“The fastest growing company in American history.”
When I was a kid, video games were for kids. The first home video game boom happened a little before my time, but I’m old enough that my childhood included an Atari 2600 and followed the evolution through various Segas (I was never a Nintendo guy) and Playstations, with an X-Box or two as an adult. I played the games, I loved the games and I thought I understood the impact of the games. But I have nothin’ on the band of nerds, geeks, weirdos and obsessives who make up Atari: Game Over.
In the very late 70s, but mainly in the early 80s, the Atari 2600 console was pretty much solely responsible for the popularisation of home video games. More primitive versions had existed before it, but it was the approach to game design of Atari and its programmers that made home video games a phenomenon. And while the superior graphics and technology of Sega and Nintendo would seem like the reason for Atari’s collapse, an urban legend has existed for the last 30 years that blames one game, Atari’s adaptation of Steven Spielberg’s family blockbuster, E.T: The Extra Terrestrial.
A game so bad that millions of copies were supposedly taken from department stores in the dark of night, and buried in an anonymous New Mexico landfill. The excavation of these cartridges supplies the framework for Atari: Game Over. With council approvals to dig up the waste, and hopefully not stumble across any mercury emitting pig carcasses, director Zak Penn bounces back and forth between the archaeological dig in 2013 New Mexico, an telling the story of Atari, its meteoric rise and catastrophic fall in the 80s.
The central figure to that Atari story is game designer Howard Scott Warshaw. In the early 80s, he was a game designing superstar, with each and every cartridge he came up with selling over a million copies. He’d even already tackled a Spielberg adaptation with the hugely successful game version of Raiders of the Lost Ark. With Christmas approaching, Atari insisted the game of E.T had to be made in just five weeks, when the usual turn around time was more like six months. The cocky Warshaw took the challenge and Atari basically folded not too long after, with Warshaw and his game getting most of the blame.
While I enjoyed Atari: Game Over, I spent most of it feeling like it was trying a little too hard to convince me that I needed to be as passionate about these 80s video games as the nerds on screen. I love a good documentary about obsessives, and when done well, I don’t need to share their obsession to be entertained by it. Too often though, Zak Penn tries to force this obsession on the viewer, and I just never felt it.
And while I wondered what the point of the land fill excavation was, once the results were in, Atari: Game Over managed to sell me on that part too. Whether they found millions of E.T cartridges or not, it just seemed irrelevant to me. Until Penn ties everything together.