If you have any level of interest in retro video games, you’ve probably heard the story that Atari’s E.T. video game was so bad that they had to dump millions of copies in a landfill. Filmmaker Zak Penn, best known for his screenplays to X-Men 2 and The Last Stand, The Incredible Hulk and Last Action Hero, made a documentary about finding those legendary E.T. cartridges, called Atari: Game Over.
The film includes E.T. and Yar’s Revenge designer Howard Scott Warshaw, Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, Ready Player One author Ernie Cline, Alamagordo landfill excavator Joe Lewandowski and many other industry insiders. Just before Thanksgiving, I got to geek out with Penn in an interview about his documentary, Atari: Game Over, now available on Xbox. You can also check out some news tidbits Penn gave us about Pacific Rim 2 and the Ready Player One movie over at The Nerd Report.
Nuke the Fridge: One of the most interesting things to me about Atari: Game Over is the people who think E.T. is a good game. I was six years old when I played it so I couldn’t figure the game out, but in what ways is the game now respected?
Zak Penn: I wouldn’t go too far with it. I think some people think it’s a really good game for their own reasons. I’m not going to pretend to be one of those people. I don’t think it’s a terrible game. I think it’s got flaws in it. If you look at the extras on the movie, which are actually now available on YouTube, you’ll see we actually had a guy fix the bugs in the game and we presented the cartridge to Howard at the landfill. When you play the fixed game with the bugs taken out, it actually works pretty well and it’s a pretty good game. So I think the real issue was they never got a chance to do any quality control so there are some problems in the fundamental build of the game. Theoretically, once you get the hang of it, it’s a perfectly reasonable 2600 game.
Nuke: Did Howard have a more complex idea for the game that got nixed by Spielberg?
Zak Penn: No, in fact when Spielberg suggested doing a simpler version, Howard didn’t go along with it. That’s partly why the game is too hard. It was too complicated for the system that it was on. What he was talking about was Spielberg pitching him, “Why don’t we just do something like Pac Man?” And he said no, I want to do something a lot more ambitious. I was 14 when it came out so I don’t remember being incredibly excited for the E.T. game when it came out. I think probably it seemed like something that my younger sister might want to play or something.
Nuke: Is it in fact a 3D environment represented in 2600 form?
Zak Penn: Yes, it is. Just remember, 3D is a loose interpretation of what we think of as 3D today. The idea that the whole world was like a cube that you could run around, that each screen connected to another screen was fairly radical. When you think about Adventure for example, you could go left or up or right or down. There were limited directions you could go in. With E.T. he tried to create this thing, there’s a demonstration of it in the movie, where literally the whole world is interconnected which was kind of confusing. That was one of the things that that was confusing about it. The system wasn’t really built to handle it. However, again, if you look at that deleted scene, the guy who fixed it corrected some of the screen jumping issues with the game.
Nuke: What other extras are on YouTube?
Zak Penn: There’s a whole bunch of them. There’s this whole subplot about these kids who broke into the landfill and stole all these games on their bikes, incredibly similar to E.T. itself. We went and found them 30 years later and they brought us the games. It was a pretty cool little story. There’s a bunch of stuff about Joe Lewandowski, more details about him and his process. It’s funny because a couple people have said, “Oh, the movie’s so short. Why didn’t you make it longer?” It was actually supposed to be an hour long episode so it’s actually a little too long. We ended up at the last minute just convincing them to let us keep it an hour and six [minutes]. There’s a good 12 minutes of stuff that we had already edited that people can watch.
Nuke: So these kids were aware of the dump in ’83/’84?
Zak Penn: Literally the day it happened, people in Alamagordo started sneaking in and taking games. That was a big part of why the story got out. It was something I really wanted to include. I just had to make some choices, but the day it happened, people started getting in there and stealing games. There’s a whole bunch of people who have games that they took from that time.
Nuke: This is the first I’ve ever seen Spielberg address the game. Obviously he’s a savvy producer and he was promoting the game at the time it was coming out, but do you think he sincerely liked the game?
Zak Penn: Probably. I think you have to put yourself in context of the time. I don’t know. I don’t know how much he played it, but at the time any game that did anything original or different… Look at Adventure. You’re a square and your sword is an arrow. I think that E.T. was one of the first times where you could actually see the face of the character while you’re playing the game. So I’m sure on some level he played it and was pretty thrilled that so quickly he came up with this game that actually looked pretty good. If he played it for a really long time, I’m sure he would find it frustrating as most people did, and even Howard admits. It’s hard to tell. I haven’t gotten a chance to ask him what he really felt. I don’t know that I believe what he says, that it’s the best game. It seems like he’s having a hard time saying that, but who knows?
Nuke: That’s where I think he’s got his producer’s hat on and he knows this game based on his movie is coming out.
Zak Penn: Yup.
Nuke: I’ve seen a number of documentaries and read books that address the 1983 video game crash. I actually don’t remember any collapse in 1983 because I kept playing video games. Was it really drastic for other people?
Zak Penn: Well, remember, it’s not like they came and repossessed your Atari 2600. If you were young enough, you would not have noticed. However, I remember very distinctly there stopped being new games. I was at an age where we were all waiting for whatever the next game was and when Atari fell apart, they just stopped releasing them. It would be like imagining if on the Xbox they suddenly stopped releasing games. People would notice it pretty quickly. So I think that’s one thing. For a lot of people it was immediately apparent, but the other thing was it was more of a psychological thing that was happening which was people thought video games were a fad. When the industry started, the consensus was this is like the hula hoop. It’s going to be successful for a while and then it’s going to go away. For the people who played them and built them, that seemed absurd. Of course it’s not a fad. It makes total sense that people would play games. So when Atari collapsed all of a sudden and now there were no more home consoles, now it was just the arcades or computer games for home computers, I think there was a couple years where people thought, “Damn, that’s it. We had six years of video games at home and now it’s done.” Then Nintendo came along and changed that.
