4 January 2015 | StevePulaski
Strange game, strangest game story
If you're into retro video games, or in the video gaming community in general, there's little chance you haven't heard of the widespread story of the video game crash of 1983, which lead to Atari, one of the most recognized and popular video game companies of the time, losing millions in revenue and causing the entire industry to almost collapse as a whole. The crash was eventually attributed to numerous different things, such as inflation and, most notably, the oversaturation of the home console market because nearly every technology company tried to create its own video game console, yet one myth still stands tall amongst the truth. That myth is that the video game crash was because of Atari's video game adaptation of E.T., a video game that is widely considered to be the worst video game ever made.
Such a compelling and unorthodox story owes itself to be covered in a documentary, and thankfully, there's Zak Penn's Atari: Game Over, a sixty-six minute documentary available for free on Microsoft's Xbox 360 video application. The documentary works to establish the story of Atari's rise to fame before it all came crashing down in the early-to-mid eighties, as well as articulate the real reason for the company's financial troubles instead of reiterating the common myth. In addition, Penn covers the fabled story of the cartridge burial in the Alamogordo landfill in New Mexico.
For years, rumor has had it that hundreds of unsold E.T. cartridges were buried deep in the Alamogordo landfill before being smothered by a thick layer of concrete. Spliced in between interviews with people close to Atari, and those who worked for the company during its heyday, Penn covers the excavation of the landfill, as he works with the landfill's employee Joe Lewandowski. Lewandowski is almost certain that beneath the surface of the dump lies the cartridges so much so that he has created an intricate map that reveals the location of where they'd be.
One of the souls interviewed during the film is Howard Scott Warshaw, who was a video game programmer and creator for Atari during its rise, creating the console's classic games like Yars Revenge and the video game adaptation of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Warshaw was also tasked with creating the aforementioned E.T., a task he was only given five weeks to complete because Atari wanted a presumably hot title for the forthcoming holiday season. Warshaw tirelessly worked to try and complete the game, but the end result was a game that was widely panned for its cryptic, often frustrating structure and layout among other serious problems. Following E.T.'s release, Atari experienced enormous profit declines, a fact later attributed to not only the oversaturation of the video gaming market but because Atari kept funneling advertising money in their flagship console, the Atari 2600, in a time where it commanded the market share and the next generation consoles were already on their way. Warshaw, among over 7,000 other employees, were eventually let go in the mid-eighties, following continuously abysmal performances and small profits.
Atari: Game Over chronicles all this in a delightfully compelling manner, giving us history and the contemporary excavation in a way that will not only please fans of video games but anyone looking for a quirky, offbeat story. Penn is also careful to note why Atari and the video gaming industry are so significant in the world, affirming the idea that the early video gaming consoles turned the Television, a once exclusively passive medium, into an active medium, where one could control their actions and enter alternate worlds with untold possibilities, only limited by one's imagination. In addition, it's also nice to see some affirmation of E.T.'s legacy and quality rather than harping on mindlessly-uttered derogatory statements concerning the game's quality. Humbly emotional scenes come when Warshaw, who now works as a psychotherapist, discusses the imprint E.T. has had on him during his presence at the landfill's excavation and we see the effect one's panned art has had on him over the years. It's a tender scene in a very well done documentary.
Directed by: Zak Penn.