April 04, 2015

Atari: Game Over

I spent the morning unexpectedly entralled by Atari: Game Over (2014), streaming now on Netflix, and also available in pieces on Youtube. 

The Atari 2600 gaming console game out in 1977; I was 16 years old. I spent many hours in the local arcade (Framingham's Fun and Games, first opened in '74, and still around in an evolved form). And though my gaming days were relatively short-lived (the last game console I've owned was a Colecovision; I never really stayed involved as the industry morphed through PC, Nintendo, Sega, Sony, Xbox, etc.), as a young soon-to-be engineer who spent some time in college and in the workplace hard-coding micro-processors, Atari video games were still my first taste of geekery. My family owned a 2600; my younger brother Kevin (now a programmer / database geek himself) had an Atari 400 computer (with that membrane keyboard).

The documentary is kind of remarkable. It orbits two stories: an individual obsessed with the urban legend that millions of Atari game cartridges of ET: The Extraterristrial were buried in an Alamagordo, NM landfill. And the programmer, Howard Scott Warshaw, who created the ET videogame in five weeks at the behest of Atari management, trying to leverage a $22M investment in the game rights before the Xmas season.  When ET tanked (it was reportedly too difficult to play), Howard's career, and the first videogame bubble led by Atari, burst.

The film is technically excellent - interweaving these two stories, abetted by interviews with many of the key players - Warner Brothers executives, Nolan Bushnell of Atari, Atari programmers, and other public figures who have been touched by the games. There's a little bit of playfulness around "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (the movie, and also a successful 2600 game also designed by Warshaw) - comparing the search for the buried games to the search for the lost ark, and a very familiar closing shot....

When the urban archeologists finally get close to finding video game evidence, the dig has become a happening, with video game fans, Warshaw, and others flocking to the desert landfill site. And watching Warshaw (now a psychotherapist) get choked up, first as he visits the site of the Atari headquarters for the first time in 30 years, and then at the landfill, was quite moving.

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