What is the worst Atari game of all time? For many years now, when that question is brought up in discussion or voted on by gamers, inevitably, “E.T. The Extraterrestrial” is chosen for that most unenviable distinction. The simple fact that the game and its characters are adapted from one of cinema’s most beloved and successful movies, makes its ‘worst Atari game’ status more than a bit confounding. If it didn’t have such a lackluster reputation as a video game, and if the literal burying of its sub-par mediocrity in a New Mexican landfill, didn’t continue to be perpetuated up until recently, there would be no “Atari: Game Over” documentary.
Last evening, on Netflix, I watched the engaging, sixty-six minute film, that was originally released on November 20, 2014. I wanted to find out the answers to several questions: Why does the video game have such an atrocious reputation? Are there, as had been speculated prior to the release of the film, over a million discarded copies of the game buried in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico? Would the Zak Penn (X-Men 2) directed film answer those questions for me by the documentary’s conclusion?
Firstly, the game was incredibly rushed, having been created in a span of five weeks by game designer Howard Scott Warshaw. The normal turnaround time for the sort of game Warshaw wanted to create would have taken a minimum of six months, and could have taken as much as upwards of a year. Warshaw, who works as a therapist, in California’s Silicon Valley, is also responsible for creating what is considered one of the best games ever produced for the Atari 2600 video game system, “Yar’s Revenge.” The documentary’s main focus is to prove whether or not the myth of the E.T. game landfill is real or just a fabrication. With that being said, the film is at its most interesting when Warshaw is speaking. He provides his opinions, not only about the E.T. game, but about what it was like behind the scenes working for Atari in the late 1970s through the early 1980s.
Secondly, Atari paid approximately twenty-two million dollars to Universal Pictures for the rights to use the characters from Spielberg’s blockbuster film. Those in charge of the company at the time, feeling they had a surefire hit on their hands, ordered the production of five million game cartridges in time for the holidays. The game did sell well, approximately three and half million cartridges, so had Atari tempered their expectations, structured a better deal with Universal, in terms of allotted time to produce the product, as well as the upfront money paid, they might have avoided the disaster, and added E.T. to the company’s list of hit games. The fact that over one and half million cartridges went unsold, added to which, a number of consumers were returning the game, stating that it was not only too difficult to play, but not enjoyable, is what led to the company’s ultimate demise. A once thriving company, that held majority control over the gaming world, Atari, at its peak employed 11,000 people, but was downsized to 900, before the original business closed in 1984. The Atari name lived on afterwards, having been sold to several different companies throughout the years.
The film, however, is not what one might expect. Penn doesn’t merely point his camera at those individuals involved with the creation and marketing of the game, and deride them. The documentary, in part, is a retort to the years of criticism Atari, the E.T. game, and its creator have been subjected to. Penn’s film is insightful, offering viewers a historical perspective through the use of archival footage and photographs, intercut with current interviews and analysis; thereby keeping the presentation fresh and interesting. The director admits that he too has been responsible for creating some video games that don’t exactly have the reputation of being industry standard bearers.
The truth as to what is buried in the landfill doesn’t prove to be as exciting as what I was hoping for. Penn builds his entire film around what the excavation will unearth, and while it was an interesting journey, I wasn’t enamored with the eventual payoff. I am glad I watched the documentary, but that will be my first and only time viewing it. The material it contains simply doesn’t warrant repeat viewings. In essence, the entire production, as it pertains to the digging in the landfill, could’ve been reduced to a five minute clip on youtube, replete with an interview with the person who initially oversaw the dumping in 1983, and could have ended any and all speculation.
With that being said, “Atari: Game Over” makes for an interesting spectacle; considering people drove from all over the country to witness garbage being dug up, as well as having to brave the desert elements, which proved to be overpowering at times. I give the spectators a good deal of credit because they wasted a lot of time, money and gas, before knowing if anything of interest would be unearthed from the landfill. One local politician, spoke to the danger he felt at having the dump opened up. He was afraid that whatever was buried there could potentially release an airborne toxin into the environment.
In the end, close to four hundred of the E.T. video games were unearthed from the landfill. According to gamers, none of them still had the ability to be played. The games were auctioned off, and the city of Alamogordo reaped the benefits from those who were willing to pay money to own a small piece of gaming history. One of the discarded games earned a permanent place in history, as it is now on display in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., as a part of its videogame history collection. Overall, the film is an interesting, one time watch, and should hold the interest of video game enthusiasts and non-gamers alike, for its little over one hour runtime.