Atari: Game Over (Zak Penn, 2014)

The Video Game E.T. the Extra Terrestrial is an infamous piece of video gaming history. Everyone knows how it went: in 1983 Howard Scott Warshaw (Yars’ Revenge, Raiders of the Lost Ark) was given five weeks to produce a game for the Atari 2600 system alongside the release of the film and in time for the Christmas market. An over-confident board pushed to produce a market-saturating amount of cartridges based on the game being a best-seller, but when the reviews came in and everyone discovered that the game was terrible, the sales dried up. Atari started getting large amounts of returns of the cartridge and realised they were haemorrhaging money, so (the legend has it) they decided to dump some 700,000 cartridges in a landfill in New Mexico.

This film covers the history of the gaming industry, specifically Atari, the background to the game’s release and Howard Scott Warshaw’s part in the game. The main point of interest, though, was built around the highly anticipated excavation of the landfill to uncover the truth behind the cover-up and see if the burial really happened. I won’t ruin the result of the excavation, though it was a huge news story when it happened.

A happy treasure hunter. I guess he could now "go home".

A happy treasure hunter. I guess he could now “go home”.

The film was of huge interest to me and the subject matter was something I was happy to dedicate an hour of my life to. The director, as the film clearly lays out, is of great stock, having recently help screenwrite several huge Marvel films (including The Avengers). However, in comparison to Blackfish (which I watched in the same sitting), the storytelling failed to get me hooked. It has a short running time so there was no padding, but it just lacked the emotional power that is so evident in the great documentaries or modern cinema. There was nothing terrible about it – there was some good analysis of Atari in their booming year, a great side-story with Ernest Cline (author of the excellent Ready Player One) and a very brief cameo from George R.R. Martin. I just didn’t make the connection I hoped I would.

I perhaps wonder whether the short running time wasn’t enough. there was easily a further ten minutes on each of the two main topics: the history of Atari as a company being the first and the excavation of the landfill site being the second. I left wanting to find out more and though the information is available on the internet I don’t think there was a better platform than this to tell the whole story.

For a more engaging and humorous take on the excavation, check out Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie, which pays no attention to the facts and spends its time trying to keep us entertained instead. Atari: Game Over counts as a near miss for me.

Atari: Game Over is available now on Netflix.

Upcoming Crowdfunded Films Preview Part Two: AVGN The Movie

I’ve been following the foul-mouthed ranting reviews of terrible old video games by the Angry Video Game Nerd (portrayed by James Rolfe) for many years. They’re one of my go-to videos on the net when I have 10 minutes to kill and want a sure-fire way to give myself a shot of humour. For someone who grew up with these infuriating games, seeing him struggle to play through Silver Surfer or Wayne’s World is a hilarious blast from the past and if you’ve not seen them I heartily recommend you check them out.

One thing you will pick up on if you watch his videos is just how much he knows about his subject matter, and it doesn’t stop at video games. I remember being blown away by his cross-referencing of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TV series with the classic horror films they were paying homage to. There is no way he could have looked any of these up; he just knows his stuff.

So when he announced he was doing a movie based on The Nerd, I was immediately excited. The subject matter – his quest to unearth the legendary hidden ET Atari cartridges in a landfill in New Mexico – is ideal. At the time the film started production, these cartridges were one of the biggest myths of the video game industry and the story had taken on a life of its own. Some believed it was a complete fabrication, whilst others were convinced they were buried somewhere. Nobody knew how many would be found if they were ever located, and many doubted the increasingly renowned story.

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What has been frustrating is the recent unearthing of the Atari cartridges, itself documented a the Zack Penn film to be released later this year. I personally thought it was a shame the myth was proven to be correct (to some extent), as it meant the speculation was over. It was terrible timing when the AVGN film was so closed to completion, but it hasn’t deterred Rolfe from powering through and completing his first big-budget feature film. Indeed, he posted a blog post on the week the cartridges were unearthed discussing how he felt about the excavation and he raises some interesting points.

It has been released in the USA already and has been receiving solid reviews. It looks like it’s aimed directly at his already vast fanbase. For newcomers it might be a little alienating, but staying true to his character is the most important thing here. The effects were something he has poured over and the team have done an excellent job with a comparatively low budget. So much love and care has gone into the film already and I can’t wait for the UK Blu-Ray release early next year [1].

The AVGN Movie is out now to stream from Vimeo via Cinemassacre, the home of AVGN.

[1] I’m a complete snob when it comes to picture quality and resolution. I know how much effort has gone into this film and I’m not about to short-change myself and the filmmakers by streaming over the internet. My connection is so bad (thanks BT!) that I know it would wipe out a whole evening waiting for it to load. I’d rather just wait. In the meantime, I’ve noticed he’s uploaded a new AVGN review (an increasingly rare event). In fact, this one (Tagin’ Dragon) is part of a series of reviews called “The Twelve Days of Shitsmas”, which promises twelve AVGN reviews over the next twelve days. Clocking in at over one hour of running time, Christmas really has come early!