Alamagordo, New Mexico: a place steeped in unusual history. It was where Lieutenant Colonel John Stapp set the world land speed record on a rocket-sled in 1954, where America's first simian astronaut was laid to rest and, according to legend, pioneering video games company Atari buried thousands of unsold copies of 'E.T. - The Extraterrestrial.' Not only, according to many, the worst video game ever made but also one that destroyed the once-thriving and seemingly unassailable company. Thirty years on, local excavator Joe Lewandowksi assembles a team to literally unearth the truth and prove Atari's great big games dump is more than just an urban myth. Documenting Joe's efforts is screenwriter, game enthusiast and filmmaker Zak Penn for whom the dig becomes a quest for an answer to one of the biggest pop cultural mysteries of the Eighties.
For an entire generation the Atari 2600 was the gateway to video games. It spawned the multi-billion dollar industry we know today. One moment Atari held an eighty percent market-share of a rapidly growing industry, with a console in almost every home. Then, suddenly, it was game over. Everything disappeared. Popular myth points the spindly glowing finger of blame at the E.T. game. Somehow the then-most successful film of all time spawned the most disastrous video game ever made and took down the entire company. Or did it? Despite detailing a fascinating pop cultural mystery where the worlds of film and video games intersect Zak Penn, co-writer of Last Action Hero (1993), Avengers Assemble (2012) and, as he admits here, a fair few sub-par movie-based games himself, assembles a documentary that is rather slight and only sporadically compelling.
The more interesting moments chart the history of Atari. Penn deftly illustrates the groundbreaking achievements of co-founder/console designer Nolan Bushnell (whose circuit boards are described as so elegant even modern engineers struggle to grasp their intricacies) and his team. In particular Howard Warshaw, Atari's brightest most visionary games designer whom the film paints as a tragi-heroic figure responsible on the one hand for Yar's Revenge, the most acclaimed of the company's seminal cartridge games, but also the misbegotten E.T. game. We learn how between partying with booze and drugs, Warshaw and his fellow designers transformed the television set from a passive to interactive medium, creating classic games like Tempest, Asteroid, Centepide and the aforementioned Yar's Revenge.
However, Atari: Game Over suffers from an increasingly awkward structure. Penn jumps back and forth from the history of Atari to Joe Lewandowski's attempted excavation. Local authorities and environmental activists fret there might be something more hazardous buried at the site besides just video games. The dig itself mushrooms into this huge media event drawing crowds and curious celebrities including Ernest Cline, author of Eighties game culture-influenced bestseller Ready Player One which, in a fortuitous twist of fate, is set to reach the screen under the aegis of Steven Spielberg. We spend time with Cline, who likens the E.T. game to the Ark of the Covenant from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), as he drives down to Alamagordo in a Back to the Future-style DeLorean on loan from Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin. Things grow increasingly contrived and less interesting as it becomes clear Penn is padding a slight story with geeky tangents. Early on Lewandowski confesses he has little interest in Atari or games in general and embarks on the dig not just to prove his theories right but in the hope he can put Alamagordo on the map. As a result Atari: Game Over comes across part pop culture analysis, part promotional tool for the Alamagordo tourist board.
To Penn's credit the documentary addresses the unjust scorn heaped on Warshaw, a designer whose lone failure overshadowed his many accomplishments. A few glimpses of the E.T game paint a pretty damaging picture of what a tooth-grindingly frustrating player experience it was though key players behind the scenes admit they were mistaken to give Warshaw just five weeks to concoct this cash-in. Warshaw himself admits hubris got the better of him although Penn, who comes across just that little bit snarky in the documentary, takes some relish in pointing out Steven Spielberg endorsed the game with archive interviews as proof. Even so, in the course of debunking a few myths, Atari: Game Over amasses a surprising amount of defenders for supposedly the worst game ever made. One of them amusingly maintains he would rather play E.T. than any Call of Duty.
I think what put paid to the consoles was the mid-80s belief that computers should be able to do more than play games, so people wanted to do their accounts or draft letters instead. And then they ended up playing games on them anyway, hence the consoles made a big comeback in the 90s.