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“To me, under that landfill is actually the burial site of an entire industry, because what affected Atari at the time affected everyone. And everything I thought was going to go on forever stopped, and it stopped almost at the same moment that whatever is there was buried. So for me, I want to find out what is there. It’s like opening the Ark of the Covenant. You kind of want to look, but is my face going to melt off? I don’t know.”

atariThat perspective, from game designer and historian Mike Mika, sums up the appeal of Atari: Game Over, a new documentary about the pursuit of an urban legend — the search for a mass grave of Atari ET game cartridges, buried in a New Mexico landfill after the game’s disastrous 1982 debut.

Produced as part of Microsoft’s short-lived foray into original programming, the documentary will debut this Thursday on Xbox. After getting an advance screening this weekend, GeekWire highly recommends the film, particularly for gamers who grew up in the era of the Atari 2600 — and even more for those who didn’t, as a way of appreciating the roots of the games they play today.

The documentary focuses on efforts this year to dig up what were believed to be millions of copies of ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, a 1982 video game that fell far short of the beloved movie on which it was based.

The game was widely panned as the worst of all time. But was it, really? That’s one of the questions the documentary tries to answer.

Atari Dig_EvidenceThe outcome of the dig is no secret, but the film goes much deeper than the excavation — telling the story of the game’s creator, Howard Scott Warshaw, a star game designer for Atari who confidently agreed to make the game in five weeks, not the normal five months, to meet what was, in hindsight, a completely unreasonable deadline.

Warshaw himself is a major character in the film — revisiting the old Atari headquarters, telling the story of the game’s development, and letting us see Atari’s rise and fall through his eyes.

A major focus of the film is setting the record straight on ET and its role in Atari’s downfall. Yes, it was a bad game, but ET was just one example of the hubris and overconfidence that ultimately caused the iconic game company to fail.

Warshaw “should be applauded for being able to have done anything in the time that was allotted,” says Atari founder Nolan Bushnell in the film. “The scorn should be heaped upon those who thought it was even rational to try to build a cartridge in a month-and-a half.”

Bushnell says, “A simple answer that is clear and precise will always have more power in the world than a complex one that is true.”

Atari-Dig_Jonathan1
Atari: Game Over unearths the history of video games in a landfill.

That’s one place where the documentary falls short. The film debunks many of the simplistic myths about ET and Atari, but it would have been more powerful as a documentary by diving deeper into the complexities of the company’s downfall. Instead, we get the stories of people who made pilgrimages to the excavation in Alamogordo, N.M. Those vignettes are fun, but the film would have had more impact by explaining, in greater detail, exactly what caused the company to unravel.

It’s still a great story, and definitely worth watching.

“Atari: Game Over’s executive producers are Simon Chinn (“Searching for Sugar Man” and “Man on Wire”) and Jonathan Chinn (FX’s “30 Days” and PBS’s “American High”), through their media company, Lightbox. Zak Penn (“X-Men 2,” “Avengers,” and “Incident at Loch Ness”) directed the film.

As part of Microsoft’s interactive features, viewers will be able to leave comments on the documentary’s timeline for their friends to see. They will also be able to read comments from the director, Penn, at key moments in the film, and watch outtakes and behind-the-scenes clips.

The film will be available starting this Thursday, Nov. 20, on Xbox 360, Xbox One and xboxvideo.com, available for free to Xbox Live Gold and Silver members.

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