“Atari: Game Over”

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

WARNING: Spoilers.

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.

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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.

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About robbinsrealm

I was born in Smithtown, New York, and grew up, worked, and lived in various areas of Long Island before moving to Boca Raton, Florida where I now make my home. In addition to being an aspiring writer, I am also an English teacher. I have a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Master’s Degree in Education, both from Adelphi University in Garden City, New York. In my spare time you will find me engrossed in books, watching movies, socializing with friends, or just staying active.
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18 Responses to “Atari: Game Over”

  1. Diana says:

    Watched this last night—it was interesting, but yes, I was hoping for something a bit more dynamic in the end.

  2. renxkyoko says:

    I watched that documentary, too. The conclusion: E.T isn’t the worst.

  3. Wendell says:

    I grew up with a 2600 so this as a fun, nostalgic doc for me. I would love to see a longer doc more fully exploring the rise and fall of Atari, though. Reviewed this one, myself a few days ago…


  4. Reblogged this on Sherlockian's Blog and commented:
    Interesting info about Atari and the ET movie.

  5. I enjoyed the documentary, but as you mentioned it isn’t something you would necessarily re-watch in a hurry. I love video-game documentaries though, and if you haven’t yet seen it may I recommend “Bedrooms to Billions”, which recounts the British early 80’s gaming boom, my favourite gaming doc so far.

  6. I really liked this enexpectedky emotional film. I didn’t so much like the documentarian as he got his face in it a few too many times but the stories of the people behind this game is spellbinding.

  7. I didn’t know this documentary was even made. Looks like I have something to look forward to this evening. Also, I remember playing E.T. when it was first released, thinking it was going to be the best thing ever since the movie was amazing. I had just as much difficulty with the game as everyone else, however,I remember being embarrassed and assuming that I was the only one who couldn’t figure out how the game worked. Great blog!

    • robbinsrealm says:

      Thank you for reading and commenting.

      I never had the chance to play the game. I guess based upon what you wrote, and what I have heard from others, I didn’t miss out on much.

      I hope when you see it that you enjoy it.

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