Thursday, April 23, 2015

Atari: Game Over

On the surface, this documentary directed by Zak Penn seemed to be about the urban legend of Atari dumping thousands of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial 2600 videogames in a landfill in 1983 during the big gaming crash of the time. While event did happen, and the film does cover it, it also essentially tells the story of the rise and fall of Atari.

Much of the doc concerns game designer and programmer Howard Scott Warshaw, who not only designed the E.T. game, but also the equally lackluster Raiders of the Lost Ark game. His real claim to fame is of course one of my favorite Atari games, Yar's Revenge, which in turn was based on my favorite coin op videogame, Star Castle. For no other reason, the man is a legend.

I remember playing E.T. back in the day, or rather back in my Atari day, which was actually the mid to late eighties when I purchased an Atari 2600 wannabe retro system called Gemini. I bought E.T. for a dollar at the Berlin auction (that's Farmers Market for the Cherry Hill folks) from a gigantic stack of E.T. games - obviously copies spared from the landfill.

There's much talk in the documentary about the game being too hard, too complicated, and most of all, just plain unfair. Much is made of the game both being the worst one in history and being a miracle of engineering, having been designed in just five weeks.

Having played the thing both then and more recently, I have to admit to not seeing the allure in either direction for E.T. It's not good or bad, it's just dumb. No matter what you do, you fall in a pit, but that could just be me, as I am just notoriously bad at videogames. Either way, I was bored and frustrated.

This is a pretty cool doc, with lots of insight to the early days of Atari, and what eventually toppled the videogame titan. Bonus - look for Ready Player One author Ernest Cline driving to the landfill site in George R.R. Martin's Back to the Future DeLorean. It doesn't get much more quirky cool surreal than that.