July 24th, 1978 saw the birth of Javier Ojst (that’s me!) in the small densely populated country of El Salvador, named after “The Savior” Jesus Christ. Undoubtedly I was a cute baby, and it was a day of revelry for all. Of course, I have no recollection of any of it, and it was revealed to me much later that a dear friend of the family immensely enjoyed pegging the nickname “lizard boy” on me when they saw my squirming in my crib. I guess to him it resembled more like a cage. So perhaps, Is it possible that I wasn’t that cute after all? Thanks to some dingy pictures from my parent’s photo album, I learned that the doctors assured my mom that her seven-month-old baby (yes, I was determined to see the world two months ahead of schedule) would be a girl. Either that, or she had an affinity for pink rooms. I’m rather pragmatic, so I’d like to think that the hardware store simply ran out of blue.
In 1980, my parents – who luckily decided to take me with them – fled to the United States because of the ongoing civil war that ravished everything around us. An incident that certainly motivated us to pack our stuff and move was when guerillas placed a bomb under the family car’s hood. They informed my dad in no subtle terms that he was persona non grata because he had a steady job with an established company and owned a car.
By 1992 both sides agreed to a cease-fire, not before approximately 75,000 Salvadorans were no longer with us. And nearly a decade later, many parts of the countryside were uninhabitable thanks to all the leftover landmines.
In 1986, my dad – who wasn’t a big fan of the American lifestyle and social life – wanted to return to El Salvador despite the civil war still in full force. I loved my Transformers, GI Joe, MASK, Star Wars and pro wrestling, but I soon found myself living in El Salvador once more and barely able to speak the language.
1986 was very different from how things are in 2020. No, I’m not referring to adapting to the worldwide pandemic that is COVID-19. I’m talking about things we take for granted, like the internet. Instant information and entertainment at our fingertips, obtained in a blink of an eye or even faster! When moving to another country, one can learn about its situation in a matter of minutes. Unless you choose to, it’s almost impossible to be blind to global news and current events with today’s technology.
At the time, most of our news about El Salvador came from family members who’d remained, and by perusing the local newspaper (remember those?), which was The Miami Herald. My dad is a person who prides himself as a realist and believes that no scenario is implausible. He had the foresight to record many TV programs, with our fancy new Sharp Video Cassette Recorder with a 3-speed function remote nonetheless! When planning our trip back to El Salvador, he was told everything on TV was in Spanish, and cable was unreliable, not very accessible, and rather pricey. So much of our entertainment would be in the form of rewatching these recorded programs. I saw Star Wars for the first time thanks to my dad recording it off the TV. Saturday Night’s Main Event, also recorded by him, became my gateway into pro wrestling, and I never looked back. Son of Godzilla, Godzilla vs. Megalon, Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster and many other kaiju films became regular viewings for myself and my two younger brothers.
One item that made the trip to El Salvador with us was a magnificent machine – well I certainly thought so at the time – called the Atari 5200. My earliest memories of Atari or any videogame were around 1983 with a neighbor who had an Atari VCS (later known as the Atari 2600). He proudly unveiled to all how he played games like Combat, Smurfs, Spider-Man, and E.T. Yes, HE played while everyone else watched. Years later, an uncle showed off his Intellivision to us, which claimed in advertisements as being “the closest thing to the real thing.” At the time, I agreed that it was a step up from the original Atari, but I was perfectly content watching cartoons and playing with my various action figures.
In El Salvador, to help our cultural transition not spill into all-out culture shock, my father thought this massive videogame console would help us feel at home while residing in my grandparent’s old house for a couple of months. Other than shaking the curtains and pouring scalding hot water down the shower drain to keep the ginormous roaches at bay, the 5200 would serve as family entertainment.
In November 1982, Atari introduced the Atari 5200, which contained the same processor as the Atari 400 and components of the Atari 800 home computer. In its prototype stage, it went by the name “Atari Video System X-Advanced Video Computer System.” The promising console never reached its potential, and only endured an 18-month lifespan. By May 1984, Atari discontinued the 5200, but not before eking out 69 games. Unfortunately, Atari’s programming team could not devote its full attention to the new console because they were still making games for the 2600. Surprisingly, the relatively primitive 2600 that most estimated would become extinct by the early ’80s proved that it was the “little console that could,” and continued producing titles until late 1991. It made cosmetic changes to their console once competitors like Nintendo came onto the scene, but it was all for naught.
