3.5 / 5 stars
It’s getting late and you’re ready to get some sleep, but you want to squeeze in a short movie before you hit the hay. If you’re like me, you do the “Netflix Scan,” rifling through titles and run times to see what fits your tight schedule. While taking on this exercise the other night, I found a winner: a 66-minute documentary about the nascent days of videogame creator Atari, directed by superhero screenwriter Zak Penn, of all people. As expected, Atari: Game Over is about the Atari 2600 console and the birth of home gaming. But it’s also about ego and folklore and fanaticism and archaeology. And it’s good.
It’s also of personal interest to me. (I hate when reviewers go first person, but if you’ll indulge me, I hope this adds some flavor.) One of my first full-time writing gigs was as an Atari staffer – not the Atari you’re thinking of, but an early 2000s version, which published games for a French media monstrosity. We still had the connection to history though, long-lost distant cousins with a key to the past and the rights to some famed classics. My job as a writer? If you ever saw the trailer for Unreal II or read the back of the Atari Flashback box, yeah, that’s me. (An inexperienced me.)
Penn’s Atari: Game Over begins long before that, when lunatic game designers ran the Atari asylum in Sunnyvale, California in the late 1970s and early 80s. According to some wonderful on-camera storytelling by the guys who were there, developers like the legendary Howard Warshaw (seen here with Steven Spielberg) were doing two things all the time back then: getting high and churning out million-seller cartridges like Yar’s Revenge. At their height, Atari owned an enormous 80% share of the home videogame market.
So what the hell is Penn’s movie doing in Alamogordo, New Mexico? Anyone who knows videogame history knows the answer. He’s tracking the search for E.T. – specifically, tens of thousands of copies of the E.T. game, called “the worst of all time” by the videogame hive mind, and rumored to have been buried by Atari deep in the Alamagordo landfill after both the game and the company tanked. If there’s such a thing as modern-day cultural mythology, this is it.
Penn, himself an Atari 2600 devotee, toes the line between taking this all seriously and adding some well-fitting humor in all the right places. While talking with dump excavators, Penn suggests that this would be a great place in the film for a really cool diagram. Cut to an animation titled “Really Cool Diagram.” That’s like a geek blueprint to keeping a movie audience informed and entertained.
Penn also amps up the geek meter by talking with Ready Player One author Ernest Cline, a fast-talking, over-excited turbo nerd, who borrows a DeLorean from Game of Thrones writer George R. R. Martin (more nerd points), straps a giant hoodied E.T. doll into the passenger seat (ack!) and cruises on down to the dump site. (Side note: It was announced last week that Steven Spielberg, who happily approved of Warshaw’s E.T. game, will direct the screen adaptation of Ready Player One.)
Through all this goofy fun – and the mystery of what’s actually buried under the rubble – the participants exhibit a striking camaraderie, even with those they’ve never met. As much as they’d like to unearth history (literally), they’re eager to rewrite it too, professionals and fans alike wanting to firmly establish that E.T. is not the worst game ever, and that it certainly did not sink Atari on its own.
This small token of 8-bit history comes off as a lighthearted and occasionally emotional lovefest for a time that’s given way to something much bigger, buried by the weight of the entertainment industry itself. It’s enough to make you grab that old console, dust off the cartridges and hit that reset button.