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Once Upon Atari

Other // Unrated
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Scottw]

Review by Randy Miller III | posted September 29, 2003 | E-mail the Author
The Documentary

Ah, the Atari 2600.

Countless hours of entertainment were made available to me through that strange box. I never new how it worked exactly, just that it did. Millions of others felt the same way, as the 2600 is still considered the grandaddy of video game consoles. I can still remember beating Pitfall II, playing countless hours of Tank and Defender, and never quite figuring out how to beat the Green Goblin in Spider-Man. In short, all of you young punks growing up with the Playstation 2 really missed out, let me tell you. Sure, the graphics were blocky and the sound was minimal, but these were some of the first giant leaps in the industry, and the 2600 helped pave the way for future systems.

I became interested in video games at an early age, right around the time Atari was at the peak of success. I was unaware of current events at the time...instead, I focused on Saturday morning cartoons, or what the free prize was in the bottom of the cereal box. Atari was riding the high road, and looked to be sticking around for a long time. Well, that is, until it pretty much collapsed in on itself just a few short years later. Of course, I wasn't aware of this...I had moved on to Nintendo by then, so the mysterious phenomenon of Atari's downfall eluded me until later in life. True, Atari still produces software, but gone are the days of the one-button joystick.

So, what made the empire crumble?

Howard Scott Warshaw has decided to shed some light on the subject. However, what sets this apart from similar documentaries is the fact that Mr. Warshaw worked for the company himself. Although much time has elapsed since the days of Atari, he has focused his career path towards photography, videography, and teaching. He has also authored two PBS documentaries and also established himself as an author. Putting his videography skills to use, Mr. Warshaw has now released a series of documentaries on the subject of his early days as a programmer, aptly titled Once Upon Atari.

Available on DVD for the first time, this release collects four documentaries originally conceived in 1999. Each "episode" has a running time of 30 minutes, and sheds new (and quite shocking) light on what it was like to be on the inside during the rise and fall of Atari. With the help of a few friends from the company, Once Upon Atari proves to be an excellent look at the early video game industry straight from the original sources. While the low-budget nature of the project cannot be denied, the information contained is well worth a look.

Howard Scott Warshaw introduces each episode with the following declaration: "On January 11, 1981, I reported for my first day of work as a game programmer for Atari...and it changed my life forever." The four episodes are as follows: "House of Video Games", "The Enemy Within", "The Game's the Thing", and "The Agony and the Ecstasy." Strangely enough, the fourth episode here was the first to be produced and made available, but the complete documentary series is all here.

From the standpoint of the employees, Atari looked like a pretty unique place to work. From the very casual dress code to the in-house game room (naturally), it was a dream come true for most of these young upstarts. Arriving to work in jeans, t-shirts, and sandals, most of the employees were not of the typical 9-5 variety. There was frequent alcohol and drug consumption (which probably explains E.T. and Kool-Aid Man) and tons of pranks and practical jokes pulled, all while "on the clock". In short, the employees were given free reign of the place, and creative freedom was in excess. However, this lack of authority also lead to total chaos, which is described in great detail. Legal troubles, mental's all here.

The interviews themselves are also conducted in a casual manner (for instance, Tod Frye, programmer for the Pac-Man cartridge, sports the appropriate T-shirt beneath a tan sport coat). The production plays out like a cross between a cable-access version of VH-1's Behind the Music and a 20th year high school reunion. However, that's not a bad thing...the energy of the early days is recounted well. Some of the interviewees are slightly more energetic than others, but these guys weren't exactly performing arts majors. All in all, each of these four episodes are entertaining and informative.

Another added bonus in this production is seeing the creators behind the games. As said before, this took place when I was only interested in playing games, not learning about the people behind them. Taking the trip back to the time of my childhood gaming days was really fascinating, and I'm glad Mr. Warshaw took the time to produce this series of documentaries. I'd really hate to ruin some of the great secrets contained in these documentaries, so I can't elaborate any more.

Ok, fine.

If nothing else, you have to hear how Tod Frye got sent to the hospital after injuring himself on the company sprinkler system. Seriously.


This is a low-budget, independently produced release, but the video quality is much better than one might expect. Recorded on digital video, the majority of the footage is sharp and clear, although still a little bit on the soft side. Mentioned before, the fourth episode was actually the first to be produced and available, and is somewhat softer than the other three (with much simpler on-screen graphics as well). Overall, nothing will distract from the viewing experience as this is actually quite polished for an independent product. These documentaries were shot in full-frame (1.33:1), and that aspect ratio is preserved for this release.

Similar to the video, the audio also varies somewhat. This was a strictly stereo affair, but hey, it's a documentary about Atari. What were you expecting, DTS? Like the video, the fourth episode also has some issues (the mixing is somewhat off-balance). While not an audiophile experience, the information is easy to hear and is passable for a documentary.

Two bonus clips are provided for your viewing pleasure. The first features Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell discussing creative management within the company (4:40). The second features Trip Hawkins (founder of the late 3DO Company) as the subject of an interview in 2001 (9:50). Both are nice inclusions to this documentary compilation.

Menu design and presentation:
I really liked the menus. Main and sub-menus were animated with sound, and mostly featured screen shots from classic Atari 2600 games. Navigation is plain and simple, as it should be. Each of the four 30-minute episodes are divided into approximately 6 chapter stops each. The packaging itself was "informative" featured a lot of text, and almost resembled more of a magazine ad than a cover insert. No insert booklet is included, although the disc itself should tell you plenty.

Should anything else have been included?
The typical DVD extras so beneficial to most movies can't usually be applied to documentaries such as this. A commentary track wouldn't have added much, as the main features are practically commentaries already. Same goes for a "behind-the-scenes" featurette...that's the main selling point of this release. On the surface, it seems as if everything possible was included in this release.

UPDATE: The price on this DVD has recently been dropped to $29.95 (for a limited time), which is nearly half of the original price. If you haven't picked this up yet, this is the perfect time!

Final Thoughts

For fans of classic video games, this release will be a real eye-opener. Once Upon Atari was great to watch, and should be required viewing for those interested in both classic and current video games. The documentaries here are excellent...if you're crazy-go-nuts for the early days of video games like me, consider this Highly Recommended, especially since the price drop.

As mentioned before, this release is only available at the website of creator Howard Scott Warshaw. The "Buy Me" button and cover image at the top of this page will magically transport you there, so make sure and pay him a visit...and tell him DVDTalk sent ya!







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