Let me just get this out the way upfront: I love watching and/or reading about the history of the video game industry. Over the past few years, I have devoured just about every film and book on the topic that I can get my grubby little hands on.
That being said, I must say that I was fairly excited when the opportunity to view (and review) the Xbox Entertainment Studios produced documentary "Atari: Game Over" showed up in my inbox yesterday. It seems as though this will be one of the only things produced by the now defunct Xbox Entertainment Studios ("Halo: Nightfall" is the other), which is shame really because with the backing of Microsoft I think XES could have produced some really cool gaming content. I guess we'll never know.
The "Atari: Game Over" documentary explores the well-known, 80s urban legend that Atari, in a fit of economic despair, buried a warehouse full of unsold merchandise somewhere in the New Mexico desert. The film also seeks to separate the truth from the mythology of "E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial" (erroneously stigmatized as "the worst video game ever made") for the Atari 2600, one title among a multitude of cartridges and hardware buried in that arid landfill.
The game itself was a rush job, designed and developed by Howard Scott Warshaw in just five weeks and meant to hit shelves in time for Christmas of 1982. It has been purported for many years that the game was such a disappointment (along with a dreadful "Pac-Man" port) that it destroyed the dominant console business Atari had built in North America...but many other factors were involved as well. If you really and truly want to explore the history of Atari's cataclysmic downfall, and not just this interesting blip on the company's radar, check out the excellent book, "Atari Inc. Business Is Fun" by Marty Goldberg and Curt Vendel. Be warned, the tome is a meaty 800 pages, but it is well worth the read. Trust me.
Last April, the filmmakers employed a crew to excavate the Alamogordo landfill where Atari had trucked thousands of unsold cartridges to be crushed and buried. "Atari: Game Over" is partly about that discovery, and also about the life and times of programmers like Howard Scott Warshaw who were there, living and breathing on the cutting edge of the console gaming industry.
Therein lies the true strength of this well-made documentary in my opinion: The focus on Warshaw, the guy whose career as a programmer/designer was essentially destroyed because of the challenge he accepted in making "E.T." into a viable game in just five scant weeks. The two best parts of the film, for me, were Warshaw's visit to the Sunnyvale, Calif. offices that Atari occupied back in the day where you can literally hear the longing (and frustration) in the man's voice as he waxes rhapsodically about those halcyon days at Atari, and when he breaks down at the tail end of the film after the Atari items have finally been unearthed. He poignantly chokes through his tears, stating: "It's an immensely personal thing. What it took to make these games...was a lot. And this one ["E.T."] was done in five weeks. That was the hardest five weeks of my life...so I need a little moment. I'm just so excited to be here."
I must also mention that it was cool to see geek icon and author Ernest Cline featured in this documentary. His road trip in the "Back to the Future" Delorean (with a rubber E.T. as his co-pilot) was inspired. If you haven't read Cline's fantastic book, "Ready Player One" as of yet you are doing your geek cred a massive disservice. Get on that. Now.
Unfortunately, I do have two major beefs with "Atari: Game Over" as well. First and foremost, is producer/director/narrator Zak Penn's insistence upon inserting himself into the film. He doesn't need to be there, and we don't need to see him. At all. There's a cringe-inducing scene where he's trying (in vain) to be funny with a few of the excavators (one being Joe Lewandowski, one of the true heroes of this piece who spent the better part of three years trying to excavate the Atari landfill), and he just comes across as a douchey, Hollywood carpetbagger who has no idea what the hell he is talking about. And that's just one of several scenes with Penn in it that are painful to watch.
Secondly, is the ending of the film. It really felt contrived... almost "tacked-on" and/or glossed over to me. They discover an "E.T." cartridge, it is revealed to the masses that have gathered, and that's about it. There's really no accounting or statistics of the find at all...beyond the fact that it is briefly mentioned in the narration that only 10 percent of the carts found were "E.T." carts (which are now selling on eBay for $1500, believe it or not). There were actual scientists and archeologists present at the dig. You cannot tell me there couldn't be a cutaway scene with one of them giving an overall breakdown of what was found. Even a text based scroll or title card at the end with some stats would have been sufficient. It was mentioned that there will be "interactive features" included with the full release of the film next week but weren't included with my digital screener copy, so maybe those kinds of stats are covered there? I certainly hope so.
All in all, "Atari: Game Over" is fun, breezy documentary that's a little light on facts, and contains a bit too much of the director's personality and "humor" for my liking. I have nothing against trying to make historical material fun (Comedy Central's "Drunk History" is comedy gold), but a lot of the attempts at "fun" here were unnecessary and fell flat, in my opinion.
There are certainly worse ways to spend an hour, so if you want to absorb an intriguing slice of video game antiquity, check out "Atari: Game Over." It's free for Xbox Live Gold and Silver members, and will be ready to stream exclusively on Xbox One, Xbox 360, and xboxvideo.com on Thursday, Nov. 20.