About a year ago, headlines were buzzing about a dig at the landfill in Alamogordo, NM. That location is well-known in video game legend for being the fabled location of where Atari ‘allegedly buried millions of E.T. game cartridges, the worst video game ever.’ Granted, newspaper articles showed it being done but that wasn’t good enough for many and the reality of what happened in September 1983 turned into legend. The dig was setting about to prove the truth and settle the question once and for all. A video documentary crew was there to cover the dig and that documentary has now landed on Netflix. Here’s my review, which you could call 100% spoilerly.
For starters, the trailer:
My brother and I watched this, he being a casual Atarian without a deep knowledge of the company’s history but with more than your average modern gamer since he hangs around me and has played Atari games on just about every Atari system out there through me.
For the main goal, proving that the burial actually happened and giving E.T. a fair shake, they accomplished those goals. However I think it is best that I break this film down between the pros and cons of what I did and didn’t like.
-The interview and screen time given to inside players from Atari including E.T. coder Howard Warshaw and Warner/Atari exec Manny Gerard. Getting HSW’s feedback is essential to any media covering E.T. and interviewing him on the ground of the old Atari location (which they only hang outside of, guess they couldn’t go in) was pretty neat. Manny Gerard provided a lot of info for the book Atari Inc. – Business Is Fun which is an essential read to anyone who wants to know the real and very detailed history of the company up through 1984.
-Seeing locations like the Borregas Ave. Atari HQ, seeing Alamogordo and the dump site as opposed to old black & white photos was cool.
-Getting some history on titles like Yars Revenge, which is the favorite of many gamers who have played through the Atari 2600 library. Myself included. On this note, given how many Raiders of the Lost Ark references there are in the doc, I am surprised that they didn’t spend more time on the development of that 2600 game but it wouldn’t have been necessary for the narrative.
-Giving the Atari 2600 version of E.T. some fair reviews, in that it is not the worst video game of all time. That title was only given to it because it became a popular thing to do for lazy disingenuous writers who read the opinion of one game magazine journalist in the 90s and it became canon for every silly Top 10/25/100 Worst games list ever. I imagine it would have distracted from the focus to have mentioned the released Atari 8-bit computer version of E.T. (which was completely different, you played as Elliot and would wander around the town) and they also planned an arcade and a pinball version of E.T.
-Mentioning some games that suck a lot more than E.T. such as Mythicon’s Firefly.
-A lot of documentary makers try and make themselves the center of attention on something they are documenting, trying to make us care about their ‘personal journey’ with the subject matter and in this instance, the director fortunately avoids doing that. The main focus is rightly on Howard Warshaw and Atari. I did find it odd a couple of the things they kept in there with the director in front of the camera though, like awkwardly asking about equipment that wasn’t going to be used in the dig (if it was supposed to be funny, it fell flat)
-The blame is shown to be with Warner’s CEO who in his zeal to try and get Spielberg on as a director, made a deal that even at the time people within Atari thought was bad but it was done so they had to make the most of it. HSW jokingly puts some blame on Spielberg but ultimately it was Steve Ross’s fault for cutting such a huge deal with a short timeframe in the first place, without considering the logistics of making it happen.
-They do point out that millions of E.T. carts were not buried there – that the game only made up 10% of what was found. It was really just Atari unloading overstock and returns thanks to out-of-whack expectations and projections as to what the market could handle. That was one of their real problems that led to their fall.
-I did chuckle at the ‘other side of the story’ in terms of those that were against the dig, like a mayoral candidate. I’m guessing he was in there only for this point-of-view. In typical political fashion he comes up with some crazy extreme and unrealistic scenario to say why people shouldn’t dig in the ground for environmental reasons (Mercury gas clouds and zombie pigs…umm…ok). This town also seems to go through a lot of mayors for some reason.
I have to be honest about it in that there are some flaws with this work. I’ll admit that some of it is just me being a zealous, detail oriented Atarian. 😉
-Using Star Raiders as an example of a ‘worse than E.T. game’ makes no sense to me. Perhaps I’ve hung out in the wrong circles but I’ve never heard anyone bash that version of the game, which was pretty popular back in the day. Of course the Atari 800 version was superior but the 2600 version is still good. Star Ship is the unplayable confusing mess that should be mentioned here as that game is certainly worthy of scorn (and is also much, much worse than E.T.)
-I don’t think the director watched the movie with his subtitles all the way through or Netflix has an issue that no one is aware of. We had some kids playing in the house and being noisy so we had the subtitles on. About half-way through they get completely out of sync with what is being said and you get typos like “Deafender”.
-It would have been nice to get more feedback from people that worked at Atari through 1980-84. I get that Microsoft had some skin in the game for this but I am not sure why Seamus Blackley needed the screen time in place of someone that worked for Atari. It’s not that interviewees like him said anything wrong, I just find those on-site perspectives more interesting since they were there. It is good that they got Nolan Bushnell but he was gone from the company prior to that and he had no direct influence on the events that occurred within Atari in 1982/83. I would have liked to have seen Al Alcorn or Tod Frye or Warren Robinett discussing their time there.
