Atari, the company that brought us the Atari 2600–the game system that revolutionized what it meant to be a zombie–offered families in the early 1970s the benefit of the neighborhood arcade without that annoying quarter-gobbling component. Adults who shake their heads today at kids zoning out over their smartphone games forget what it was like when they first zoned out over Combat, Air-Sea Battle, Duck Hunt, Asteroids, Yar’s Revenge, Berserk, Pitfall, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and all their pixelated friends.
When Space Invaders was introduced, kids lined up at Woolco stores for hours on end to play the in-store demo model to try to beat the current high score. The earlier Pong and Breakout games were revolutionary–and addictive–but Space Invaders was exciting, nerve-wracking, and required a different take on an old skill. Hand-eye Coordination became a new, finely-honed, almost magical power. Wielded the best by teenagers.
Then something strange happened. We got distracted by something else. Most of us didn’t even notice when Atari vanished. When modern video games playable on PCs via compact discs came around we all went searching for the original Atari games and for years, nada. What happened to Atari anyway?
If you didn’t track the business pages for Atari back in the 1970s and 1980s, a new documentary will get you caught up. Atari: Game Over is a nostalgic look back at the first video game designers and how one designer created the first great game for Atari, and later the last, and then vanished into anonymity. His journey parallels several die-hard fans’ strange and curious search to prove or disprove an urban legend–that Atari lost so much money on the E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial video game for the Atari 2600 (thought by many to be the single worst video game of all time) that Atari dumped at least a million of the unopened boxes in a desert town landfill back in 1983. It’s also a story of one of the first Dot Com economic busts long before there were Dot Coms.
Do the amateur archaeologists find anything or is this just another Geraldo Rivera search for Jimmy Hoffa? Atari: Game Over is worth watching to find out.
More than a passable chronicle of the company and its products, clever pop culture references and film clips spice up the drama, thanks to director Zak Penn. Penn, known best for writing the screenplays for the Arnold Schwarzenegger action film Last Action Hero, Owen Wilson’s Behind Enemy Lines, Jeremy Piven’s PCU, X-Men 2, X-Men: The Last Stand, The Incredible Hulk, the story for The Avengers, and scripts for the TV series Alphas, brings some real street-cred to the project. Penn is also said to be working on Ready Player One, based on the Ernest Cline novel reviewed by Art Schmidt previously at borg.com here.
Every geek and nerd will want to check this one out. Atari: Game Over is now streaming on Netflix and available here at Amazon.com.