Long, long ago (in the 1980s) in a galaxy far, far away (or maybe right here in the United States, I get confused sometimes) there was a video game company named Atari and they owned the world. Well, not really, but close enough. It came from nowhere, built a HUGE following (Seriously, if you're around my age you played Atari. If you didn't own one then someone you knew did.) and then it flamed out like a meteor upon re-entry. This meteor, rumor had it, had buried itself and a game named E.T. The Extraterrestrial in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico in an effort to hide the existence of the biggest flop in video game history. The story is told by Zak Penn in his movie Atari: Game Over in cooperating with FilmRise.
The death of Atari was something that shook the world of one James Ricky McCoy Jr in the mid-80s. The vast majority of my friends had Ataris. I had an Intellivision (I didn't get my Atari until the late 90s, oddly enough) but when Atari fell it took everyone else with it. For awhile there it was assumed that video games had been a fad and would never be seen again. Looking back on it now, we all obviously know the story of the rise of Nintendo and its role in saving the industry. At the time though, no one knew that was coming. I was kind of ticked. I really like video games and I wanted one to play at home.
The story of the rise of the video game industry (in both its coin operated and home versions) is one that has been retold ad infinitum, but what makes Atari: Game Over special is its hook (the search for the lost E.T. games) and the fact that it includes information from so many of the game designers that worked for Atari. Also, the one thing that I don't remember ever seeing mentioned previously is the emphasis on the rise of story-based video gaming after the fall of Atari. Video gaming underwent a change to the basis of its formulation that could only be fixed by the rise of story and the then-next generation consoles that allowed it. To be fair though, that's not the focus.
The story begins with the story of the E.T. game. It wasn't JUST a flop, it was a floptastic flop. I remember one of my friends buying this game back in the day. We hated it. If we hadn't turned it off at one point, our little E.T. character would probably still be falling now, thirty years later. That game was brutal. What I didn't know until watching this movie (although I'm sure lots of other people knew) was that it had been rushed to market after five weeks in development. That's insane. Game design times were shorter then because the games were simpler but nowhere near THAT short.
There is a brief interlude in the movie where Penn makes his case that E.T. was not a failed game and that Howard Scott Warshaw, the designer of the game, has been unfairly blamed for the fall of the company. He makes it well. Warshaw was the only designer to have made multiple games for Atari and not work on one that sold less than a million copies. At the end of the day, he has me convinced.
The story is so much bigger than just the game though. Atari HQ was apparently a party place unmatched even by my first bachelor pad. Things were live there. Details of marijuana use and keggers flow freely at the beginning of the movie. These guys were not the way I pictured them at all. I've always figured that game designers would be like my buddy who makes his living programming: Very intelligent, but kind of uptight. I'll say this much for myself: I appear to have at least gotten the intelligent part right. These guys were party animals. I'd love to work in that type of an environment.
Atari: Game Over is a documentary but it's a very well done one. The host has personality, the people he interviews are entertaining and personable. The gaming enthusiasts (I'm not going to say "nerds.") who appear and can't wait to find out if the games really are buried in the desert are just like me. Hearing the history was cool, but watching these people waiting made me jealous. I'll obviously never get a chance to show up at the actual dig, but I don't think I'll ever stop wishing I was either.
The director of the piece, Zak Penn, got the length of this movie just about perfect at just over an hour. Is there more he could have included? Probably. Are there things he could have left out? Well, probably that too. I don't think he could have cut anything without losing something. Nor do I believe that he left out anything I really had to know. This is one documentary that moves well, bouncing from person to person and subject to subject yet remaining coherent in its narrative. I took a writing class in college where the prof told us that "A paper should be like a woman's skirt: Long enough to cover the subject but short enough to be interesting." Granted this is a movie and not a "paper" per se, but Penn has done exactly that here. Kudos to him.
I won't spoil half of the ending. (The other half being that Atari does indeed fail.) I will tell you that there is a dig in the desert. What, if anything they find (other than sand which they do indeed find in abundance) is something best discovered by watching the movie. Will our heroes discover what they have set out to find or will they go down in ignominius defeat searching for something that never existed? Will they find the Holy Grail of gaming or be laughed at for the rest of their natural lives? Go find out. I'm sure glad I did.
Bottom Line: 4.5 out of 5 Joysticks
Atari: Game Over
Atari: Game Over can be purchased here: