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Atari: Game Over film review: Unearthing the El Dorado of video games

Hayden Dingman | Nov. 18, 2014
Hey ma, I made it into a movie! For about two seconds. In the background of a shot. Still counts, right?

Hey ma, I made it into a movie! For about two seconds. In the background of a shot. Still counts, right?

Last week I went to a special advance screening of Zak Penn's Microsoft-produced documentary Atari: Game Over, which centers around the E.T. landfill dig I attended in Alamogordo, New Mexico earlier this year.

For the uninformed: Back in 1983 the video game industry crashed and burned, and a pretty terrible game adaptation of Spielberg's E.T. took (deservedly or undeservedly) a large part of the blame. On its last legs, Atari was forced to dump millions of unsold and returned cartridges of the E.T. video game into a landfill — or so the legend goes. For years, this was one the gaming industry's biggest urban legends, like a video game El Dorado.

Making history

In light of its cult legend status, the short-lived Microsoft Entertainment Studios helped fund a crew to dig up E.T.'s grave earlier this year and invited the public to come. I drove down to attend the event, along with a couple hundred others, and we stood in the whipping dirt and wind quite literally watching garbage be dug up.

Atari: Game Over takes the dig as its centerpiece, chronicling both the lead-up to the dig and the actual day of reckoning. As someone who attended (read: suffered through) the actual dig, I can say that the sections in Alamogordo do a decent job of capturing the feel of the event — or as much as they can through the safety and comfort of a movie screen. I can't emphasize enough how dusty and windy it was that day in Alamogordo. I had a spare t-shirt tied around my face, and even so I left that day feeling like I'd swallowed about a liter of trash-dust.

The film doesn't linger long on the actual dig though, which I think is a blessing. The actual process that day was excruciating — six hours in the boiling New Mexico summer sun, waiting for some sort of announcement. There wasn't much to look at, nor much to do. The film misses out on some of the "party" atmosphere of the day (people were playing E.T. on CRTs in the back of cars) and I think the film also skims over how varied the attendees were, but Atari: Game Over has a more important story to tell.

Redemption song

More than a film about the dig itself, Atari: Game Over is a redemption piece for Howard Scott Warshaw, the programmer on E.T. Prior to E.T., Warshaw was an Atari legend. The man designed Yars' Revenge and Raiders of the Lost Ark, both of which were instant classics for the 2600. He was so good that when it came time to make an E.T. video game in a mere five weeks, they went straight to Warshaw. And Warshaw said it would be no problem.


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