Atari: Game Over (2014)
NR / 66 min.
Starring: Zak Penn, Joe Lewandowski, Robert Rentschler
Director: Zak Penn
Everybody remembers the Atari 2600. The legendary home video console was one of the biggest cultural phenomenon of the 1980’s. It was considered the system that caused the home video game revolution, and arguably the gaming revolution as a whole. It had a massive impact, delivering some of the most classic and revolutionary games to a generation of gamers.
With Atari sitting high and mighty on top in terms of commercial success, what brought their empire tumbling down? That is the question that documentary Atari: Game Over aims to answer. Director Zak Penn tells the story of the infamous “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” Atari 2600 game cartridge that ultimately brought on the eventual demise of the Atari 2600. This statement has been argued by many game critics and theorists, but the failure of the game, which was considered to be frustratingly tough and boring, could not be denied.
The game, created by Atari software engineer Howard Scott Warshaw, did so poorly for the company that they decided to literally bury the game and leave it behind them. Urban legend detailed how Atari buried millions of the E.T. game cartridges in a landfill all the way out in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The story is pretty interesting, although kind of silly at the same time. It was a story so interesting that Zak Penn decided to chronicle the investigation of the mysterious burial of the game.
Penn brings on a lot of people onto the project to tell the story. Joe Lewandowski, a waste disposal expert and historian, was fascinated by the urban legend, which caused him to investigate the scene of the burial. We also get to hear a lot of input from the likes of Warshaw himself, former mayor of Alamogordo Robert Rentschler, screenwriter and novelist Ernest Cline, game historian Mike Mika, and Manny Gerard, the chief operating officer of Warner Communications. Although some of these guests had more interesting things to say than some of the others, they all seemed necessary to tell the tale.
The documentary’s main focus was the rise and fall of Atari. Although this information was an important farming piece for the landfill excavation, it was a shame to see less of the attention given to the actual dig itself. Throughout the documentary we got bits and pieces of the set-up for the dig, with a big portion towards the end focusing on the actual event itself. However, most of the running time was devoted to the history of Atari and some of its other successful games like “Adventure” and “Yar’s Revenge.”
The documentary is a gold mine of information however. If you have never heard of Atari and its place in gaming history, the documentary does a good job of filling you in. It also gives some fresh tidbits of information for those already well versed in the company’s history. I was quite surprised to hear about the “party-all-the-time” lifestyle and work environment that took place at Atari back in the day. It was these kinds of facts that made up for the information that we have heard before in previous documentaries.
Some of the interactions that Penn had with some of the story’s key players were a little cheesy and on the nose, but entertaining to say the least. The dig itself was captured quite well, giving us a good look at the crazy, and arguably silly, event. The archeologists faced a tough challenge with the dig, but they ultimately found what they were looking for. After some hard work and intense heat, the cartridges were eventually found. It was a moment of triumph, as well as emotion, especially for Warshaw, who was pleased with the amount of recognition and publicity that the terrible game was getting.
Atari: Game Over tells a zany story about digging up glorified trash in the middle of the desert. It is a concept that seems like it would not deserve its own documentary, but Zak Penn did an alright job at providing us with a lot of information and stories to make the experience generally worthwhile. It was also pretty interesting to hear the experiences and perspectives from some of the key player in the story. Atari’s handling of the situation by burying the ET cartridges is one of gaming’s weirdest story, and Atari: Game Over does a pretty good job of putting it all into perspective.