Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Atari: Game Over

Several years back Microsoft announced the formation of Xbox Entertainment Studios (XES). The original plan with XES was to host a wealthy amount of original entertainment programs for Xbox platforms, kind of like how Netflix and Hulu have their own original TV series and how Sony is doing with the Playstation Store exclusive TV series, Powers that was a hit last year. Everything did not go according to plan however, and in 2014, aside from staying the course on a couple of surefire hit Halo projects, Microsoft announced it was shutting down XES. One other project, Atari: Game Over (trailer), survived because it already wrapped production and was just several weeks away from release. Atari: Game Over is a documentary about an infamous game many say caused the videogame “crash” of 1983.

Hollywood script writer Zak Penn (Last Action Hero, X-Men: The Last Stand, The Avengers) is the director of this documentary. His goal of this project is to debunk the legend of Atari burying millions of unsold copies of the noteworthy disastrous 2600 game E.T. as a myth and prove it exists by tracking down the landfill and excavating Atari’s buried treasure. While breaking down the process on making this excavation happen, Penn also spends the duration of this feature giving a cliff notes version of the rise and fall of Atari, breaks down the career of E.T. programmer Howard Scott Warshaw and Penn makes his case if E.T. was really the catalyst of the 1983 videogame crash in Americ a or not.

For the record, I have played E.T. on the 2600. My dad had a mammoth collection of 2600 games he rounded up at rummage sales on the cheap since he could not afford the then-modern NES. I would spend many weekends back then pouring over mostly cruddy 2600 games, and yes he did have E.T. I vividly recall playing it back when I was about 8 or 9 and remember having no idea with what I was doing and being terrified of the FBI agent that always captured me. I did not spend too much time with it before dismissing it as crap and moving onto something else. There is a great opening montage in Atari: Game Over of YouTubers berating E.T. as they attempt to play to set up what this documentary is all about.

Penn does a great job at tracking down local enthusiasts of the dig site in Alamogordo, New Mexico and how they laid out their theories on how they knew exactly where Atari buried the product in the landfill, which is interesting since Atari left no records of the exact spot they buried it at. It was quite unique watching them dissect their theories and how they eventually wound up being right. Penn interviews other locals and politicians on the challenges he faces on his project with concerned citizens wanting to make sure everything is deemed safe before moving ahead.

Penn wisely takes breaks from the dream dig project analysis with history lessons on E.T.’s publisher, Atari and programmer, Howard Scott Warshaw. I dug the brief rundown of the rise and fall of Atari. Penn interviewed a few former Atari bigwigs including former boss man, Nolan Bushnell to give the quick tale on Atari’s early success and how they were bought by Warner. It is not an in depth look at Atari by any means, but does a good job at covering just enough ground to let you know how big videogames first got in America. Warshaw is a fantastic interview for this piece, he paints a detailed picture on his early success at Atari with Yar’s Revenge and Raiders of the Lost Ark being million sellers and sharing a few entertaining stories of the party atmosphere at Atari. Hearing Warshaw tell the tale on how he wound up becoming the guy to make E.T. and how he embraced the challenge of making it in five weeks was incredibly fascinating. I definitely felt for Howard as he went in depth on how hard he took the poor reception on the quality of his game and how it took him 25 years to recover from the release of E.T. while witnessing Atari crumble around him in the following year as Atari laid off 80% of its employees.

Atari: Game Over comes to a boil on the big excavation day when hundreds of gamers show up to the event hoping to take home a piece of history. Eventually the excavators discover the buried copies of E.T. along with countless other unsold Atari products. One of the most impactful moments of the feature is watching an emotional Howard Scott Warshaw being interviewed by local newscasters moments after they found the first E.T. cartridges. That scene helps justify this project from being far more than a publicity stunt, and really helped solidify it as being a moment in gaming history and I could not help but feel this provided a sense of closure for Warshaw the documentary perfectly captures in this touching moment from Warshaw.

I am on board with the stance the documentary takes in the closing scenes. After interviewing several gaming enthusiasts, they all agree that E.T. is a bad game, but far from being the worst game of all time that many label it as today. I also agree with the interviewees when they go on to say that E.T. is not responsible for the videogame crash and the fall of Atari as Atari was already well on its way going downhill by the time E.T. hit stores. There is a very fitting and well crafted final shot in the feature where you see what happens to the excavated remains of the unsold Atari product.

Atari: Game Over is a brisk watch at just over an hour, which makes it a bummer there are no extras on the home video release as I want to give you a reason to buy this from Amazon. I imagined it could not have been that difficult to tack on some unused interviews and I would have loved to have seen some bonus stories from Bushnell and Warshaw that did not make the main feature. This is a fun mini-history lesson on the early days of videogames, and tells a great story of going on one the most extraordinary of treasure hunts. I highly recommend watching it for free online through your Xbox or the Microsoft Store first before deciding if you want a tangible copy for your movie rack at home.

Other Random Backlog Movie Blogs

12 Angry Men (1957)
21 Jump Street
Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie
Atari: Game Over
The Avengers: Age of Ultron
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
Bounty Hunters
Cabin in the Woods
Captain America: The First Avenger
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Clash of the Titans (1981)
Clint Eastwood 11-pack Special
Dirty Work
Field of Dreams
Fight Club
The Fighter
For Love of the Game
Good Will Hunting
Hercules: Reborn
Man of Steel
Marine 3 & 4
Mortal Kombat
The Replacements
Rocky I-VI
Running Films Part 1
Running Films Part 2
ScoobyDoo Wrestlemania Mystery
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Source Code
Star Trek I-XII
Take Me Home Tonight
The Tooth Fairy 1 & 2
Veronica Mars
The Wrestler (2008)

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