Saturday, April 25, 2015

Atari: Game Over (2014)

There are certain things that define generations.  Each generation grew up with certain TV shows, listening to certain music and having witnessed certain events.  I had TV shows like Alf to watch.  “Weird Al” Yankovic started releasing albums when I was growing up.  I also remember the Internet eventually becoming commercially viable.  Another major memory was the rise and eventual fall of Atari.

Atari is still a name in video games today, but has gone through several phases since I was a kid.  Way back in 1977, the year after I was born, they introduced a game console known as the Atari 2600.  This is back when video arcades were big.  Someone got the idea to market a console that could play those same arcade games, but at home.  Instead of giving their kids an endless supply of quarters and sending them off to the mall, parents could now just buy a system and a few cartridges and let the kids play for a few hours at home.

Many of the games were simple.  We started off with pong, which was an electronic version of ping pong.  There was another game called Adventure, where you had to complete a quest.  There were also a few ports, like Pac Man and Centipede.  Those that grew up with modern consoles will think that we had it rough.  Back then, just having video games in the comfort of our own home was amazing.

The Atari 2600 was the must-have toy when I was a kid.  Many of the games sold countless copies.  Atari seemed like it could do no wrong.  That changed with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.  Howard Scott Warshaw was given five weeks to make a video game based on the movie, which he did.  The game was regarded as being so bad and unplayable that it led to the downfall of Atari.  Rumor had it that the game was so bad that the company literally buried it (in a shallow, unmarked grave, no less) before going out of business.

That’s where the documentary comes in.  A crew is assembled and brought to Alamogordo, New Mexico.  The city’s landfill is supposed to be the final resting place of these cartridges.  The exact number and location weren’t recorded.  For all anyone knows, they don’t even really exist.  Several people, including a waste disposal expert/historian, a former mayor and several city officials comment on the game and its fate.  Warshaw is also interviewed for the documentary.  He even gives a tour of the facilities where he worked for Atari.

If you were following the news around this time, you may recall that they did eventually find the games.  You may also know that there’s not a huge story here.  The documentary is 66 minutes and does seem to run a little long.  The stuff about the history was great, but it could have been pared down a little.  The problem is that there tends to be a best-or-worst mentality with some things and E.T. seems to be regarded as the worst video game, so bad that it single-handedly brought down an entire company.

I don’t remember the game being spectacular.  I recall my cousin being able to beat it in just a minute or two, so I didn’t really see any replay value.  Admittedly, the game was made to cash in on the success of a movie and wasn’t  really given the time that other games had.  A bad product is survivable, especially if you’ve had a lot of good products before it.

Most of the people watching this documentary will be people around my age that are looking for nostalgia.  It’s the kind of story that you’d read in the newspaper (another anachronism) and think that it’s interesting before moving on to the horoscopes.  This documentary is mostly unnecessary suspense.  While there was no point that I wanted to turn it off, it could have easily been cut to thirty minutes.

To focus on one game is a disservice to the company as a whole.  This was what paved the way for Nintendo and Xbox.  The truth is that things change.  I feel bad for Warshaw, who never worked as a game designer again.  This is despite E.T. being his only real failure, and the failure wasn’t even his.  I would place blame more on management.  A lot of good things came out of that time, including the Atari.  I’d rather remember all the fun I had.

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