Nuke: I guess I don’t remember running out of games.
Zak Penn: You probably didn’t run out of games. You probably had plenty of games to play but I doubt you remember buying any new releases. You said you were six.
Nuke: Right, so my parents were buying them for me.
Zak Penn: As you can tell in the movie, I didn’t spend a tremendous amount of time explaining the video game collapse and rebound because you have to make your choices. In retrospect, obviously it didn’t destroy video games at all. In fact, they came back and are now bigger than ever. Imagine the movie industry. Imagine if a few years from now, not one new film came out. It would be weird. Maybe there’d still be movies playing for a while but you’d still be like, “That’s weird. Nothing’s come out in 10 weeks.” It would just be strange.
Nuke: Did you ever find out who started the rumor that it was only E.T. that was dumped?
Zak Penn: I think it’s impossible to say who started that rumor because I think that rumor kind of evolved. It was never true. Anyone who was there, anyone who read the initial article, it was pretty clear that it wasn’t just E.T. I think it just evolved from people saying it was so bad they threw it in the desert, to that’s what they threw in the desert to they threw all the games in the desert. It’s actually pretty interesting internet archeology. We did trace back the first person who said that it was the worst game ever. He was a blogger who was the first one to refer to it as the worst game of all time, but I think the genesis of this story is it’s difficult to put an exact date or face to how each of these elements came together. It’s more that in general we know that they did.
Nuke: You got some famous music like the Indiana Jones and Game of Thrones themes, but you couldn’t get “Power of Love?”
Zak Penn: That’s all fair use. We originally had the music that Ernie was listening to in the car and we ended up having to replace it. It was a real learning experience in fair use. Basically, the only way I got away with the Game of Thrones/Indiana Jones thing was I had to add a line from Ernie saying, “It was like I was Indiana Jones going to Westeros.” That was required in order for me to claim the graphics and the music as fair use. That’s a boring complicated thing but we were told two weeks before we locked that we needed to do something to justify it. In fair use, if you’re saying Steven Spielberg directed Raiders of the Lost Ark, you’re allowed to show clips from Raiders of the Lost Ark. You’re not allowed to show a minute of Raiders of the Lost Ark. If there’s no context to it, you can’t do it. When Howard says, “It reminds me of Close Encounters,” that’s fair use. We can use it without paying for it. There’s no way you can license all that stuff. It would just cost 10 times as much as the movie itself cost.
Nuke: Was it fun to end the movie with your own Raiders of the Lost Ark shot?
Zak Penn: Yes, honestly, that just happened. That’s the way they were keeping the games. The second I got there, I looked at it and I said, “This is crazy. It’s exactly like Raiders.” So we just shot it. Sometimes that kind of magical moment presents itself.
Nuke: Is that by any chance your own Christmas home movie of you opening the 2600?
Nuke: That’s just some kid on YouTube and maybe the grown up kid will find out he’s in this movie?
Zak Penn: No, I think we had to license that. I think we had to find the person who was in it and get his permission. That’s the way it worked.
Nuke: Did I catch a shot of the Colecovision’s Donkey Kong on a TV set?
Zak Penn: You very well might have. Was it in Mike Mika’s basement?
Nuke: It wasn’t a screen shot per se. It was a shot of a TV with Donkey Kong on it and it looked more like the Coleco graphics.
Zak Penn: It’s totally possible. I’d have to ask my editor about that. I can tell you two people who would know. One is Mike Mika and the other is Ernie Cline. As you can imagine, there’s so much stuff to put together, there’s points at which I had to remind people. There’s this picture of kids that they just assumed was me and I kept having to remind them that’s not actually me. That is a photo we put in temporarily. We’ve got to replace it.
Nuke: That’s just totally my game nerd minutiae. I had Coleco before I had Atari.
Zak Penn: By the way, you’d have to be a pretty hardcore nerd. Remember the whole bulletin board we created with all the pictures on it at the beginning of the movie, where Howard’s talking about Atari? There’s a lot of little Easter eggs on that bulletin board. There’s some little hidden messages that only if you know the history of Atari and Activision would you get the joke. Also the liquor store is actually the liquor store that was near the Atari headquarters. We obviously couldn’t resist putting some Easter eggs in.
Nuke: Is Ernie in Atari: Game Over because you’re adapting Ready Player One?
Zak Penn: No. It’s funny, I got hired after I had already requested an interview with him. My deal to write Ready Player One closed after that. I knew about Ready Player One, they’d already approached me but I didn’t know that I was writing it when I asked Ernie to be in the film.
Nuke: Simon Kinberg stayed on the X-Men franchise. When they did their epilogue to Days of Future Past, did he undo any regrets you shared over previous X-Men movies, namely The Last Stand?
Zak Penn: I guess so. Certainly the Cyclops thing was something we were both against at the time and agreed on, and didn’t get our way. So yes, on that note, absolutely. For the most part, I don’t have as many regrets about X-Men 3 as other people do. It’s frankly a little bit like E.T. It’s become kind of a whipping boy. I think there’s plenty of good stuff in the movie. I actually think it’s a better movie than hardcore fans give it credit for, but I get it. People freak out about Cyclops dying and we had the same reaction at the time, so I’m not surprised.