no one to play against so I can only judge the single player here. The single player mode is a story mode where you fight against all of the other characters and then get an ending text screen for that character. It’s cool that each character gets an ending, that adds some replay value. The two player mode is a basic versus mode, it does not keep track of wins and losses. The game is fun but there are no difficulty options and the game is mostly somewhat easy, though this does vary depending on which character you play as and whether you use controller or trackball.

The core gameplay here is to move around your side of the screen, charging your super meter by shooting enemies and then using those super attacks once the meter fills. This game has fully analog movement. The joystick works well, but if you have a Trak-Ball controller as I do it is highly recommended! With the trackball, control is basically perfect. Anyone with a 5200 trackball really should get this game. Anyway, one button shoots your normal shots, and the other uses a special attack. Each match ends when one player runs out of health. Each match is one round long, and the single player game has eight matches, against the eight characters. Multiplayer is strictly a single-match affair.

On screen, on each player’s end of the screen a status bar has a character portrait, health which is made up of four blocks, and the super meter. In the middle of the screen in a black bar are two timer bars, if one runs out that player loses. Also in the black section along a bar on the top or bottom edge of each player’s half of the screen, small wisps appear. These wisps are your main targets as shooting them fills your super meter. They will shoot bullets at you sometimes, shooting straight at you, but can’t move and only appear in this bar. Below/above that is the blue area you can move around in. Here you have your character sprite, and each of the eight characters has a custom sprite, and a few obstacles, most notably clouds and fairy dust, along with wisp bullets and enemy super attacks. Touching clouds drains your timer quickly, so shoot them if they are getting in your way. I have almost never run out of time though, so the threat of the timer is rarely an issue so long as you shoot the clouds in your way. The graphics are pretty good for this system and have an impressive amount of detail. Audio is extremely minimal, however; there are only very basic sound effects and that’s it, there is no music.

My other criticism is of the core gameplay loop, that is, of shooting those small, immobile wisps. The gameplay, as you move mostly left and right trying to hit those wisps while shooting or dodging lightning bolts, bullets, and super moves, is fun and rewarding when you do well, but it lacks the excitement of its inspiration. Twinkle Star Sprites is a dynamic game full of enemies attacking in wave-based patterns. You don’t really have any of that here, you just shoot the wisps while dodging or shooting any other obstacles or enemy supers in your way. For the 5200 this is a fairly complex game, but I can’t help but wish for more dynamic action than this target-shooting-focused title. I would never expect the equal of Neo-Geo gameplay complexity on the 5200 of course, but it’s too bad that something more like the pattern-based waves of Twinkle Star Sprites aren’t here. I know you couldn’t do too many patterns in a playfield this horizontally wide and vertically narrow, but maybe something could have been done. On the other hand though, while a bit dry the game is fun. It requires good skill, and matches get tense as health dwindles. The game also shows off the Trak-Ball well.

Bullets can be dangerous, but most damage in this game is done by special attacks you charge by shooting those wisps. You have two abilities, a weaker one for about half of your super meter which sends a couple of lightning bolts at your enemy, and a character-specific super attack for a full, blinking meter. Enemy lightning bolts are easy to shoot down and fill up your super meter a nice amount if you shoot them, but if you miss one and it gets past you that player does take a hit. Still, I think they’re probably too easy to dispose of, taking damage to lightning is rare as far as I’ve seen in this game so far. They add some tension as you have to get over to them to shoot them down, but I almost always make it. The full-bar supers are another story though, they are definitely dangerous. I like how each character has a custom move, that’s impressive for such a small game. I don’t think all eight are equally balanced, though; some are MUCH easier to hit enemies with than others, and while the different characters’ meters do charge at different speeds, still I get the strong sense that this game isn’t balanced. At least against the AI, I think some characters are significantly better than others. It all depends on how easy it is to hit the AI with your supers. Oddly, the final boss’s super is not the best one, I would say. I know balance is hard, but this is one of my main issues with the game. Things may be quite different against a human, but I haven’t been able to play that way so far.

