Hanging on to the joystick
A former employee's documentary looks at the crazy rise and all-too-predictable fall of Atari.
By Scott Steinberg
Special to The Times
November 6 2003
First came the flying frog. Next, walking on walls. The million-dollar paychecks arrived sometime shortly thereafter. As for Atari's internal corruption and inevitable descent into spiraling debt? Observers didn't have long to wait.
All these anecdotes and more — plus the storied tale of a pop culture phenomenon's meteoric rise and fall — are chronicled in "Once Upon Atari," a four-part documentary available for the first time as a complete series on DVD.
"I had to do this
it's therapy," jokes writer-director Howard Scott Warshaw, 46, forever immortalized as the designer of the company's spectacularly disastrous E.T. cartridge, credited with single-handedly prompting a collapse of the interactive entertainment industry in 1982.
"The Atari days were the best period of my life, but now they're gone
. It's a lonely place to be."
The author of such million-selling software hits as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Yar's Revenge should know — he's spent nearly 20 years trying to finish the production. Originally conceived upon his departure from the firm in September 1984, Warshaw waited for more than a decade until fraud statutes expired before even picking up a digital video camera. The delay was a question of safety for former business associates.
"There was some serious stuff going on behind the scenes at that place. Security actually had orders to keep the police away. The top-ranking guard was the former head of security for Nixon, if that tells you anything," says the auteur.
Filmed on a shoestring budget within one year's time, the footage — which includes cameos from notables like Atari founder Nolan Bushnell and Warlords designer Carla Meninsky — certainly paints a bleak picture. A two-hour look at the company's internal goings-on from an insider's viewpoint, the documentary, presented as a series of interviews with ex-employees, includes sordid tales of drugs, debauchery and a business at war with itself.
But despite depressing moments — programmer Rob Fulop receiving a certificate for a free turkey as a bonus for envisioning onetime blockbuster Missile Command proves an unforgettable highlight — the tone is largely lighthearted. United in stress, workload and crushing expectations from managerial overseers, pioneering software developers such as Tod Frye (Pac-Man) and Rob Zdybel (Football) display a heartfelt fondness for their time in the trenches.
"These people know me as their co-worker, not a documentarian," Warshaw says. "I'm able to ask questions an investigative reporter wouldn't even know about, and these folks will tell me things they'd never share with someone who didn't undergo the same experiences."
It's precisely that perspective that makes each episode so unique. "House of Games" kicks off the presentation by taking viewers behind the scenes, presenting insight into the almost farcical workplace that was Atari in its early days. "The Enemy Within" follows, spinning yarns of the money, power and dishonesty that followed in the wake of the video game manufacturer's unprecedented success. "The Game's the Thing" and "The Agony & the Ecstasy" cap off the production, explaining the ins and outs of video game design and its potential pitfalls during the industry's golden era. "Look at the scenario," Warshaw says. "Where else could you come right out of school, be 23 or 24, and be placed in total creative control of a multimillion-dollar project? This is a story that had to be told."
Indeed it did, if for no other reason than exorcising personal demons. "It took a long time to make peace with the situation that existed back then," the aspiring filmmaker continues. "Atari did a real number on a lot of our heads. Many people had breakdowns, and some — myself included — found it hard to return to the real world and a proper job afterward."
Return to reality he eventually did — a journey that most recently took Warshaw to a stint at the now-bankrupt publisher 3DO. Among the DVD's extras, onlookers will find an interview with former Chief Executive Trip Hawkins, who discusses his plans to assure the company's future.
Asked if any parallels could be drawn between the companies' collapses, the now happily self-employed videographer says with a laugh, "Let's just say history has a funny way of repeating itself."
Scott Steinberg can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
'Once Upon Atari'
Distributor: Scott West Productions
Highlights: Honest presentation, exclusive insider info, charming attitude
Lowlights: Inappropriate for children, minimal production values
Bottom line: A candid look at the golden age of video game development from the people who, by their own admission, barely survived it