Before Xbox, PlayStation and Wii, there was Atari, once America's dominant video game maker.
Today, Atari is a logo on retro-styled T-shirts but little else, and Atari's rise and fall are the subjects of Zak Penn's documentary "Atari: Game Over," now streaming on Netflix.
Full disclosure: The only home video game console I've ever owned is the Atari 2600, released in 1977. My time as a gamer ended around 1983. But for a while, I was obsessed: playing video games, reading magazines about video games, calling telephone hot lines to get the latest news and release dates for video games — you name it.
Two of my favorite Atari 2600 games, "Yar's Revenge" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark," were designed by the same programmer, Howard Scott Warshaw. When I finally beat "Raiders," I chalked it up as a significant accomplishment. Warshaw's games were tough but fair. Little did I — or anyone else — suspect that Warshaw and his next game were destined to become scapegoats for the collapse of not only Atari but the entire first wave of home video gaming.
Warshaw's next game was "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," based on the movie, obviously. Rushed into stores for Christmas 1982, "E.T." sold roughly 1.5 million units, but it failed to meet Atari's stratospheric expectations. Millions more cartridges remained unsold.
In 1983, the home video game market crashed, doing in Atari and most of its rivals. "E.T.," which would go on to earn an unfair reputation as the "worst video game ever," took a lot of the blame. And from that, an urban legend arose: that Atari, in the dead of night, buried its millions of unsold "E.T." cartridges in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico.
The landfill legend is the hook for Penn's documentary. Penn introduces us to Joe Lewandowski, waste disposal expert and amateur archaeologist. Lewandowski believes the legend is true, and he has a good idea where in the landfill the lost "E.T." games are buried.
So the question is, is this "Raiders of the Lost Ark" with a prize waiting at the end, or is this Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone's "vault" and finding only a couple of broken bottles?
While large earth movers excavate a trash heap in search of Atari's shame, Penn takes us back to the glory days of Atari, interviewing Warshaw and company executives. On the campus of what was once Atari's headquarters, Warshaw describes a high-tech Shangri-La. Ideas and pot smoke were heavy in the air, dress codes were lax and met sales quotas were rewarded with keggers. Atari was every Silicon Valley stereotype turned up to 11.
The business side of the story is the most interesting and deserves more time and attention than Penn devotes. He digs deep into the New Mexico desert, but he barely scratches the surface of the 1980s home console bust. Going by Penn's account, one would think Atari existed in a vacuum. He gives us no hint of the other consoles on the market at the time, such as ColecoVision, Intellivision and Atari's designated 2600 successor, the Atari 5200. The crash of 1983 left a dark age of video gaming, the scale of which Penn loses with his myopic focus on the 2600. For two years, it seemed as if home video games had been just a fad. Then the Nintendo Entertainment System arrived in the U.S., and America has been a nation of gamers ever since.
Penn is far more interested in the New Mexico dig, and that's no surprise. He previously directed a mockumentary about another legend, "Incident at Loch Ness," aided and abetted by — of all people — Werner Herzog. Unfortunately, the off-putting persona Penn showcased in "Incident" is still on display. He interrupts the workers digging in the landfill to ask stupid questions just so he can film their incredulous responses. Whether staged or real, it adds nothing but irritation.
Yet for all the missteps and wasted opportunities, "Atari: Game Over" has its moments. Warshaw is a fascinating figure who has never gotten his due, and we get to watch as he comes to terms with seeing his past unearthed in a landfill. It's a powerful scene, and one that deserves a better movie.