Let me get the joystick problem out of the way before I even begin to talk about these two machines. I am not very fond of either the ColecoVision's or the 5200's joystick controller. There is a basic understanding among gamers that the 5200 analog joysticks are among the worst ever constructed. The ColecoVision joysticks are just uncomfortable. I am not devoting any space to the joystick topic. I have taken care only to include discussion that will not be affected (directly) by joystick control. It is best to become intimate with a system's controller before criticizing the games because of lack of control. I have found that I can get the feel for any system's controller with patience. Patience is exactly what you will need to begin to enjoy either of these two controller types.
Considering their attempts at presenting technical specifications that were sure to impress even the most jaded gamer, Atari seemed to lose sight of the primary reason that people buy consoles and games: enjoyment. Does it really matter if the Intellivision controller had sixteen separate directions of movement? Atari thought so; the 5200 controller has 360 degrees of movement. The Intellivision was able to store controllers on the unit. Does that matter? Who even puts the controllers back where they belong? Atari thought it was important, though; the 5200 has internal storge for two controllers, sacrificing size and practicality. Many of the games on the 5200 were direct ports from the Atari 8-bit lines. That was easy enough to do, since the 5200 was nothing more than a slightly modified Atari 400 computer in a new case with different ports.
If the 5200 had only to compete with the Intellivision, it would have been a very successful follow-up to the 2600, despite being incompatible with the VCS library of games (which was a big complaint against it). Mattel wasn't their chief competitor, though; on the scene with the 5200 was Coleco's ColecoVision. The 5200's hardware was superior to the ColecoVision's, but it is the software that has always mattered the most. Software was the 5200's greatest weakness upon introduction.
Games that were translated from the arcade to the Atari 2600 were bound to disappoint players if they were expecting an exact duplicate. Both the ColecoVision and the 5200 were much more capable of translating the arcade hits to the home consoles. Indeed, some of the games on each system are nearly identical to their arcade cousins; Qix for the Atari 5200 is a perfect example of this. It does illustrate another problem with both the ColecoVision and the 5200. Although both systems had some popular game titles, they both relied heavily on arcade sleepers for home conversion. Both systems have excellent translations of arcade games that were very good, but never were that popular. In reflection, this proved to be nice for game enthusiasts who would never have been able to play these games at home otherwise.
The 5200 version of Berzerk is a good example of home translation. Like the arcade game, the home version speaks, using a sound chip on the cartridge ROM. I was never a big fan of this game until recently. There can be no comparison between this adaptation and the 2600 version. The ColecoVision didn't have Berzerk, but it did have its sequel, Frenzy. Both games are exceptional examples of the quality that these systems are capable of.
The 5200 has some noticeable advantages over Coleco's system. All games that involve scrolling look very choppy on the latter. For example, Defender on the ColecoVision compared to the 5200 version seems laughable. The 5200 version looks like the arcade game, with smooth scrolling and menacing game play. The ColecoVision version is jerky and the colors look bleak and unappealing. It is the smooth scrolling of the 5200 that makes many games far superior than the same titles on other systems.
In the end, neither the 5200 or the ColecoVision is actually better than the other. They both have appealing libraries of games, and some clear gems. If you are looking for one particular classic that was only made for one of these two systems, then your decision on which system you want has already been made. If, on the other hand, you want the system that has some great, addictive games, then I would recommend that you get...both of them! -- AT