Atari: Game Over Review: Big On Fun, Light On History

Much of the gaming world was perplexed when Microsoft announced back in 2012 that they were getting into the film and TV business. It seemed like yet another move by a directionless company to blur their focus, something many consider the Xbox One the personification of. Since the console’s tumultuous launch lead up and subsequent trouncing by Sony, Microsoft has refocused their efforts largely back on games and Xbox Entertainment Studios was dissolved barely a month ago. They hadn’t released very much but one thing was far enough along in production that they decided to let it see the finish line. What we got is a free documentary (to Xbox owners and Xbox Video users at least) called Atari: Game Over, which has little to do with the Xbox at all but is supposed to chronicle the incredible rise and demise of one of the gaming industry’s pioneer companies and the infamous E.T. tie-in game many use as a symbol of the the early 80s game industry crash. I gave it a watch this past Saturday and while it’s an entertaining and well produced hour and a bit, it’s less than stellar at showcasing a pivotal event in the life of the still young game industry.

I won’t recount the entire 80s game industry crash but here’s a quick rundown: The industry flooded the market with too many games, many of which were garbage. This killed consumer confidence and the console side of the industry experienced an almost overnight crash in the early 80s. Many companies went from flying high to cratering, one of which was Atari who were among the first to bring video games into the home. The game that was one of their biggest coffin nails was E.T., a tie-in to the film that ended up being an abysmal game made on an unrealistic deadline and which they manufactured millions more units of than they could sell. Unable to get rid of them, Atari supposedly dumped them in a New Mexico landfill before they went bankrupt shortly after.

Atari: Game Over is centered around the efforts of a few people to find and dig up the mythical dump site. Much ado is made about the noble, supposedly archaeological motivations behind this but even when this film was first announced, I never understood why this was necessary. Despite being a terrible game that bombed, copies of E.T. are plentiful and can be found for peanuts. It’s not like they’re digging up a relic previously thought lost to the ages. The mystery is that the dumping was always portrayed through history as a rumour and something no one’s really sure happened. It’s easy enough to confirm that it did but really, this something some hardcore enthusiast nerds are doing for curiosity’s sake and as one of said nerds, I can respect that. Director Zak Penn is clearly into the idea of digging the site up but he also doesn’t take it super seriously and that helps to keep the film’s tone light and fun. A few “nerd celebrities” are tossed in along the way and it’s entertaining to see them talk about this stuff and what Atari meant to them growing up, though it probably is more meaningful if you can directly relate like I can.

The dig serves as the focal point for what is supposed to be a history lesson of Atari’s almost overnight rise to a household name and its demise which happened almost as quickly. In this regard, Atari: Game Over kind of succeeds but it doesn’t go nearly deep enough. Perhaps the one hour length was a hard limit Zak Penn had to work with but the film really doesn’t do justice to the history and true complexities of the industry crash. Anything related to historical elements feels rushed and huge amounts of detail are given a quick drive-by treatment or glossed over entirely. Many important figures from Atari’s past make appearances and are given plenty of opportunities to speak but as someone familiar with the crash, it just doesn’t feel like it was explained well enough in a film that’s ultimately supposed to be all about it. I get that this is a presentation “for the masses” and you can’t go too deep down the rabbit hole but a lot was missed that I personally think it very important to having a true understanding of what really happened.

Where I will give Atari: Game Over massive props is in the amount of respect it pays to Howard Scott Warshaw. Many (myself included) would consider him not only Atari’s most decorated game designers but indeed, one of the most important figures of Atari period. I know a lot about Warshaw but one thing this film taught me was that he never made a title at Atari that wasn’t a million seller (yes, including E.T.) That’s an incredible statistic as selling a million copies back in the Atari 2600 era is the equivalent of a Call of Duty blockbuster today and it’s a record only Warshaw holds. E.T. was a bad game but he had less than 1/6th the time to make it that he normally did and titles like Yar’s Revenge showed what a talent he truly was when given the time he needed. I was very pleased to see him get so much screen time and get the opportunity to talk about what he did and the interesting life he’s led since.

Rather fittingly, one of Howard Scott Warshaw’s career changes was into that of a documentary filmmaker and long before this film, he released his own amateur chronicle of Atari’s history called Once Upon Atari. I bought it on DVD almost a decade ago and while the production values might be a little cringe-worthy today, it does a great job of going deep on the company’s rise and fall, far better than Atari: Game Over does. I would say it’s geared more towards retro enthusiasts but it’s easy enough to understand for non-gamers as well. If you want a much better history lesson, I highly recommend picking it up for cheap on GOG.

Despite the rather silly premise of Atari: Game Over, you can’t help but root for the efforts of these guys to find their buried treasure. It was well known before this came out that they succeeded so that’s not really a spoiler and the film’s ultimately more about the journey. A surprisingly large crowd gathered at the dump to watch the dig unfold and I did have a pretty big grin on my face when they uncovered the stash of games and everyone cheered. Even if it’s not necessarily the most fruitful endeavour, watching people achieve victory is always enjoyable. As it turns out, they ended up finding more than they bargained for and I won’t spoil that but for someone who is a gaming history nut, it creates a bit of a poignant moment that I didn’t expect and gives more insight into what really happened in the early 80s.

Despite the lack of deep history in Atari: Game Over, it rightfully points out how wrong the common viewpoint of E.T. is. Many people place the blame solely on it for the industry crash and some by extension, blame Warshaw for that, arguably one of the best designers of the era. E.T. and Atari did not cause the crash, they were simply the biggest and most publicly visible symbols of an industry that was deeply in peril already. This film makes this point with a level of bluntness I think is necessary and tries to set the record straight. The myth of E.T. is strong though and I don’t think the truth will ever eclipse it but it’s nice to see the truth stated plainly.

Atari: Game Over isn’t bad by any means, it’s just a bit thin. But hey, it’s free so if you have an Xbox 360, Xbox One or access to Xbox Video, you should take an hour out and decide for yourself. The story around the dig is ultimately fun but the problem is that it only serves as a central point for a history lesson that ultimately falls short and just doesn’t cover enough to tell the whole story. Had it been able to just be 90 minutes instead of 60, I think it could have succeeded fully. If you want the in-depth lesson, Once Upon Atari is worth the cost to get that. If you just want an entertaining hour around a goofy and oddly admirable nerd adventure with some gaming history thrown in, this is a fun time and still miles above the abysmal Video Games: The Movie from earlier this year. I still find it odd that one of the only things to come out of Xbox Entertainment Studios is a documentary about Atari but films about the history of video games are few and far between so I’ll take whatever I can get. As the industry continues to age and the audience grows, I hope we’ll see many more attempts made at this kind of thing in the future.

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