02nd Feb2015

‘Atari: Game Over’ Review

by Phil Wheat

atari-game-over-screen

As a kid growing up I can safely say we were dirt poor. When all the kids were playing the Atari 2600 I was stuck playing “Tennis” and “Football” on a hand-me-down Grandstand plug and play (think of Pong with 4 games rather than one); I did have a cousin who had the system but he wasn’t the sharing type. So the entire early-to-mid 80s Atari phenomenon kind of passed me by. It wasn’t until years later, towards the end of the 90s, that actually ever played my first Atari 2600 game – on a very early emulator no less. In the years that followed, as the internet grew and the retro video gaming “community” grew along with it, the story of buried E.T. video games – the last remnants of Atari’s stranglehold on the video game market of the late 70s/early 80s – went somewhat viral, which was the first time I had ever heard of this urban legend.

Of course years later the story has passed from viral story to urban legend, a modern myth for the internet generation if you will. And so here we are, with Atari: Game Over.

Directed by screen writer Zak Penn (X-Men: Last Stand, Last Action Hero) Atari: Game Over is a documentary about the well-publicised hunt to find 3.5 million unsold copies of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial videogame, fabled to have been the cause of Atari’s downfall in 1984. As the story goes, the Atari Corporation, faced with an overwhelming negative response to the E.T. Video Game, disposed millions of unsold game cartridges by burying them in the small town of Alamogordo, New Mexico in 1983.

This documentary sees Zak Penn, his team, Howard Scott Warshaw – the creator of the E.T. game, and a whole heap of video game fans: including Ready Player One author Ernest Cline (I would have loved to see more of Cline if I’m honest – his enthusiasm is infectious), headed to the landfill where the games were supposedly buried to determine whether the story has any merit by excavating the site and rummaging through the rubble… But Atari: Game Over is much more than an extended episode of Time Team. It’s the story of a company, and a man, whose reputation has become tarnished by a story which is just that, a story.

Focusing more on Howard Scott Warshaw and the vilification he received following the E.T. video game debacle rather than solely on the dig, Penn’s documentary does, at times, feel little more than a platform for Warshaw to try and relive his former glories – Penn even treats him with a form of reverence, especially when he calls for Warshaw and co. to be placed on the same pedestal as others in the many video game hall(s) of fame. Fair enough the early days of Atari were some of the most pioneering days of video game history, at least in North America, but I could have done with less Warshaw talking heads and more about the dig and Atari as a company; sadly flashing through screenshots of Atari employees and the games they created really wasn’t enough for me.

However that gripe aside, Atari: Game Over is one hell of a documentary. Penn manages to capture not only the excitement of the dig but also the real community spirit of retro game afficionados and the childhood wonder of that early gaming era. The fondness for those halcon days really does seep out of every frame of this documentary. As does the fondness for people involved. For Atari: Game Over is all about the people – the dogged novice archaeologist who has spent his years trying to pinpoint the dig site, the fans who make the pilgrimage to watch the dig, the author whose obsession with gaming lead to his now-optioned-by-Hollywood novel, and the men responsible for Atari’s rise and fall – which given the stories Warshaw tells of the drug-taking, partying and other shenanigans that went on at the company during its heyday, is seemingly everyone’s responsibility and everyone’s failure.

Of course no documentary is worth its salt if there isn’t some sort of conclusion and thankfully Atari: Game Over doesn’t disappoint. And the truth is… Well given the well-publicised outcome it’s not a spoiler to say they do find E.T. cartridges in the desert landfill. But the real truth? You’ll have to watch the film to find that out!

Atari: Game Over is available on VOD in the UK, US, Australia and Japan now.

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