Genre: Documentary, Video Games
Directed by: Zak Penn
One of the strangest stories in the history of videogames involves a much-maligned Atari 2600 game based on the classic movie E.T. Given just five weeks to build the game from scratch in order to get it on the shelves for the lucrative Christmas market, Atari published a rush-job game that fell well short of expectations. Expected to sell millions of copies, the game was a flop with many disappointed consumers actually returning the game due to its shoddy quality. Taking a huge financial hit from the debacle, Atari eventually closed its doors, reportedly dumping millions of copies of the unsellable E.T game in a landfill in the New Mexico desert.
Since then, the legend of Atari’s E.T has spread and grown to the point that while the story is now widely known – and E.T has become something of an industry punching-bag, often labelled the ‘worst game ever’ – the true details have become somewhat lost. It’s here that screenwriter and videogame enthusiast Zak Penn steps in, delving into Atari’s meteoric rise and fall while simultaneously documenting the present-day attempt to dig up the buried cartridges and uncover the truth.
Zack Penn clearly has a lot of personal interest in this story and his enthusiasm is immediately apparent. His narration is relaxed and personable, while his discussions with those involved in the excavation are frequently amusing and insightful. Crucially, this passion seeps into every aspect of the documentary; it’s punchy and energetic, assisted by inventive and hyperactive visuals that keep the pace up and prevent it from falling into the trap many documentaries fall into of simply relying on talking-heads to get the job done.
There’s also a lot of great input here from all sorts of industry veterans, the most revealing of which comes from former superstar Atari game designer Howard Scott Warshaw, the man ultimately tasked with making the E.T game in just 5 weeks. His story, and his reaction to the dig, is undoubtedly the heart of this documentary and Penn and his collaborators go to great lengths to restore the legacy of this once-famed creator.
Unfortunately, while Atari: Game Over is slick and passionate it’s somewhat light on actual content. Part of this is down to its brief run-time but also due to the decision to split its time between the telling of Atari’s story and chronicling the recent New Mexico dig. While the dig is a great way to wrap up the film, Penn is somewhat guilty ofmaking a mountain out of a molehill. Throughout the documentary, the burial of the E.T cartridges is portrayed as some sort of tall tale of dubious authenticity. The boring truth is that the burial is widely documented and while the exact location and contents remained unclear, spending half the documentary setting up an event that was only ever going to have one outcome feels misleading and wasteful.
It’s a shame really as what’s here is genuinely interesting and really well presented. Atari: Game Over is at its best when it’s avoiding cheap theatrics and instead focussing on exposing what really happened all those years ago. With a bit more time delving into Atari’s past and a bit less time setting up a fairly low-stakes stunt, Atari: Game Over could have been something really special. As it stands, it’s a fun and polished look into one of gaming’s most mythologised episodes and well worth a watch, if only to learn the truth behind the legend.
Atari: Game Over is available on VOD in the UK from February 2nd 2015