Once Upon Atari
The uncensored story of what happened behind the scenes at Atari
Review by James McGovern
If only they knew…thankfully, they did not. I shudder to think what my parents might have said had they known the true story of the daily antics of the Atari 2600 cartridge division programmers. I envision a childhood devoid of video games and all of the boredom that this imagined past implies.
As I said, thankfully they were unaware that the programmers of many Atari cartridges could, on any given day, be found "expanding" their minds on various pharmaceuticals or involved in momentous events such as the "flying of the frog." Then of course there's the programmer known for climbing the walls...literally. No idea what I'm talking about? Read on.
Howard Scott Warshaw, a programmer with Atari during the early 80’s and author of such Atari 2600 titles as, Yar’s Revenge, Indiana Jones, and the often maligned, E.T., has released a DVD documentary of this turbulent time in our collective history entitled, Once Upon Atari. Inside your will find the behind-the-scenes story of the creators of the Atari console games that engaged us as youths stealing precious time from our studies and chores. Neither they nor we truly realized the effect these games would have on us and society as a whole.
The DVD documentary consists of interwoven interviews with programmers as well as middle and upper management of the Atari Corporation during the early to late 80’s. Nolan Bushnell appears in multiple sequences as well as Tod Frye, Larry Kaplan, Rob Fulop, Carla Meninsky, Howard Scott Warshaw, and many more. They recall specific experiences and events as well as give the viewer a true understanding of the overall structure (or lack thereof) of Atari at the time.
The picture they paint is surprisingly similar to the structure of the dot-com “companies” of the mid to late 90’s. The programmers essentially set their own hours, abided by no business dress code, and were known for raucous antics both on and off the job. As with the dot-com companies, the programmers sometimes made fortunes, and many would later lose them. I found it interesting that the same generation that grew up whiling away hours in front of the TV with the arthritis-inducing 2600 joystick at the ready, was the same generation that went on to form the bulk of the “players” in the ill-fated IPO free-for-all of the 90’s. Were there messages being transmitted in the flicker of the 2600 displays?
I posed this parallel to Howard Scott Warshaw in an interview and he pointed out one glaring difference. He and others were drawn to Atari by the promise of a fun environment and the task of making video games. All of the successful programmers at Atari during that time were avid computer geeks and more importantly, gamers who wanted to create video games. The thought that they might actually get rich doing so was not the driving force behind their choice of profession. During the dot-com era, the reverse was too often true. Many dove into the promise of the “new economy” and the reward to which they felt entitled. The product (if any) was all-to-often an afterthought. In short, the successful programmers at Atari were the ones who, aside from being just a little off, possessed a passion for art form they were developing.
Anyone who has ever attempted assembly programming can tell you, those who are good at it must be a bit off. Having done a bit of this coding myself, I can tell you I have an immense respect and not a small amount of awe for those who speak the language, much less those who can create an engaging game from its cryptic command structure and rule-set. Howard Scott Warshaw and his former Atari colleagues are just such animals. At the time of their employment with Atari, they were of a handful of people in the world that could code in assembly and produce a marketable game while doing it. Front to back these folks were it as far as the game development.
As the documentary reveals, especially in the early days, they might get a one line title to describe the game marketing thought would sell. One or two words and from that the engineers were expected to produce a consumer ready game. Today it takes teams of designers, project managers, programmers, and artists to produce current top-titles. Then the top-titles were spawned by a programmer in a small room pouring over lines of code between breaks for the halflings leaf and the occasional skinny dip in the Atari hot tub. Programming was but one of the attributes evident in those who were prolific and successful at Atari.
The documentary depicts a group of highly skilled freethinkers that gravitated to Atari at just the right time, not only for their careers, but also for the benefit of Atari as well as the waiting consumers. What strikes me most about the documentary is the amazing spark that obviously existed at Atari during those years. The stories of management guffaws, marketing ignorance, and programmer antics, all stand in stark contrast to the fact that these folks stood at the top of their game and the top of the industry if for a brief while.
The harmonic convergence of technology, programming talent, financing, creative management, and a voracious consumer market came together in a raucous free for all of art, industry, and conflict. It is fitting that Howard Scott Warshaw chose a set laden with items from various mystic beliefs to segue between segments and to use tarot cards to punctuate the coming premise. His choices reflect the seemingly irreproducible union of elements and circumstance that brought Howard Scott Warshaw and his cohorts together for a brief time in a flurry of innovation, excitement, and capitalism that arguably had effects as profound for the programmers at Atari as they were for us, the beneficiaries of their efforts.
The documentary provides an enticing look into a world many of us dreamed about and some went on to join. The characters that made up the engineering teams of Atari in the early 80’s found their way into our living rooms through the games that inspired and entertained us all. Their labors produced a touchstone to which we may refer and a commonality that we will all share for the rest of our days. Once Upon Atari contains a portion of all of our history, so how can we not investigate that history further? Besides, I never told you about the “flying of the frog” or the programmer known for climbing the walls. You are going to have to get the video to find out!