Gremlins has the dubious honor of being the last Atari 5200 game ever released, but did you know that it didn't actually make it onto store shelves until 1986? The two year delay is all due to the 1984 Tramiel takeover of Atari (all these things seem to involve them in one way or another). This tale is one of the more interesting pieces of Atari folklore, and shows just how out of synch things were at Atari during its last days.
Our story begins in June of 1984, programmer John Seghers had just completed Gremlins and the final version was shipped to the factory to have ROM chips burned and cartridges assembled. None of this was out of the ordinary, except for the fact that it took place only one day before the Tramiels took over. One of the first things Jack did upon taking over Atari was kill off all game production for the 5200 (although with only a few games being released in 84, the 5200 was pretty much dead already). Somehow Gremlins escaped Jack's attention and by the time he found out that it had been sent to production it was too late to stop it. In the end thousands of Gremlins carts were made, but Jack had no intention of releasing them since he had deemed the 5200 officially dead.
When Steven Spielberg (executive producer of the movie Gremlins) found out about Jack's plan, he was livid. Spielberg offered to buy the Gremlins cartridges from Atari with the intention of releasing them himself, but Jack refused. Apparently he would rather have them rot in a warehouse rather than let anyone else have them. Normally the story would end here, but by some twist of fate Gremlins and few older 5200 titles were released in 1986 when Atari decided to clear out their old warehouse stock. Although Atari aggressively marketed the new 2600jr. and released a slew of new 2600 titles, the 5200 received no such treatment and was once again left to die.
Thankfully the 5200 version of Gremlins is completely different from the 2600 game. This time instead of catching suicidal Mogwai, you get to slice Gremlins open with a big sword! Why two different versions of Gremlins were created is a mystery (especially since Atari had a policy of making games on different platforms as similar as possible). However it's doubtful that the 2600 could have ever handled a game as complex as 5200 Gremlins, so Atari may have had no choice but to make two separate games. Interestingly the 2600 version was actually programmed by 5200 programmer Scott Smith (5200/400/800 Moon Patrol).
You play the role of Billy Peltzer, your typical teenager who just happens to carry around a huge sword (I don't remember that in the movie!). Your beloved pet Mogwai have escaped from their pen and are now in danger of turning into evil Gremlins! Your goal is to gather up all the loose Mogwai running around the screen and return them to the pen. However this is all easier said than done, because your room just happens to be a huge disaster just waiting to happen. Food, water, TV's, and inconveniently placed walls are just some of the obstacles you'll have to overcome to rescue your cuddly pets. Oh did I forget to mention it's past midnight.
Midnight you say? So what? Well if you don't remember the rules for taking care of Mogwai let me refresh your memory:
1. Keep them away from water.
2. Keep them out of direct sunlight.
3. Never ever feed them after midnight
Yes your pets have chosen a bad time to make a break for it, especially since your room seems to be filled with food (I'd worry more about roaches than Gremlins). If a Mogwai gets his paws on a tasty snack he'll hatch into a killer Gremlin! To prevent this Billy can walk around and collect all the food for bonus points (although its just easier to grab the Mogwai). Normally there's a set amount of food on each screen, but some levels feature a popcorn machine which will begin spewing out popcorn when a Mogwai or Gremlin turns it on. These machines are highly dangerous since every tiny popcorn kernel the machine spits out can turn a hungry Mogwai into a dangerous Gremlin. Make sure you turn off the popcorn machine as soon as possible or you'll be up to your neck in Gremlins.
Of course the popcorn machine isn't the only source of food, apparently Billy's room also comes equipped with a fully stocked fridge (why can't he just have a kegerator like every other teenager?). If a Gremlin gets near the refrigerator he'll begin tossing food out and scatter it around the room. Quickly slice the offending Gremlin in half to stop him from dishing out all that tasty food. Refrigerators also pose another danger to your Mogwai, even without the help of a Gremlin they will randomly spit out ice cubes which melt into puddles of water. If a Mogwai touches a puddle he'll split into two or thee clones of himself (how's that for safe sex?). Like with the food, almost every level starts out with some random water puddles so even if the refrigerator isn't present be careful.
Thankfully there's one piece of electronics in your room that isn't helping destroy the world, the TV (how ironic is that?). It's a little known fact that Mogwai and Gremlins alike are massive couch potatoes! If a Mogwai or Gremlin turn on the TV set (Billy can turn it on too) they'll become hypnotized by it and stop moving. Use this precious time to grab stray Mogwai or slice a few Gremlins. Another way Billy can freeze everything on the screen is by using one of his three flashcubes, but use them judiciously as you only get a new one when you earn an extra life.
There are two ways to clear a stage (Night): Save all the Mogwai and kill all the Gremlins, or Wait until 6:00am. Saving the Mogwai and killing all the Gremlins how stages normally end since it's usually easier than surviving until morning (and much more satisfying). Billy can kill Gremlins by slicing them open with his sword (now that would have made for a much cooler movie!), but be careful since the sword has a surprisingly short range. Rescuing Mogwai is worth bonus points, but if they all get turned into Gremlins you won't loose the game (you'll just get no bonus). Later on in the game you'll run into special stages that consist of either all Gremlins or all Mogwai. These are as close as the game gets to bonus levels, so make the most of them.
Gremlins is one of the most impressive titles for the 5200. With its mix of strategy, action, great graphics, and creepy music, Gremlins remains fun and exciting to this day. Gremlins is an excellent game to show just what the 5200 was capable of when pushed to its limits. And just think, if John had took a few more days to finish his code Gremlins would never have made it out the door.