So, in the glorious summer of ’86, presumably, my dad got the console and all the games it came with at a bargain-basement price – or so you’d hope! In my grandfather’s musty aged house, I enjoyed countless late nights in the dark living room in front of the glowing TV, alongside my dad. We played Super Breakout, Missile Command, Joust, Pengo, Space Invaders, Berserk, Star Raiders, Galaxian, and Dig Dug until our eyes felt crossed and dry, staring at the TV screen for hours on end. Maybe this was when I permanently ruined my peepers and wound up using glasses for years. All the previously mentioned games are classics, but all games had seen previous releases by Atari and other home consoles.
A consumer gripe, and a factor that buried the 5200, was that people who purchased the console, were paying a premium to play games the 2600 and the arcades had been offering for years. It wasn’t backward compatible with 2600 games or any of their home computer’s software, despite having similar specifications. Although the 5200 had marginally better audiovisual capabilities than the 2600, it wasn’t enough to keep the system alive, and most of the games, as mentioned, weren’t exclusive to the console. Amidst heavy competition from Intellivision, ColecoVison (cheaper than the 5200 and more attractive graphics), and the emerging home computer market led by the Commodore, IBM, and Apple, the 5200 failed.
The 5200 would be the last console Atari would produce as a profitable company. The later 7800 proved that Atari could still make quality consoles. Yet, internal strife and leadership changes pushed the console’s release to 1986 instead of the targeted 1984, which gave Nintendo enough time to push Atari off its videogame throne.
According to the experts, like IGN editor Craig Harris, the real culprit of its failure stems from the poorly designed controllers. He pulled no punches when describing the Atari 5200 controller in a 2006 article titled “Worst Game Controllers.” In the said write-up, he claims Atari’s effort was subpar in the manufacturing of the controller that “didn’t even center itself, and the buttons used materials that seemed to deteriorate at room temperature.” Former executive editor for Electronic Games Bill Kunkel described them as “Dead fish floppo joysticks” in The Ultimate History of Video Games by Steven L. Kent.
Although innovative for its time with four side buttons, a reset, and pause function, the 5200 joysticks fell over without self-centering springs. Decades later, collectors now face an uphill battle trying to find functioning joysticks for what some would call this “ill conceived” videogame console that was the 5200.
Mark Bussler from Classic Game Room says, “There are a lot of excellent games available for the 5200, however, this is the last game console I’d recommend to anyone- unless you grew up with one in the past and want to relive the experience- or unless you’re a diehard collector or you’re crazy, you don’t want one of these.”
In episode 20 of AVGN, James Rolfe could not correctly demonstrate the system because, in typical 5200 fashion, the original controller was faulty, and the Wico Command Control joystick he bought off eBay for $20.00 plus shipping was incompatible with the console’s controller port.
I’ll tell you, though, as an 8-year old kid, I never noticed. I enjoyed every single one of those games with my dad. Maybe all except Star Raiders, which for an eight-year-old, was difficult to grasp. I guess, at the time, the side buttons were somewhat unresponsive in those crucial moments when trying to defend your cities in Missile Command, or blasting those dreaded giant insects and arachnids in Centipede. But I only noticed this years later when someone brought it up. In 1986, perhaps we just accepted the way things were, rolled with those punches, and made the best of our videogames. I preferred the “mushy” 5200 joysticks over the stubborn, almost immovable 2600 joystick.
But mostly, I remember playing with my dad. I’d sometimes let him win, but it was worth every bit of taunting to see him smile and laugh out loud. That was worth tarnishing a winning streak. I later moved onto the NES and SNES. I went hardcore with those consoles and lived for those games. Then dabbled briefly in the N64 pond. But the Atari 5200 holds a special place in my heart and tints my nostalgic rose-colored dreams. I no longer own my 5200 from childhood, thanks to a disgruntled cat who used it as a litter box in 1992. But I wouldn’t mind dusting one off from a garage sale or at a flea market to see my dad play Super Breakout with me one more time. Of course, now that we’re both adults, I wouldn’t let him win! Or maybe I would actually, only from time to time though…