Atari 5200 Custom Controller Build

Have you ever tried playing a retro-game and even though you really want to like the game, the controller just seems to get in the way?

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The problem child was an Atari 5200, a device that is notorious for having some of the worst controllers in the entire history of video gaming. The unit itself is actually quite nice and is in most respects an Atari computer in a console skin.

Just skip down the page to the instructions :D

  • 1
    Step 1

    The problem lies in the lack of response, over time the little pads inside become corroded and unresponsive. Eventually, no amount of cleaning and disassembling actually fixes this and you end up replacing either the entire controller or purchasing one of those repair kits off the net. I ended up trying several different methods to solve the issue, first was just to replace the momentary contacts with micro switches.


    This worked, but was severely uncomfortable to use and was just an experiment anyway :) With a bit of tracing around with a multimeter and a piece of paper, I came up with a schematic.


    So, I decided that I wanted to make an arcade style controller. After a bit of pricing out “kits” and the cost of building it from scratch, I stumbled upon the Generation NEX controllers. They were cheap… very cheap and looked perfect! I ordered two.



    Upon receiving them, and a quick tear down, things were looking up. They were perfect for my purpose and the switches all were actually quite high quality for the price paid :)


    The only issue I really had was deciding what color to make the paper under the glass, and where to put the keypad that is found on the original controller. The keypad is your typical 3×4 matrix style. For this I made a quick pit stop at the local hardware store and 80 cents later I had some outlet covers to try.


    After drilling lots of holes in the covers and installing momentary contact switches, and using my dremel with a fine tip to engrave what button it was right on the button, the assembly was almost complete. At least the hard part was done.


    Oh, and I engraved the other switches too, just so I would remember what they were for…


    The next step was to make a rough cut in the wood to allow access of the keypad wiring for installation, as there is a plexiglass top on this controller, it didnt have to be accurate, just a rough cut was fine.



    Then a dry fit of everything and to make sure that it would all work, I did end up shaving off a corner of the outlet cover :>



    The next bit was simply running a lot of wires and mounting the potentiometers in a nice spot to allow centering adjustment. This controller is essentially a digital device that converts the digital input to an analog resistance to be interpreted by the console as if you were using those horrible “full analog” stock joysticks. Yep, my wiring is a bit sloppy but in this case, that doesn’t really matter, the extra length allows me to easily open the bottom panel and not worry about ripping things apart. I used a couple staples as strain relief near the potentiometers.


    The potentiometers are mounted so that they were accessible through the old battery compartment and can be hidden simply by closing the cover.


    How does it work? For most games, it works beautifully! Games like Defender and Space Dungeon (you need two controllers for this one and why I built two) are absolutely wonderful to play! Games that do not work quite right with them are the ones that read an analog signal from the controller, this would include super breakout. I have considered installing a “spinner” type controller that is easily accessible to allow this type of game to be played or simply moving the horizontal pot. Another option would be to just add a DB9 port to allow the original Atari paddle controllers for the 2600 to be used.



    This controller works great for games like defender.  If you build 2 of them, it is amazingly awesome to use in games such as space dungeon or robotron.  

    Thanks :)

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douglie007 wrote 01/26/2017 at 18:23 point

so am I reading this correctly, I dont have to use the analog that is in the 5200 natively?  i would love to make one of these. 

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George Tedrick wrote 03/13/2015 at 05:42 point

8 way, excellent!

I forgot, I may have what I need to do the db9, or at least get it started:

I have the receivers so maybe that is what I do for a hackaday project, sometime in the future.

Thank you for the project info and the reply. Time to make a controller...

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George Tedrick wrote 03/12/2015 at 08:13 point

Thank you for the project information. I have seen drawings of the of the wiring before but I always seemed confused by them. It wasn't until I saw the original pots wired in that it made sense. I think anyways.

I do have a couple questions (3~4): 

1, Does it move as a 4way or 8way joystick? If 4way, is it possible to make it an 8way (with a different joystick if needed)? I suppose you could have used a d-pad  wired to the original pots.

2, You mentioned adding a db9 to be able to use a 2600/7800 controller. Did you make a drawing of that set up? is it available....

I like your idea of using two of them for robotron (my favorite 5200 game).  You do mean mounting two joysticks and running a second cable, yes?...

I have a good set of original controllers with the dual coupler. I don't think I would like playing Robotron with that type of controller unless it had 8way movement. You definitely need those angles to survive.

3, The Messiah Play controller was a wireless controller. Did you have any thoughts of making your new 5200 controller wireless? I realize you would need a receiver. I guessing you would have picked up the Messiah wireless receiver when you got the two joysticks. 

I have two of those wireless Messiah Play joysticks and I think they are great with a NES. Played DKJr this afternoon.

Thank you!

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ThunderSqueak wrote 03/13/2015 at 04:02 point

You would need a joystick that switched between 4 and 8 way,   as is it is 8 way. 

If you want a switchable stick, I can recommend the mag-stik plus, from as I own 2 of these and use them in my mame cabinet. :)

Sorry I don't have a drawing of the db9 setup  but it would be easy to figure out.  I love playing robotron on this setup using 2 controllers side by side (I built 2).   
These just had the transmitter.  I just got a really good deal on them so they are what I used.  I considered different ways to make them wireless but in the end I just used a wire.  :)

Have a great day! :)

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