-When the documentary start, they promulgate another myth while trying to dispel the myths around E.T. – the Easter Egg in Adventure. That was the first well-known Easter Egg but not the very first to ever be put into a video game. Even at Atari, engineers would hide things in games prior to that, initials or some other object but none gained notoriety like Adventure’s egg. That also became popular due to the story behind it, of the coder giving the finger so-to-speak to the idiotic corporate policy of not giving credit to the creators of the games.
-Along those same lines, someone watching this is going to come away with the distinct impression that in 1983, Atari was done forever. They don’t mention the purchase of Atari by Jack Tramiel, who kept producing new Atari game consoles and computers up until 1996 nor of the split of Atari Games where they kept making arcade games until 2001. I get that some feel that the ‘real’ Atari died in 1984 however if you want to get technical, the real division that made the company what is truly was, was the coin-op arcade division which changed hands a few times but lasted until about 2001/2002. Without that in the first place, Atari would have been no different from Coleco or Mattel as it was the arcade design experience and mentality that was at the heart of so much of their philosophy. The arcade side is mentioned briefly but ultimately papered over by this look into the company’s fall.
-The title and synopsis of the documentary claim that they really get into the story of Atari’s fall but the plethora of real reasons are only touched upon or not mentioned at all. Interviewees like Manny Gerard and Nolan Bushnell are able to touch on it but perhaps because the filmmakers were trying to keep this as close to an hour as possible they couldn’t dive into the management problems, the failure of their efforts to create a successful follow-up to the 2600, the Atari 5200 (I was surprised that this was not even mentioned), the crazy policies by marketing which determined which projects were dead or alive and giving the consumer guys huge pay bonuses while giving the original creators of many of the arcade ports nothing (management didn’t even consult them on porting their creations over to the 2600), the aforementioned unrealistic expectations of the market which lead to overproduction of content(which caused the dump), the theft problems within the company and the lack of quality control.
Poor ports like Pac-Man hurt Atari’s reputation but it is never mentioned and the policy of not giving credit to the coders created a storm that also led Atari down the path – many of their awesome talent left to form 3rd party publishers like Activision and those games were so good that they ate into Atari’s profits. As soon as Activision was a success, everyone wanted a piece of the action and that gave us a lot of 3rd parties that were creating dreck which harmed the reputation of Atari’s hardware.
I should shamelessly plug that I covered this next part in my book, The Arcade Experience. 😛 They do not mention the competitive atmosphere of the business at the time, which had given consumers a lot of console choices beyond the Atari 2600 and 5200 – the Colecovision, Intellivision, Odyssey 2, Vectrex, Astrocade, Arcadia 2001, etc. or all of the home computers which were treated like game consoles with keyboards like the Atari 400 & 800, TI 99/4A, Commodore 64, TRS-80, Sinclair ZX, etc. Nor is there a mention of the economic downturn of late 1982/early 1983 which coincided with the crash of the industry. Again I imagine that due to the short focused nature of what they were trying to do that this was too much to cover in detail but if you are going to look at more than just E.T.’s place in history at the bigger picture of Atari, these factors are all a part of the story.
-I do wish they would have spent a little more time on the defense of what it is about E.T. that showed why it was not such a horrible game. The fact that it was done in 5 weeks was mentioned several times but I don’t believe that most people truly appreciate how amazing it is. Manny Gerard and Nolan Bushnell do touch on that at least, saying how Howard doesn’t deserve scorn for E.T. but praise for getting something done in that time. This wasn’t like putting something together in Game Maker, Flash or Unity – it had to be done from scratch using Assembly language (which is not a computer language most coders even know these days and is difficult/time consuming to use) on hardware with a 1.19 MHz CPU, 128 bytes of RAM and it required tricks to store more than 4KB of data on a cartridge. The hardware was made to play games like Pong, not multi-screen adventure games and the way it works is notoriously difficult to create content for. Given that one guy was given the task to come up with a AAA game in 5 weeks based upon the biggest movie of the day, no one can truly appreciate the pressure such a situation would cause and yet a coherent and playable game came out of it.
The game was not buggy and didn’t crash – something that many so-called AAA games today can’t brag about on their release versions (and they have the safety net of online updates to fix their screw-ups after the fact; plus huge teams of people to crunch on it). You have a basic inventory, an energy timer almost like Gauntlet, multiple characters, randomized elements, a title screen (very rare for Atari 2600 games overall), a cutscene type beginning and an end. Graphically it used multi-colored/shaded sprites, also a rarity on 2600 games at the time. Yes you do have the pits which are annoying but with practice you could even stop your fall mid-air and slowly descend (I figured out how to do that when playing the game as a 9 year old – I didn’t hate it at the time, thought it was ok so I would go back to it every once in a while).
If you are a casual gamer then it is worth a view, just note that there is more to the story than what they show. My brother asked me a lot of questions which would have been left unanswered if I wasn’t there to fill him in on it. If you are a hardcore Atarian, it is worth watching once for getting the backstory straight from HSW and Manny Gerard but like I get into above, there will be some annoyances. I haven’t seen too many efforts made about Atari’s history in documentary form so the pros outweigh the cons at the end of the effort.