Atari: Game Over review

The documentary Atari: Game Over investigates the burial of E.T. cartridges in the New Mexico desert. Here's our review...

Ask any gamer to name the medium’s most famous legend, and they might tell you about E.T.

The story goes that, back in 1982, the videogame tie-in was so rushed, and so appallingly received, that Atari was forced to quietly bury millions of unsold cartridges in the New Mexico desert. Within months of the game’s release, Atari had gone from owning an 80 percent share of the videogame market to collapse, and thus, an enduring myth was born: E.T. killed Atari.

Atari: Game Over digs into the true story behind the legend, and its director, Zak Penn, is no stranger to modern mythmaking – he’s the screenwriter behind such comic book blockbusters as X-Men: The Last Stand and The Incredible Hulk, and he also made the quirky mockumentary Incident At Loch Ness with Werner Herzog.

Penn takes a playful yet quite in-depth approach to his film, intercutting the present-day hunt for the buried cartridges with the story of exactly what happened back in the early 80s – and as is so often the case, the true story behind E.T. and Atari’s collapse is far more complicated than the legend.

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Launched in 1977, the Atari 2600 console was a sales phenomenon, capturing the US market and forming the early foundations of a multi-million dollar industry. Howard Scott Warshaw was one of the company’s brightest young engineers, and his first game, Yars’ Revenge, was hailed as one of the very finest games available for the system. But Atari’s meteoric rise would soon lead to an equally precipitous fall.

A gigantic sum of money (around $22m) was spent on acquiring the license for a tie-in game based on Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. By the time the deal was made, Warshaw had just five weeks to get the game finished in time for its release at Christmas in 1982. Atari was pinning a literal fortune on a game put together in a rush, and expected it to sell millions of cartridges.

Through a series of lively interviews with such familiar figures as former videogame journalist turned Star Wars screenwriter Gary Whitta, Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell, and Joe Lewandowski, the garbage contractor leading the hunt for the buried cartridges, Atari: Game Over paints a brief yet compelling portrait of the games industry’s early years.

The Atari era was one of hubris and questionable business practices, but also creative ingenuity. Through contributions from Bushnell, Warshaw and also Emanuel Gerard – who was then executive vice president at Atari’s owner, Warner – we learn that Atari was very much the prototypical Silicon Valley company, with an informal, lively working culture that would soon be taken up (in somewhat less excessive form) by such giants as Microsoft and Google.

If there’s one important thing to be taken away from Atari: Game Over, it’s that history has placed too much weight on the role E.T. played in Atari’s downfall – to the detriment of Warshaw, who was clearly a talented designer. Even faced with an absurdly short time in which to make E.T., he didn’t want to simply churn out a Pac-Man clone, as suggested by Spielberg; instead, he tried to create an adventure game that tapped into the key story elements in Spielberg’s film. Time constraints meant that E.T. couldn’t live up to the ambition Warshaw had for it, but the game was by no means the worst piece of software available for the Atari 2600 – and certainly not the company-killer it’s sometimes accused of being.

Atari: Game Over therefore serves as both a humorous summary of the E.T. story and also a more serious look at those involved in its making. Behind the E.T. legend lies a human story where dozens of people lost their jobs. The documentary also reveals just how much interest there is in this unique era in gaming. Indeed, what could have been a completely forgettable tie-in game has instead become something approaching a modern Holy Grail – you only have to look at the crowd of people who showed up to the excavation site in New Mexico last year to realise that.

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From the 80s era of chunky cartridges and wood-panelled televisions to the dusty desert grave of the present, Atari: Game Over separates myth from fact with economy, warmth and a lightness of touch.  

Atari: Game Over is available now on Xbox Live, and will appear on video on demand in the UK, US, Australia and Japan from 2nd February.

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4 out of 5