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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?

He underestimated, of course, and E.T. was a mess of a game that satisfied basically nobody. But the film's main point (and I agree) is that it wasn't Warshaw's fault. He had to turn around a blockbuster game by himself in an unreasonable amount of time. Not only that, but he did churn out a game under those ridiculous constraints, albeit a game that wasn't great.

The gaming industry needed its pinata though, and Warshaw's E.T. made a convenient target. Warshaw's never made another game, and a large portion of Atari: Game Over is dedicated to his viewpoint — what it's like for him to visit the former Atari offices, for instance, or what it's like for him when the first E.T. cartridges are dug up in Alamogordo.

Further reading: How hacking fixed the worst video game of all time

A film solely about the Alamogordo dig would be interesting in its own way, but I think unremarkable. After all, this is a story about digging up trash. Warshaw puts a human face on the whole debacle, and his participation (and the absurd exploits of Ready Player One author Ernest Cline) makes this the best video games documentary since Indie Game: The Movie.

It helps that there's a real respect for the subject matter here. Unlike the tone-deaf mess that is Video Games: The Movie, director Zak Penn clearly has a love for the topic that shines through without making him the focus of the whole film. Atari: Game Over provides a great (if abbreviated) look at the origins of both the gaming industry and Silicon Valley culture, and it does so while simultaneously staying light and humorous. Guiding you through it all is Penn's frequently hilarious narration, which easily garnered the biggest laughs at our screening.

Bottom line

I'm quite serious when I say this is one of the best video game documentaries ever made. That's still a pretty niche field, but Atari: Game Over belongs up there with Indie Game: The Movie and King of Kong as a real standout.

It's easy to rag on the dig itself. "Why bother digging up trash? Who even cares if the games are buried there?" But trust me, watch the film and watch Howard Scott Warshaw. This isn't a story about a trash heap, really. This is a story about a guy whose career was ruined by one stupid mistake of a game, and watching him come to grips with it three decades later.

My biggest complaint is that the documentary is slated for release only on the Xbox One at first, as per the terms of Microsoft's funding. I hope the film makes its way over to other platforms soon, because this one deserves to be seen by other people. It's enough to make me wish Microsoft Entertainment Studios hadn't crumbled — the gaming industry deserves more warm, inclusive documentaries like this.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm pretty sure I can still taste that gourmet Alamogordo trash-dust in my month six months after the fact.


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