Atari: Game Over (2014) – A Review

Atari Game Over ET video game buried landfill
Atari: Game Over

Once upon a time Atari was a household name and was one of the most popular and profitable companies around. It ignited a video game revolution allowing kids to play a wide-range of video games in their own homes and they easily dominated the market. It looked like it would go on forever.

But then Atari adapted the hit film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial into a much-anticipated video game. What was hoped to be a huge hit for their young audience the E.T. game was a bust and was the beginning of the end of Atari’s reign in the video game market.

Decades later director and video game enthusiast Zac Penn sets out to explore the background of the E.T. game and how Atari shot up like a skyrocket and came crashing down like a meteor.

He also tries to find the evidence to the most popular video game urban myth – did Atari really bury millions of unsold E.T. game cartridges deep down in a landfill in New Mexico? With diggers ready he attempts to find the physical truth of the games ultimate resting place and with the help of the perspective of those who were there to learn what led to Atari’s demise.

Atari Game Over documentary ET video game

The closest I’ve ever come to being a big video gamer was back in my adolescent years when I finally got my own Atari game system. My parents made me the deal that I had to pay for half of it. Every week I’d save money from my paper route to put aside. After months of waking up early to fling papers on people’s lawns I finally saved enough money that Mom and Dad felt was a satisfactory amount for them to pay for the rest of my Atari.

I actually don’t think I was even close to the ballpark number of ‘half’. They probably were trying to teach me the value of paying for my own stuff and ended up just feeling bad for me realizing, ‘it’s going to take this kid a few years to buy this thing!’.

I have fond memories of my Atari game system. I would spend afternoons playing all my exciting games and new game cartridges would fill up my Christmas list. After Atari disappeared I never really hooked back into video games after its demise.

I was obviously just one of millions of kids who were spending hours, upon hours of their childhoods with Atari. So it was always fascinating to me how this once hugely popular game system seemingly vanished in an instant. The Atari name didn’t evolve into more advanced game systems through the years or anything like that – it just disappeared. In my mind I compared it to if every Radio Flyer Wagon, Etch-A-Sketch, every piece of Play-Doh or any classic childhood toy just vanished.

Howard Scott Warshaw Atari Game Over

So Atari: Game Over provides some interesting background of the company and how it evolved to become a giant during the late 1970’s into the 1980’s. Those were the parts of the doc I found most compelling. It was fun to hear former video game designer Howard Scott Warshaw recount his wild early days at Atari and describe how some of the now classic games he designed came to be.

Atari’s downfall isn’t given as much of a focus. At times it really felt the film was breezing over a lot of factors that were threatening Atari’s video game dominance, notably competition from other game systems. I don’t think they even mention one of them.

The film is only a little more than an hour and doesn’t have the time to delve too deeply into every aspect of Atari, but I felt a bit short-changed by the little time spent and explanations as what led to Atari’s downfall. The main culprit is placed on that infamous E.T. game. I’m sure there were many more factors, which the movie touches on but never goes too far into it. But keeping the focus on E.T. makes the movie’s archaeological dig feel more important. By the way, I had that E.T. game and while it wasn’t my favorite, I don’t remember thinking it was that bad.

Anyway, the excavation of the landfill is the centerpiece of the film and it is fun to watch and hear about the history of it, but I was more interested in hearing the stories about the Atari company itself from the people who were there. This is like another one of those docs where there’s a catchy, odd sounding device set in place in the center of the film and it’s used as excuse to explore a bigger story. Sorta like Super Size Me did with being on a diet of McDonald’s for thirty-days. It sounds goofy, is a quick selling point to pull in audiences, but it’s really a novelty gag in order to discuss and investigate the bigger picture, which is the fast food industry.

It’s an enlightening and entertaining doc. It certainly has a decent sense of humor about itself, some of the stories that are recounted from the early days of Atari are amusing and it did make me feel nostalgic remembering back to the old days when I would play a lot of those games and reflect on the impact Atari had on my childhood.

From what I’ve been hearing if you want an old school video game fix you’d probably be much better off watching Atari: Game Over than spending your money on Pixels.


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