Atari: Game Over documentary review: why E.T. got dumped

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Atari Game Over yellow light

The truth about one of the great urban legends of videogame history is nowhere near as epic as you’d imagine: in fact, it’s rather anticlimactic.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

If you hadn’t previously been aware of one of the great urban legends of videogame history — the persistent rumor that Atari had disposed of millions of copies of an E.T. gaming cartridge in the New Mexico desert in the early 1980s — you may have heard about it when, in April 2014, news broke that copies of the game were indeed unearthed in a landfill in Alamogordo. It was a planned excavation, and screenwriter Zak Penn (The Avengers) turned documentary filmmaker was there to record the moment for geek posterity. Had the spectacular failure of the game — frequently derided as the Worst Videogame Ever — been at the root of the collapse of Atari as a company not long after its release? Just why had Atari literally buried the game? Unfortunately for Penn’s clear desire to tell an epic tale, the real story is fairly thin, as evidenced by the runtime here, which only just squeaks past an hour, and even that’s pretty padded out. The truth is also rather anticlimactic: the questions Penn tries to frame as mysteries really aren’t. Still, there’s some interesting stuff here about urban “punk” archaeology — which Penn amusingly compares to Raiders of the Lost Ark — including a portrait of passionate “waste disposal expert” and “historian” Joe Lewandowski, who’d studied the huge Alamogordo landfill for years in an attempt to figure out precisely where the games might have been dumped (the location hadn’t been recorded). And the designer of the E.T. game, Howard Scott Warshaw, gets a smart, humane rehabilitation — he was basically blacklisted by the industry after his project flopped — and turns out to be a really interesting guy with a unique perspective on the industry. Just don’t expect any grand revelations about corporate skullduggery.

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