Atari Game Over

Netflix Instant Classic: Atari: Game Over

If you have some time to kill, or just want to take a stroll down memory lane, head over to Atari.com and play some of the games.

They’re nothing special in the context of today’s entertainment, but it’s easy to see the appeal, especially to someone back in 1972.

Atari didn’t invent the home video game system, but it was certainly a pioneer. It brought a vivid imagination and programming innovation to a fledgling industry.

Yet, somehow, it doesn’t seem to get the recognition it deserves. Nintendo gets far more credit, even though it was really just standing on Atari’s shoulders.

I think that’s largely because of the video game crash of 1983. A collapse as spectacular as Atari’s tends to come with a loss of credibility.

Age could have something to do with it, too. My fondest gaming memories are Nintendo-based. I’m not sure if we even had an Atari when I was small. (We actually had an Intellivision.)

So the Atari 2600 is rather mythic to me. I’m familiar with the games, but I’ve never really played them.

As a result, I’ve never played E.T. – the video game, which has legendarily won the title of “Worst. Video Game. Ever.”

Though, that’s exactly the reputation “Atari: Game Over” seeks to confront.

Screenwriter and film-maker Zak Penn travels to Alamogordo, New Mexico in search of the fabled Atari El Dorado.

That is, legend has it, that dragged under by the abysmal failure of E.T. the video game, the dying company, with its last gasp, dumped millions of unsold cartridges in a landfill. They did this in secret, under the cover of night, like top-secret government agents burying a defunct nuclear warhead.

Penn isn’t the only one interested in such lore. He’s aided in his journey by Joe Lewandowski, a former employee at the Alamogordo dump, who has spent years investigating the alleged dump site and convincing the local government to let him excavate it.

Why?

…Closure?

I honestly don’t know. But whatever the reason, the Atari generation clearly felt strongly about this. Hundreds of Gen-Xers travelled out into the middle of nowhere, braving desert heat and a Dust Bowl-level sandstorm just to watch construction equipment dig up trash.

The catharsis of the event is most palpably felt by Howard Scott Warshaw, Atari’s ace engineer and the genius behind the E.T. game.

I’m not being sarcastic when I say genius, either. While many video game players panned E.T.’s playability, its formulation was a stunning technical achievement.

Bound by an absurd deadline, Warshaw was tasked with creating Atari’s flagship game in a matter of weeks. Even with modern technology video games take months, and even years, to design, code, craft and polish. Warshaw had just weeks.

It’s hard to blame Warshaw under those conditions. After all, he’s not the one that told Atari to spend a rumored $22 million for the rights to license Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster movie and then rush to get it out by Christmas.

Yet, that’s precisely what happened.

Howard Scott Warshaw, who was probably the greatest video game designer of the era, unquestionably a pioneer in the field, took the fall not just for game, but the collapse of Atari as a whole.

The poor bastard. He’s not even a game designer anymore. He’s a psychologist that works exclusively with other computer geeks in Silicon Valley.

How sadly fitting…

So for me, the emotional thrust of this movie wasn’t in the nostalgia it dredged up for games I played as a kid, it was Warshaw tearing up at the sight of his past literally being dug out of dump and laid before him.

But unlike the ignominious burial, this event was celebrated by the gaming community his art touched so deeply.

Indeed, sometimes, making the very worst of something is an achievement in its own right.

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