Atari Retrospectives: myths and legends from first-hand participants
April 29, 2015 10:50 PM   Subscribe

Why read lengthy articles on the history of Atari when you can hear stories first-hand? Hear Nolan Bushnell (and a few others) tell all about how a little company named Syzygy became Atari, in clips both new(ish) and old; tune in for four episodes of Once Upon Atari, featuring Atari staff reminiscing about the good times and bad; and visit Alamogordo, New Mexico, home of rocket sled land-speed records and the grave of Ham, the first chimp in space, with Zak Penn as he digs for the truth behind the legend of the buried E.T. cartridges in Atari: Game Over with fans and Howard Scott Warshaw, the man who made the Atari E.T. game in five weeks.

If you want more of Zak Penn on his documentary, here's a long video interview with clips that didn't make in into the documentary, and you can read an article on The Atlantic from the "punk archaeologists" who were present to oversee the dig. A few post-documentary notes: the Smithsonian has an excavated E.T. cartridge in its collection, but unlike others who bought copies from Alamogordo's official eBay auctions, the company behind the dig sent a cartridge to the Smithsonian. And if you were wondering, with a bit of restoration, some cartridges were still functional.

If you want to skip the drama around the dig, let The Gaming Historian debunk the Atari Landfill Myth in under four minutes (cutting to the chase: Atari's dumping of excess materials, including cartridges, was public knowledge and covered in newspapers), and review the documentary in less than five minutes. Dig further into his archive of video clips for a nine minute overview of the reasons behind the (North American) Video Game Crash of 1983.

If all this talk of the E.T. game has intrigued you and you haven't experienced it, has both the original and fixed versions available for online play, but don't forget to read the manual, or you can simply watch someone else play it, and even play it and find the Easter eggs. Even Conan has played it, continuing the "Worst Game Ever" hype.

E.T. for Atari, previously:
posted by filthy light thief (11 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Final tangents: in the video interview, Zak Penn mentioned a few people who I wasn't familiar with before: British documentary filmmaker Louis Theroux and MAN VS SNAKE: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler, a Kickstarted video game documentary by Andrew Seklir & Tim Kinzy. (Andy made the pin-board graphic and other elements in the Game Over documentary).
posted by filthy light thief at 10:55 PM on April 29, 2015

Here's a story.
Once upon a time I was young
I had a friend who shared, we purchashed an Atari
Yars Revenge!
posted by Mblue at 12:07 AM on April 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is a great documentary, it gives a wonderful overview of the rise and fall of the company in between the landfill bits. The interviews are great.

I remember seeing Yars' Revenge for the first time being demoed at the mall toy store. It was insane, and so, so different from any other cartridge.
posted by Catblack at 12:13 AM on April 30, 2015

I worked on the film.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:04 AM on April 30, 2015

Ideefixe, which one? Atari: Game Over? Is it really a series? Is Zak Penn as much of a goon as he seems in the long BYOD interview?

Catblack, somewhere in the Once Upon Atari, Howard talks about how he used the code itself to create some of those intense graphics.

If anyone else is watching it for the first time, it feels like Howard wasn't sure if he'd make more than one episode, but when he made more, he left the first episode he created as an endcap, so I linked the fourth episode first (the "tune in" link). Here's a bit of information on episodes 3 & 4.
posted by filthy light thief at 6:12 AM on April 30, 2015

I sent a letter to the Atari Age magazine explaining how I saw a Yar fly out of a flower in E.T. Turned out it was a real Easter Egg and not a hallucination (though they never printed my letter AFAIK).
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:20 AM on April 30, 2015

I really wanted one of those excavated cartridges but I was surprised by how much more money than I people were willing to spend on, literally, garbage.
posted by griphus at 6:41 AM on April 30, 2015

Also I've started re-reading Racing the Beam and if you're technically inclined, it is a book like no other about the history of Atari and the technical achievements of 2600 programmers.
posted by griphus at 6:42 AM on April 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

I just woke up, there a link in here anywhere to the official web site of the movie?
posted by trackofalljades at 6:57 AM on April 30, 2015

I loved Atari. I loved the word—Atari—and I loved the aesthetics. In fact, Atari is one of the reasons I first began thinking of aesthetics which in turn has led to a really amazing life and career. And video games! We were the first video gaming generation and Atari was the flag we saluted. But little did we know that behind the scenes at Atari turned out to be some of the most dull and uninspired business practices ever.

Think of having pretty much the brand that says future in a way that no one could come close to touching, and developing an audience who are ready for anything, and then for greedpissing it all away. I mean, really just frivolously stomping it all to pieces to be used to mulch the future instead of being the company that builds it.

Think about it. Atari could have been Apple. It could have been SpaceX. Instead Atari has become Max Headroom.

Atari is one of those scrap pile brands whose corpse corporate culture vultures pick over for years to come. It's a genuine zombie brand, propped up by money solely for the exploitation of childhood memories. Atari took our young good will and dreams and excitement, and crassly trashed them all in terrific, bounding, petty, banal commercialism. Screw Atari. PS I love you.
posted by Mike Mongo at 7:21 AM on April 30, 2015 [6 favorites]

I just finished listening to The Innovators, which includes a bit of this story.
I wish I had time at the moment to listen to the entire Bushnell interview.
posted by MtDewd at 7:25 AM on April 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

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