In the beginning was Atari.
The Atari 2600 defined the home console market. Atari (in its first iteration) was a company at the top of the world in the early 1980s.
Then things fell apart.
The games industry came crashing down, and the villain of the piece was seen as Atari’s own E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), a tie-in to the Steven Spielberg movie that would be reviled as “the worst video game of all time.”
Years after, an urban legend sprung up that the game was such a disaster Atari had to bury tons of the unsold cartridges in a New Mexico landfill.
And so to Atari: Game Over, a documentary by Zak Penn that sets out to find the truth about the buried E.T. games.
Atari: Game Over is funny and fascinating, as the documentary team preps to excavate the suspected burial site in 2014. This bizarre archaeological dig of a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico, brings out legions of video game fans (nerd author Ernest Cline makes his pilgrimage in a DeLorean along with a lifesize E.T.)
But Atari: Game Over isn’t really about the dig – it’s about Howard Scott Warshaw.
Warshaw was the brilliant designer at Atari who was given the impossible goal of delivering an E.T. game in five short weeks to beat the Christmas market.
Warshaw makes for sympathetic viewing. He admits that “hubris” played a part – not only in saying OK to Atari management on the ridiculous timeline, but also attempting to program a genuinely ambitious game that built on his earlier successes, including Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The filmmakers take Warshaw back to Atari’s old headquarters, and he makes his way to the landfill on the day of the dig. The reminiscences are heartfelt.
Raiders of the Lost Carts
Spoiler warning! – even though you may already know the outcome! From this point I’ll be talking about the film’s ending.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’s reputation as the worst of all time is undeserved (as contributor Raiford Guins, Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at Indiana University, puts it: “I’d rather play Atari’s E.T. than any Call of Duty.”)
Also buried at the bottom of that trash heap? Not just E.T., but copies of Atari’s most successful games, including Centipede and Star Raiders.
What I appreciated most about Atari: Game Over is that, like Indie Game: The Movie, this documentary takes good care of its subject matter. The filmmakers subtly get across that at the heart of the games industry, especially in this early era, there were real people who put their inspiration and effort into designing games.
For Warshaw, returning to Atari and being present at the excavation site was clearly cathartic. He had continued to work at Atari on an unreleased game, but soon after E.T. flopped, the company crashed, and the industry went into meltdown, he left video games behind.
Today, the documentary reveals, he works as a psychotherapist.
The deeper reasons for Atari’s implosion, including oversaturation of the market, are touched on by Nolan Bushnell. It would have been good to hear more from the legendary Atari leader and other contributors on how they saw the 1983 crash.
Nonetheless, this irreverent yet earnest documentary goes a long way in restoring Warshaw and Atari’s reputations, and Atari: Game Over reminds us that things are rarely as simple as they seem.