The Atari 5200, released in 1982, had four controller ports, an unusual feature which as far as I know had never been seen before, and would not be seen again until the late nineties.

The 1983 revision of the machine, reverted to only two controller ports.

We don't usually observe later hardware removing features. What was the reason for it in this case? I can think of several possibilities.

  • Perhaps most obvious: the videogame crash was in full swing; maybe they weren't thinking strategically any more; maybe they were just in a panic trying to do anything that would save a couple of dollars (how much did the extra controller ports add in manufacturing cost, anyway?) in an attempt to stave off bankruptcy.

  • Or maybe their game designers were not coming up with games that would accommodate four simultaneous players.

  • Or maybe their market research had started indicating, rightly or wrongly, that their customers weren't interested in four-player games. (That doesn't sound right. Game consoles tend to go in the living room, or sometimes in college dorm rooms or suchlike, where getting three or four players together would be a natural thing to do.)

  • Or the machine didn't have enough computing power to handle four players at a time? (That doesn't sound right, but then I haven't actually tried designing four player games to run on that hardware.)

  • Or something else that I haven't thought of?

  • 3
    "We don't usually observe later hardware removing features." - NES removed the copy protection in the toploader, Genesis 3 got rid of any Sega CD/32X compatibility, PSP Go got rid of the entire UMD drive, PS One removed a couple I/O ports... Later revisions were as often, if not more often, about cutting costs as they were about adding functionalities. Sometimes those cost cuts were just cheaper materials, sometimes it was removing underused features. Commented Jul 19, 2023 at 12:25
  • 2
    "We don't usually observe later hardware removing features." cough Apple cough
    – DrSheldon
    Commented Jul 19, 2023 at 12:27
  • 3
    And as for the PlayStation 3, early versions has PS1 and PS2 compatibility but later versions didn't Commented Jul 19, 2023 at 12:54
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    How many simultaneous 4-player games have there ever been on any platform, arcade or home? It was just overkill IMO.
    – Alan B
    Commented Jul 19, 2023 at 13:11
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    As a 5200 owner, how about the fact that keeping 1 or 2 controllers working reliably was difficult enough, can't imagine trying to keep 4 in good working order!
    – Glen Yates
    Commented Jul 19, 2023 at 14:33

2 Answers 2


The Atari 5200, released in 1982, had four controller ports

As did the 400 and 800, which it was based one.

The 1983 revision of the machine, reverted to only two controller ports.

As did the XL series machines, which this model was based on.

Input devices, including the analog pins in the ports and the keyboard, were controlled by the POKEY chip. POKEY did a lot of things, but in this context it basically acted as a large bank of programmable latches that could be read or written through various registers that were memory mapped and/or by direct input from external pins. POKEY had two 8-bit ports for this purpose, PORTA and PORTB. PORTA was connected to ports 1 and 2, and PORTB to 3 and 4.

When they moved from the original models to the XL, they used some of these pins to do, effectively, bank selection. For instance, one could turn off the BASIC ROMs by setting the POKEY's PORTB register (at location 54017), with bit 1 controlling whether BASIC was on or off. Turning it off caused the RAM in the same location to become visible, allowing you to use "RAM under ROM". Other bits did things like turn front-panel LEDs on or off, and on the XE machines, control the MMU chip which re-mapped the RAM lines for bank switching.

The changes using PORTB for joystick 3 and 4 to its functions in the XL and XE can be found here.

The 5200 didn't have these ROMs, so I guess the changes were largely unused on these systems, but I suspect there was a strong desire to maintain commonalty between the two platforms.

  • 1
    It has been a while since I read up on Atari, but I don't think the boards lost any functionality for the 3rd and 4th ports, so this was probably more of a cost reduction after observing a lack of support for those extra ports. Besides, the controller storage bin could only hold 2 anyway, right?
    – bjb
    Commented Jul 19, 2023 at 17:00

One reason may be far more of the POKEY I/O was used for each controller on the 5200.

The 4 joysticks on the 400 and 800 computers, were digital and a button. Up to 8 paddles were available too, implying analog controls were a planned for option.

The 5200, used many buttons, and two paddle functions per controller to provide analog control.

There were enough paddle systems to do 4 analog joysticks, but not enough digital I/O to handle the many buttons.

  • 3
    I always wondered why we did not get nice analog controls with a couple buttons on the Atari 8 bit machines. Having used them on the Apple, I found them to be a nice option, but not ideal for twitch games. But... titles like "Choplifter" were much better experiences with analog controls.
    – Spud
    Commented Dec 2, 2021 at 22:11
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    For whatever reason, quality analog joysticks were slow to arrive on the market. Something like the Atari 2600 joystick may have been clunky, but it was vastly better than any analog stick I remember seeing in that era.
    – supercat
    Commented Dec 9, 2021 at 18:45
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    This answer is not correct. The original system had a total of eight analog input pins, and thus could support 4 analog sticks. The buttons were matrix encoded into the existing digital stick pins. There is no difference between the 5200 ports and those on the other Atari systems, and they could have supported four 5200 sticks if they wanted to. Commented Jul 19, 2023 at 15:30
  • Would they not have had to change the controller design? Last time I took one apart, I could swear they direct wired enough of those buttons to consume I/O available. You are right on in there being no differences. It is the same chip. And frankly, the POKEY is a pretty great controller interface for it's time.
    – Spud
    Commented Jul 23, 2023 at 0:37
  • Someone once said "the POKEY is what you get when your main goal is to reduce gate count". I like that. On that last bit, I meant to say that the later version of the 5200 could have supported four sticks as well, not that the 400/800 could have. The big difference is that the digital lines go into the PIA in the 400/800 and the POKEY's keyboard lines on the 5200. Which is kinda clever, if your goal is to reduce gate count... Commented Jul 23, 2023 at 17:38

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