Can Atari 5200 Play 2600 Games?

Atari was the biggest name in home video gaming, with consoles such as the 2600 and 7800. But there’s a black sheep in the family, and it’s called the Atari 5200. Despite making generational improvements over its predecessor, the 5200 was far less popular.

Can Atari 5200 play 2600 games? Not natively, you need the VCS adapter which is essentially a complete 2600 in a smaller package than the original console. This adapter is only compatible with two-port Atari 5200s and can accept Atari 2600 controllers.

If you open up the VCS adapter, inside you’ll find a complete Atari 2600 motherboard. It’s just compressed to fit within a smaller package and gets its power from the 5200’s cartridge slot. This adapter generates audio and video signals, which are then transmitted to your analog TV via the 5200’s RF module.

Can Atari 5200 Play 2600 Games?

Atari modeled the 5200 after their highly successful 8-bit lineup of home computers, which is why it can’t run 2600 games natively. Even though both the 2600 and 5200 utilize processors derived from the MOS 6502, there are certain differences in the silicon. More importantly, the 5200’s supporting hardware is very different from the 2600.

The 5200 uses ANTIC and GTIA video chips, along with 3 custom VLSI chips for support hardware. It also has a POKEY chip to generate 4-channel programmable sound. The sound chip also handles serial I/O, random number generation, and timers.

Atari’s new console wasn’t doing so well in sales and was getting beat by Coleco’s IntelliVision. One of the reasons behind the 5200’s lackluster commercial performance was its lack of backward compatibility. It couldn’t even play 400/ 800 series home computer cartridges, despite using the same hardware design.

This meant you had to buy separate copies of the same games, even if you already owned an Atari 8-bit home computer. And it wasn’t until a while after the 5200’s launch that Atari decided to create a VCS adapter. This enabled their new console to play the massive library of 2600 games that people already owned.

The 2600 adapter was just a miniaturized Atari 2600 console, minus the controller and AC power supply. It took 5V DC power from the 5200 cartridge slot and sent AV signals to the 5200. From here the AV signals would be transferred to your TV, using the 5200’s RF module.

You could also connect Atari 2600 controllers to the adapter. Which was a necessity, given the horrendous design of the 5200’s controller. It had no self-center, the buttons were mushy, and the whole thing just had this awkward unergonomic shape.

Was The Atari 5200 Good?

It depends on how you look at it, and the market it was released into. When Atari designed the 5200, it was certainly a console ahead of its time. Featuring a powerful CPU and a massive RAM upgrade over its predecessor, the 5200 was essentially an 8-bit Atari home computer with no OS.

However, it suffered from internal company politics and licensing issues. You see, the Atari home computer division and console division were two separate entities that treated each other as rivals. A majority of the company’s profit was generated by the console team, on the back of tremendous Atari 2600 sales.

This success made the console team lose sight of what mattered, and they started experimenting with all kinds of weird ideas. As it turned out, they weren’t too big to fail and their hubris had caught up with them. Yes, the 400/ 800 series of home computers could run the same code as the Atari 5200.

But the console team had to procure a separate license for the same game and write their own code. And they deliberately chose not to include backward compatibility from the start for Atari 2600 titles, despite it being a very popular platform even in the early 1980s. Atari’s console team just assumed that their new 5200 would take over the show since 2600 was going to be outdated by 1980.

And to top it off, they came up with one of the most reviled controller designs in all of gaming history. The 5200’s analog controller was mechanically complex, cheaply designed, and had no self-center. It was notably flimsy and had mushy side buttons that failed to spring back after just a few months of use.

What Consoles Can Play Atari 2600 Games?

Atari 2600 games can be played natively by the 7800, as it was designed with backward compatibility in mind. In fact, the 2600 and 7800 consoles share the same cartridge design and size. The only outlier is Atari’s own 5200 which has a wider cartridge format and significantly different architecture from 2600.

As a result, you need a VCS adapter that plugs in on top of the 5200 to play 2600 games. This is nothing more than a stripped-down 2600 that has been compressed into a smaller package. You can even use Atari 2600 controllers with this adapter (it is only compatible with two-port 5200s).

Are Old Atari 2600 Games Worth Anything?

The Atari 2600 is what started the home video game craze, prompting people to switch from arcades to their living rooms. Things that we take for granted today like video game cartridges and detachable controllers, were introduced by the Atari 2600. Yes, it did get a lot of cheaply made shovelware that contributed to the video game crash of 1983.

Even so, there are hundreds of excellent games on 2600 that are highly sought after to this day. Finding one on the used market isn’t difficult since Atari sold 30 million of these consoles. However, finding one in good condition or with original packaging is quite hard.

A used copy of Mario Bros. for Atari 2600 can be yours for just 20 bucks. But an initial production copy of the same game brand new with original packaging can set you back a few thousand dollars. Tank Command is another example of a rare and expensive Atari game.

Copies of Tank Command can set you back $200. Ultima 1 for Atari 2600 is another insanely expensive game, regularly listed for over $800 on sites like eBay. The most expensive Atari 2600 game is Air Raid, which was distributed in very limited numbers.

What Killed The Atari 2600?

A downpour of bad games, designed on the cheap by companies who just wanted to make a quick buck. The advent of game cartridges brought about by the Atari 2600 meant that people could buy and play hundreds of games on just one console. Previously, consoles came preloaded with a selection of games in their ROM and you couldn’t load new ones.

The Atari 2600 made it possible for predatory game designers to create cheap copies of existing games and sell these off as new products. Over time, video game fatigue set in and consumers grew weary of these titles. Interest in home video gaming declined, leading to the video game crash of 1983.

Atari’s lack of focus didn’t help either, as they were releasing too many consoles that did the same thing. The 5200 had no good launch titles and was incompatible with Atari 8-bit home computer games. It also couldn’t play 2600 games.

Competitors like Sega, Nintendo, and Coleco grabbed the attention of gamers with their superior games. Even though Atari made great hardware, it fell behind in the software race. And ultimately, that’s what matters in the games industry.

Does Atari Still Exist?

Stumbling into one poor executive decision after another, Atari was dying a slow death throughout the 1980s. Rivals such as Nintendo and Sega ran away with the home console market, while Apple and IBM took over the personal computer market. Warner Communications (the owner of Atari) sold off the home computer division to Commodore CEO ack Tramiel.

Warner formed a merger with Namco, which received the coin-operated assets of Atari (arcades). This merger was named Atari Games Corporation and was later renamed to Atari Holdings Inc. before becoming a non-operating subsidiary of Warner. Nowadays, the Atari brand is owned by a French company called Atari SA (formerly Infogrames).

This company retains the Atari name and logo but bears no other similarities to the original Atari. It’s an entirely new business, with a different team. The current Atari still publishes games and retro consoles.

Right now, they’re selling a prebuilt PC under the Atari VCS name. It is powered by an AMD R1606G APU, a two-core four-thread processor that is similar in performance to the Ryzen 3 3200U. The VCS comes preloaded with a selection of retro Atari titles and a Debian-based OS.


I hope this article helped you understand how backward compatibility works on the Atari 5200. It can’t play 2600 cartridges natively, owing to differences in architecture and cartridge slot size. However, you can purchase an adapter that lets you play 2600 games on the 5200.


As long as I can remember myself I always enjoyed video games. I had amazing moments playing them and that's why I became a game developer, to create amazing experiences for the players. Read More About Me

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