Dr. Scott M. Baker

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Homemade Atari 5200 Analog Controller

by admin on Aug.03, 2018, under Electronics Projects

I built my own 5200 controller:


There’s several different options you can use for an Atari 5200 controller:

  • The stock controller. It’s non-concentering joystick, mushy fire buttons, and general reliability issues make it kinda suck.
  • The masterplay clone. There are various adapters for using digital joysticks, like the common Atari 2600 stick, on the 5200. The drawback is that you lose analog capability. For more 5200 games it doesn’t matter, but there’s a handful of games that aren’t fully/optimally playable with a digital joystick.
  • The PC joystick adapter. Vintage PC joysticks, the kind with the 15-pin connectors, are analog. You can more-or-less use one of these with a custom Y-adapter cable. The advantage is that you get an analog stick that plays all games. The disadvantage is a somewhat ungainly configuration of PC joystick (for movement), 5200 controller (for keypad), and Y-adapter device.

The final option is to build something yourself, to try to do right what Atari did wrong.

All about joystick potentiometers…

A common way of reading the position of a joystick potentiometer is using an RC circuit. If you take a capacitor and charge (or discharge) it through a resistor, then the time to charge (or discharge) a fixed value capacitor will vary with the amount of resistance. It’s simple for a CPU to measure that time and compute the value of the resistor. Substitute a potentiometer for the resistor, and you have yourself a joystick axis.

The value of the capacitor and potentiometer are important to the algorithm. Choose a different capacitor, or a different resistor, and the measurement will no longer correct.

Well, the Atari 5200 stock joystick uses a 500K potentiometer, and the commonly-available thumbsticks of 2018 use 10K pots. That’s a 50x difference. You can’t do a substitution as-is. We’re going to have to play a few tricks to make our 10K pot work.


The schematic is presented below

Homemade Atari 5200 Analog Controller, Schematic

The keypad is a standard matrix arrangement, right out of the Atari 5200 schematics. In a matrix keypad there’s a series of rows and columns, and each key connects some row to some column. The CPU strobes the rows (or the columns, depends on the implementation) and reads back the columns (or rows, depending on implementation) to see which keyswitch was pressed. So this part is easy. We just duplicate the Atari 5200 design using modern tactile switches.

“Multiplying” the potentiometer is a bit more work. We’re going to use an analog->digital->analog technique. An ADC will measure the position of the 10k joystick, and convert to a number between 0 and 255. A “digital potentiomer” (kind of like a DAC) will convert that number between 0 and 255 to a resistance between 0 and 100K. We’ve turned our 10K joystick pot into a 100K joystick pot. It’s not what we want, but it’s getting closer.

To make the 100K digital pot compatible with the 5200, which is expecting a 500K pot, we’ll just add some additional capacitance, about 0.22uF to the RC circuit. We can do this inside the controller, we don’t have to crack open our 5200 and mess with it. Remember, this all comes down to timing. Use a bigger capacitor, and you can get by with a smaller potentiometer.


I had pc-boards fabricated and assembled my controller:

Atari 5200 Homemade Controller, Completed

The thumbstick can go on either the left or the right (and the buttons on the opposite side).

Bill of Materials

Part Value Quantity Description Source
C1,C2 0.22uF 2 Monolithic Ceramic Capacitor Digikey, 490-7533-1-ND
C3,C4 0.1uF 2 Monolithic Ceramic Capacitor Digikey, 399-4264-ND (possible substitute 490-9145-3-ND)
JP1 1 2×2 header Digikey, S2012EC-20-ND (cut to size)
JP2, JP4 2 1×3 header Digikey, S1012EC-40-ND (buy one, cut to size for JP2-JP4)
JP3 1 1×2 header
SH1-SH5 5 jumper shunt Digikey, S9337-ND
U$2 MCP42100 1 Digital Pot Digikey, MCP42100-I/P-ND
U$1,U$6,U$22-U$27 2 Tactile switch, with plunger (qty 2) Digikey, SW405-ND
CAP1, CAP2 2 Cap for fire button (qty 2) Digikey, SW891-ND
U$7-U$18 12 Tactile switch, white (qty 12) Digikey, 450-1649-ND
U$19-U$21 3 Tactile switch, red (qty 3) Digikey, 450-1804-ND
U1,U2 THUMBSTICK 1 Sparkfun thumbstick (only populate 1) Digikey, 1568-1526-ND
U3 ATTINY85 1 Microcontroller Digikey, ATTINY85-20PU-ND
X1 F-5200-CON 1 Female DB15 Digikey, AE10929-ND

You will also need the following misc items:

  • chunk of hardboard, other other “backing” to make it easy to hold the controller (bare PCB is not comfortable to hold)
  • 4-40 screws and nuts, to attach PCB to hardboard
  • DB-15 extension cable, I recommend https://console5.com/store/neo-geo-aes-atari-5200-pc-controller-joystick-extension-cables-6-1-8m.html
  • EPROM programmer to program the ATTINY86, I recommend a TL866 from eBay


Board Ordering

Working on it…
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