Atari: Game Over – The Review.
Finally, I’m getting back into my blog. It’s been a while.
I have still been gaming, but strangely, not writing as much as I used to It’s for that reason I am heading back into the blog-o-sphere to catch up on a few games and related content. The first of which is this fun little documentary put out over this weekend by Zack Penn and Microsoft Studios, that focuses on the infamous “E.T. burial” in the landfill of Alamogordo, New Mexico.
Often reviled as “The Worst Video Game in History”, I remember getting E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial back in the Winter of 1982. I was seven years old. Video games were a very different creature back then, where the line between console gaming and arcades were vast. E.T., when it was released was on par with any Halo, Grand Theft Auto, or Super Smash Bros. release: It was huge. And yet its biggest accomplishment was being credited for single-handedly destroying the video game industry, and causing the “Great Crash of 1983”.
All of this from one little game. Ouch.
Dramatic titles asides, it never “killed” the industry. It simply put the brakes on it. Video games and arcades still continued on. The Atari 2600 (introduced in 1977) continued on into 1992. But at that point, we were well within a Nintendo world. E.T. alone didn’t “kill” Atari either. A shoddy port of Pac-Man helped. The market was already oversaturated with consoles, as everyone already had a 2600. And there were a lot of third-party companies that had no business making games… making games for the systems. We’ve seen this again within our recent generation: The Nintendo Wii suffered the same two problems, yet unlike Atari, Nintendo was able to recover, though it struggled for a year or two before it started finding its foothold again.
But gaming survives, and E.T. was regulated to one of those great gaming legends. Bear in mind that E.T. was created in five weeks, an impossibility even back then. The game itself was actually endorsed by Spielberg. And the semi-cryptic nature of its gameplay remains even today, as the game was perhaps too ambitious for its own good. While the game certainly had its issues, it is not the “worst game ever” as it is so often touted.
In this documented journey, we encounter Howard Scott Warshaw, designer of the game (also know for Yars’ Revenge and Raiders of the Lost Ark). He describes the “free-thinking” nature of game designing and developer culture back then. His stories are not too far off from my early days as I entered the industry and the end of this era). The industry wasn’t bound to the corporate mentality back then. There was more expression of freedom and ideas, and perhaps E.T. begat the era of you have to sell nearly 1:1 copies per console mentality to be a “success” that stymies the industry today.
Atari: Game Over is part mythbuster, and part love story for that eccentric, pioneering era. And that’s what Atari: Game Over delves into: Finally, definitively tackling the myth of whether or not millions of E.T. cartridges filled up a landfill out West. The answer? The myth is debunked, but not in the way you would expect. It’s not the end result of knowing if the rumor of whether or not the myth is true. It’s the journey of getting there. Gaming in the 1980’s really was an “anything goes” period of time. Younger gamers finally get to see what the fuss of all those old rumors and stories were about. The older generation of gamer finally gets an overdue ending to a story told long ago. The film provides a sense of closure that is interesting to see unfold, and yet in some ways becomes a little emotional because the debate is finally settled. For us thirty-somethings, it unearths one more piece of our childhood.
Microsoft Studios has already come and gone, and this may be one of the only bits of programming that they ever release, but it is an important piece of gaming documentation that needs to be seen to really “get” that era of gaming. I can only hope that other chapters of gaming history will be covered with as much of a fond sense of nostaligia.
Atari: Game Over is free to view on all Xbox systems.