Zak Penn, screenwriter of mainstream hits X-Men: The Last Stand (2003) and The Avengers (2012) among others, has a balls out time with this documentary. A game obsessed fanatic, just the same as everyone growing up in the 70s & 80s, he plays tour guide for game junkies, new and old, leading us into a world of myth and legend. As the story goes, 3.5 million unsold copies of “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” video game, fabled to have been Atari's downfall in 1984, were reported buried in a desert in Alamogordo, New Mexico.
The stigma of Atari's worst video game of all time introduces “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” as having fallen into such favour, some 30 years from the incident. Buried like a dead gangster, the myth is prevalent even in modern day gaming culture. The interviews that set up the documentary inform us that “YES” it is true, but then proceed to illustrate that it is just the kids who played the video game upon its inception, who just didn't get it. Kids today, are somehow fulfilled by that.
Enter Zak Penn, who reminds us of the myth, separating the real cause of his preclusion of Atari's collapse in the early nineties from the due course of the documentary & subject matter. His end game? To defunct the myth once and for all but not without addressing the real issues, which in turn plays out in a topsy turvy retrograde at best.
The first hurdle in this mission, are the restrictions to the landfill where the games are supposedly buried. We are then introduced to Joe Lewandowski, a waste disposal expert and historian, who will advise Penn on the next course of action. The interesting thing about Penn's approach to the documentary is his sense for adventure, treating Joe Lewandowski not just as a waste disposal expert but also an amateur archaeologist, referencing “Indiana Jones”, the Atari Game, alongside him.
We struggle to trail the plot from here on as Penn chooses to tell a brief history of the Atari Corporation, in a not so brief fashion. However, there are some high points to this switch in priority. We segue into brief and snappy Vox Pop advances into game designers, and even have an introduction to the innovator of the “E.T. Extra-Terrestrial” Game, which in Penn's opinion hardly spoke ill of the game itself. We break with a quick fact about the initial mock up, pitch to Steven Spielberg and investment from then CEO Steve Ross.
After the formalities, we are introduced to the game in mention, the dynamics and scope of which was to make another big seller — the video game that helps E.T. get home. Christmas of '92, “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” Game eventually became a huge success upon the initial release.
The original investment predicted 6 million in sales, however the game was not as successful as originally planned, inventing a make-do situation for the company, but there was another twist to the plot. Larger amounts of consumers began to then return the game. Hence the birth of the myth — a hypothetical notion, “What do you do with a useless product?” As it turns out… bury it!
The adventure is also a popular game that is highlighted in the documentary, bringing once again to light Zak Penn's discourse: juxtapose elements of game theory and the real life adventure into the desert known as Alamogordo, New Mexico. Throngs of people are to make it out into Alamogordo for the dig, once clearance has come through for them to excavate. The next step in the mission is to de-bunk the myth, and let the digging ensue. Are these games really buried under 30 feet of dirt and sand?
Atari: Game Over translates to a relentless assault on the game industry and those who had formerly panned the game, “E.T. The Extra-terrestrial”, for being the worst of all time, an act which singlehandedly sent 80% of Atari's workforce out of employment at the time. As for the legend, let's leave it to chance.
Atari: Game Over is available on VOD from February 2nd