How do you go from the fastest growing company in the history of the United States to a debt-infested and dissolved empire in less than a decade?
With the release of Pong in the late 1970's, Atari established a firm grasp on the video game market, and practically monopolized the industry by releasing one influential best-selling title after another. They epitomized the American success story through innovation, hard work and by producing a series of stellar cutting-edge products that appealed to the masses. But by the mid-1980's, the video game behemoth was no more. What went wrong?
The wildly entertaining new documentary Atari: Game Over has a theory, and it's one that's shared by countless video game geeks all over the world. Anticipating a massive reception to Steven Spielberg's blockbuster film E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial prior to its initial release, Atari programmer Howard Warshaw was commissioned to create a video game tie-in within five weeks. The project represented a mammoth task for Warshaw, and an investment of tens of millions of dollars for the company. The game's eventual release was met with a deafening thud, and its failure to ignite the marketplace has long been cited as the beginning of the end for Atari.
Whether warranted or not, this history has spawned an urban legend of sorts for gamers over the years, a scenario made even more delicious with the rumor that Atari dumped hundreds of video games in a New Mexico landfill upon going out of business, including many returned cartridges of the ill-fated E.T. title.
Atari: Game Over splits its attention between the story of the company itself, as told by those who lived through its meteoric rise and fall, and an ambitious excavation of the landfill where a valuable piece of nerd history is thought to be buried.
The film's tone is one of warm and playful nostalgia, but it's also characterized by an undercurrent of melancholy. For the spectators who stand on the sidelines of the landfill and await word on whether the precious loot has been uncovered, the excavation represents more than just the demise of a beloved company; it seems to mark an end to the innocence of their adolescence.