It may sound like I am criticizing this game a lot, but I do like this game and enjoy playing it. It is simple and yet has depth, the graphics are good, and the controls are spot-on. I do wish it had more polish and balance, and more features such as music, difficulty options for single player, and a win-loss record for multiplayer, but I know the game creator said that they couldn’t fit more features in this cartridge size, the largest the system natively supports. Unfortunately, while having a larger cartridge with bank switching is possible on the 5200, it is not currently available much at all. I hope that that changes, this game could use the space. What’s here is good but a few more features would be great and the balance is questionable. When I first played this game, I lost my first match, won my second, lost my third, and then went back to read the manual more thoroughly. After that I easily beat the game without losing a single round. Yeah. I seem to have happened to select a character with one of the best supers, and got lucky in that few full-bar supers were used against me during the game; the AI sometimes uses full-bar super attacks and other times just throws that mostly useless lighting at you for long stretches, for some reason. When that happens you win easily. I had fun despite how easy it was, though, so I decided to play again with a different character. I found it much harder with them, I died many times. Overall, the difficulty is a little easy but is balanced reasonably, most of the time I do get a few game overs before winning. Fortunately you have infinite continues in this game, so you will win so long as you keep trying. That’s good design.

Overall, Magical Fairy Force is a good game. It doesn’t quite reach greatness, at least in single player, but it is good and can be a lot of fun to play. The graphics are great, challenge reasonable, and the action fast and a good mix of skill and luck. I also love that it’s an original game and not just another conversion or port! It is also great to see another Trak-Ball game, the 5200 trackball is an amazing controller and needs more games. The core ‘shoot the little wisps in a line on top of your half of the screen’ gameplay isn’t as exciting as I wish it was, audio is minimal, and the super attacks seem quite unbalanced, but the game is much more good than bad. If I had another human to play against, instead of the sometimes iffy AI, I probably would like the game more, too; again, it was designed first and foremost for multiplayer that I can’t often try these days. I can imagine multiplayer matches being pretty tense at times, as you go back and forth. This indie game has some issues, but it’s pretty good overall and absolutely is worth buying.

This game is a 5200 exclusive so far, though the developer is working on a PC (Steam digital download) port/remake with added features.

Rankings

If I was ranking these games against eachother, I would put them in this order:

The Dreadnaught Factor > Castle Crisis > Magical Fairy Force >> Blaster > Countermeasure > Decathlon >>> Frogger > Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom > James Bond 007

The top three of these are very good games I definitely recommend, and the fourth is at least worth a look for sure. Overall none of these games quite match Defender, Centipedeo, or Galaxian, games I covered in my original 5200 list, but The Dreadnaught Factor is close. As for those last two, though… well, James Bond and Buck Rogers are, currently, my two least favorite games of the now over 40 titles I have for the 5200. Ah well. If that’s the worst a system has, we’re talking about a pretty solid console.

About Brian

Computer and video game lover
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1 Response to Atari 5200 Game Opinion Summaries 2021 Update, Part I, and the Atari 5200 Trak-Ball Controller

  1. Ryan Witmer says:

    Author of Magical Fairy Force here. Thanks for the detailed review, it was great to read and I’m glad you’re enjoying the game!

    Your criticisms are pretty spot on, and a lot of the issues with the game just came down to running out of space. I was happy with what I was able to cram into 32KB, but I do wish I could have done more. The PC version has taken my shackles off and it’s pretty liberating.

    Trak-ball support was one of my primary goals for the game and it’s one of the very few titles for the system that supports two trak-balls for two players. It took me quite a while to figure out exactly how to get that controller working, as documentation was scarce, but I think it was worth it in the end.

    The CPU player could definitely be better, and I think many of the balance issues you talk about probably come from playing exclusively against the CPU opponent. Some of the attacks are relatively easy for a human player to dodge but very difficult for the CPU. Some might even go in the other direction. It’s a battle I’m fighting again with the PC version which has 48 attacks instead of just 8, lots of work.

    The PC version should be out next year and actually covers most of the things you brought up. Full soundtrack with theme music for each character, 8 difficulty levels, full stat tracking, tournament modes, a four-player mode and more. Can’t wait to get it done.

    Thanks again for purchasing the game and taking the time to review it!

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