ATARI: GAME OVER, the Story of Atari's ET Disaster, All Dug Up

Still from Atari: Game Over showing the dig planning stages
Credit: Xbox and Lightbox

Atari: Game Over Review
by Seth Robison
Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

One small town's trash is one subculture's treasure and the subject of Atari: Game Over, a documentary by screenwriter Zak Penn (Elektra, X-Men: The Last Stand) about E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Atari, Alamogordo, New Mexico and the legend of a game that was so terrible, so ruinous that it crashed an entire industry and had to be buried deep within the earth.

Compared to literature or even cinema, gaming is still a frightfully young medium. Its entire existence can still be recalled by the living memories of its de facto inventors. It is this fact that makes Atari: Game Over a compelling watch as in-between scenes of a dusty day spent digging though thirty year old garbage is a compelling story on the dusk of the first age of console gaming.

It is a good thing too, as the story about the ‘Atari Landfill’ was never in doubt. The front page of the local Alamogordo paper actually reported that Atari was in town to dump its trash, a headline that Atari: Game Over splashes on the screen early in its runtime. Only the fact that it occurred pre-internet and that the most tangible evidence was out of easy reach let the story foster into legend.

Still from Atari: Game Over - Zak Penn at the dig site
Still from Atari: Game Over - Zak Penn at the dig site
Credit: Xbox and Lightbox

On site and on screen (often) during the dig, Zak Penn goofily does his level best to enliven and inject jocularity to the proceedings, by deliberately including elaborate visual effects and pop culture references that modern viewers would expect to see, and by conversing with – more than interviewing – the Alamogordo locals. This includes area officials with legitimate concerns about potential hazards of exposing their community to decades-old garbage, a historian of the dump event who is portrayed as all but a conspiracy theorist even with his textual and photographic evidence, and a crew of diggers bemused by the proceedings. Area geeks and gawkers are included to provide their own perspectives, charmingly coming off like true fans; instead of getting the chance to meet a celebrity or attend an exclusive screening, they are eager to see what a backhoe drags up from a garbage dump that is older than almost all of them.

Since the results of the dig were well propagated at the time of event, Penn thankfully spends most of the film’s 70 minute running time on the perhaps lesser-known events and the people involved in them that led up to the collapse of Atari and the dump in the first place. It’s here that among others from that time, we meet former game developer Howard Scott Warshaw (Yars’ Revenge) who might be Penn’s kindred spirit, and hear the argument that while Warshaw’s rapidly developed and released E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial: The Game was not a great game by any stretch of the imagination, perhaps it wasn’t the radioactive nightmare that was so lethal to the gaming industry that it had to be entombed like toxic waste. A charming highlight of the film is hearing him matter-of-factly describe the infamous game like only the author of a confounding work can.

Still from Atari: Game Over - Zak Penn and Howard Scott Warshaw
Still from Atari: Game Over - Zak Penn and Howard Scott Warshaw
Credit: Xbox and Lightbox

Warshaw, who despite having a pair of hits on his resume before E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial: The Game and can be considered the father of the video game backstory, largely left gaming behind after the crash. He and Penn visit the old Atari headquarters and we get the story of a game development house that despite existing thirty years ago and was practically the only one in existence at the time, sounds like one that could exist today. Warshaw is haunted by this episode of his past, and to hear him tell about how a fateful few months of his life changed him will make anyone who thinks him responsible for the crash perhaps come to a new conclusion.

Atari: Game Over may not be the definitive story of the “Video Game Industry Crash Of 1983,” but it digs up more than just what was buried and elevates what could have been a mere stunt into a visual document for a medium that stumbled early but never truly fell.

The film will premiere exclusively via Xbox One, Xbox 360, and xboxvideo.com on Thursday, Nov. 20 – free on all of these platforms for both Gold and Silver (aka free) Xbox Live members. It will include interactive features like the ability to leave “time shifted” comments for friends and read some from director Zak Penn, as well as explore outtakes behind-the-scenes clips.

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