The 1980s are fondly remembered for many colorful things: the birth of the blockbuster movie, rap music, annoying toys like Cabbage Patch Kids, Rubik’s Cube, those awful shoulder pads women used to have to wear, and let’s not forget the lovely hairstyles. It really was a great time to be a kid, especially if your parents were cool enough to buy you an Atari 2600. Right before your eyes, the magical box that showed TV shows, sports, and movies was transformed into an interactive obsession. Oh sure, if you look at most of the old Atari games now, they’re clunky, rudimentary, and often not all that much fun. (A few still do hold up, like Adventure, Yar’s Revenge, Pitfall, and Haunted House!)
Yes, I am old enough to have lived through (and quite enjoy) the Atari 2600 explosion. I played Freeway with my mom, Pac-Man with my sister, and virtually everything else with neighborhood pals — or by myself. For a few years in the mid-1980s, I was a true-blue Atari junkie. And yes, I did receive the now-infamous Atari version of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial at one point, and yes, it did infuriate me beyond all comprehension.
Over the years, the E.T. video game has become the Ishtar of early video games: something everyone calls awful without actually having experienced it. And just like Ishtar is not nearly as bad as its reputation suggests. They’re both flawed, weird, and sort of unsatisfying, but they’re also sort of fascinating.
The legend of the E.T. video game, and how thousands of unwanted copies were allegedly dropped into a landfill in 1983, is the surface story in the highly entertaining documentary Atari: Game Over. The real meat of this highly informative but enjoyably expeditious (66 minute) film is its documentation of the rise and fall of the world’s first video game console juggernaut. Whether you had your own Atari 2600 and sampled every damn game you could get your hands on, or if you’re a younger video game nut who simply has a healthy respect for gaming history, there’s a whole tomb of juicy information to be found here.
The search for the missing E.T. cartridges gathered a lot of attention across the internet’s geekier sites last year, and director Zak Penn uses the “punk archaeology” project as a lead-in to the much more compelling stories about how Atari blew the hell up and then pretty much withered and died in less than five years. The blame for the demise of the console has often been pointed directly at the E.T. game debacle, but (as many of the interview subjects point out) that’s not exactly how it went down.
The central character is game designer Howard Scott Warshaw, who was once given the assignment of turning one of the most beloved movies of 1982 into an Atari video game. In five weeks. Mr. Warshaw is remarkably frank about his highs and lows in the early days of video game design, and most of the other interviewees (Atari co-creator Nolan Bushnell, urban archaeologist Joe Lewandowski, author / game addict Ernie Cline, and various game designers, producers, and experts) bring knowledge and insight regarding the inner workings of the early-’80s video game business.
It’s hard to say if digging up old trash to find a goofy souvenir is all that “important” in the grand scheme of American culture, but it is cool to see how the original video game system has earned its place in the history books. For those of us who lived and breathed the Atari 2600 for a few formative years, Game Over is stocked with fascination. As for the E.T. video game, it’s still pretty bad, and while I never understood the obsession with tracking these cartridges down, this solid little documentary is certainly a worthwhile by-product of the tongue-in-cheek “treasure” hunt.
[Atari: Game Over is available for free, provided you have (or create) an Xbox account. Click here.]