Chompin’ at the bit on the Atari 5200 Super System

Yeah, yeah, I know the expression is actually “champing at the bit,” but that would take the pun out of the title, now, wouldn’t it?

Recently I acquired The Dreadnaught Factor for Atari 5200. My friend Jim had introduced me to it on one of the 8-bit Atari computers, and later I played it on Intellivision. And you know what? I loved it, so I was thrilled to finally get the 5200 version. After playing a few rounds of that, I decided to fire up Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man, games I haven’t played very much on the 5200. (Then again, I’ve owned the 5200 for just a bit over a year and rarely had time to play, so there really isn’t a 5200 game that I have played very much.)

The most common complaint about the Atari 5200 is its standard joystick controller. It’s analog rather than digital, which means that rather than detect whether you move the stick up, down, left, right, down/left, down/right, up/left, or up/right, it calculates how far you moved the stick in one particular direction…and on top of that, the joystick doesn’t auto-center itself. The buttons — the four fire buttons, the numeric keypad, and the three buttons on top of the controller — are notorious for wearing out.

In fact, when I bought this system, the guy who sold it to me asked if I ever had one. I told him no, but I knew of the system’s quirks. He said okay, but with a caveat: he knew the controller worked fine, but he couldn’t guarantee it would work fine next week. Sure enough, when I brought it home, the controller lasted about ten minutes before I realized that the fire button circuit was permanently activated. Now, this was fine for Centipede, a game in which you might want to just hold the fire button down, but not for other games — Joust, in particular, depends on you repeatedly hitting the fire button. I watched a YouTube video or two about how to repair the controller, and it seems that the fix is ridiculously simple: just glue foil to each button’s underside to reinforce the circuit when the button makes contact with the cell membrane. Another suggested fix is to use a metallic paint marker — which apparently someone had tried with this controller, from looking at the button membranes — except that the paint wears off. I tried the foil trick, and sure enough, the controller worked perfectly.

So why did I tell this story? Keep it in the back of your mind for now.

But remember how I said the analog non-centering joystick is a point of contention among Atari 5200 players? To be honest, I usually don’t have a problem with it; in fact, it’s the perfect setup for The Dreadnaught Factor. However, when I put Pac-Man in, I realized that the joystick throws an annoying challenge into the game. You might think that Pac-Man will move up when you move the joystick up, but if the joystick hasn’t properly been centered yet, Pac-Man might not move up when you think he will. What you might have to do from time to time is manually re-center the joystick while playing; but be careful, as it’s easy to overcompensate and actually turn Pac-Man around 180 degrees and have him kamikaze right into a ghost.

Now, the 5200 conversion of Pac-Man is decent for the time it came out. Unlike the infamous Tod Frye-designed 2600 version, the 5200 version actually is impressively accurate with its faithfulness to the arcade version. The colors are consistent, the theme song is there, the game play is similar, and the scoring is the same. However, I found that a mini-pattern I use on the arcade version doesn’t work on the 5200 version, so that threw another challenge at me.

T0 give you an idea of exactly how challenging the 5200 version is, check out my scores. The highest score I’ve achieved on a 5-life arcade Pac-Man machine is a little over 100,000, at YesterCades in Red Bank, New Jersey; my official high according to is in the 80k neighborhood. (The explanation for that is simple: there wasn’t an referee at YesterCades to make my score official; my most recent trip to Underground Retrocade is when I got the latter score, witnessed by Underground’s Scott Lambert.) My high score on the Atari 2600 version is a little over 100,000 — which, if it were scored like the arcade version, would actually equate to over a million. My high score on the Atari 5200 version (which offers three lives plus a bonus life at 10,000 points)? 20,200. Yeah.

Next I tried Ms. Pac-Man. The 5200 Ms. does an overall good job of replicating the arcade version, but not perfect; some of the design quirks look like they actually carried over from the 2600 conversion. There are differences that do affect how I play my game, though. For example, in the arcade version, the first prize (or “fruit” — remember, in the world of Ms. Pac-Man, a pretzel is considered a fruit) of each maze appears after Ms. Pac-Man gobbles up around 70 dots (and energizers count toward the dot count), just as it does with Pac-Man. On the Atari 5200, the first prize dances into the maze at only 57 dots. For the arcade version, I’ve devised a mini-pattern for the third maze (the one with only one pair of tunnels) in which, if a ghost doesn’t make an unexpected move, lands Ms. Pac-Man right in front of a tunnel when the pear or banana makes its appearance, giving her the opportunity to rack up significant points no more than about half a second after the prize comes out. Unfortunately, following the same pattern on the 5200 version makes the third-maze prize come out significantly before Ms. Pac-Man makes it to the tunnel.

I am happy to say, however, that Ms. Pac-Man on the 5200 is much more tolerant of the analog joystick. Very, very little compensation is needed, and thankfully it’s also difficult to overcompensate and accidentally back Ms. Pac-Man into a tailing ghost. One major challenge, though, is that once you get to the apple, the ghosts move impossibly fast!

The 5200 version of Ms. Pac-Man, using the defaults, gives you five lives plus a bonus life at 10,000. I fared much better than on Pac-Man. My 5200 high score is 65,900, losing my last life shortly before clearing the banana maze. Typically on the arcade game, I lose my last life before the fourth maze (the dark blue maze) on a 3-life-plus-bonus machine, and on a 5-life-plus-bonus machine I can get to the dark blue maze and clear a board or too, but I never actually recorded my score in either case on a standard-speed cabinet.

Maybe one of these days I’ll seek out the Jr. Pac-Man homebrew and see how that thing works with the analog stick.

After a few rounds of Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man, I played Galaxian, Centipede, and more Dreadnaught Factor for a while and found that the fire buttons stopped working. So back to YouTube. Found that the contacts were extremely dirty and some of the foil had fallen off the buttons. We’ll see how it works tomorrow! (Now if only I could find a Wico controller for this thing…)


About pacmaniax

Sean is a web developer whose obsession with the Pac-Man franchise goes back to 1981, when he first played Pac-Man as an 7-year-old who didn't quite understand that you need to eat one of those big, blinking things first before you attempt to eat the ghosts. For one brief moment, he thought he held the world record for Jr. Pac-Man Turbo in October 2012, but it was actually only the second-highest score on record, and even that ranking only lasted under a day. A music buff, you can see Sean posting not only on and as "dauber," but also on various forums that obsess over The Beatles and Brian Wilson. Sean is also cohost of Pie Factory Podcast.
This entry was posted in Atari 5200 SuperSystem, High Score Update, Ms. Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Pac-Man, Pac-Man. Bookmark the permalink.

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