The 5 Best Atari Documentaries (Ranked)

Before Atari, the idea of interactive entertainment was limited to board games and pinball machines. Their games hit arcades, bars (see my “11 Best Arcade Documentaries” post).

Then came the explosive launch of Atari’s game Pong (thanks to an initial 150,000 unit order from Sears!).

Then came the Atari 2600, the home console that changed gaming forever.

For the first time, you could swap out games with cartridges—a first in console history.

This console gave us classics like “Space Invaders” and “Pac-Man.” At its peak, Atari owned a whopping 80% market share.

While they didn’t succeed in every venture (see the infamous E.T. game flop?) they paved the way for companies like Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft to take interactive entertainment to stratospheric levels.

And Atari is the place where the great Steve Jobs first worked before co-founding Apple.

He served as a technician and used the money to travel to India. His collaboration with Steve Wozniak began during Atari times.

Atari, in the ’70s, served as an early-stage incubator for tech talent, shaping the industry’s future.

Enjoy my list of the 5 best Atari documentaries below!

1) Atari: Game Over

“Atari Game Over” is the Indiana Jones meets “e-Dreams”.

It uncovers the burial of thousands of “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” game cartridges, a fiasco that symbolized the company’s downfall. The E.T. video game is widely considered “the worst video game ever”.

Many think the crappy E.T. game was the fault of Spielberg and company who asked for the E.T. game in 5 months (normal game development time was 6+ months at the time).

Zak Penn (“Incident at Loch Ness”) directs this 2014 doc which spans 66 minutes.

The film stars Howard Scott Warshaw (designer), and Ernest Cline (nerd hero).

The attempted dig happens in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

Why? Legend claims Atari buried millions of unsold “E.T.” cartridges there in 1983.

Facts get checked. Myths get debunked. Warshaw, once labeled the goat, finds redemption.

Archival footage? Plenty.

Penn splices old Atari commercials and news clips. He even includes city council footage from 1983, when Atari got the burial permit.

Climatic scene? Bulldozers unearth the cartridges!

There’s also a good retelling of Atari’s history here including:

  • Interviews with founder co-founder Nolan Busnhell and the early “dream team” game engineers (including Howard Warshaw)
  • Its rebelious culture (a lot of dope geting smoked and Bushnell hosts “keggers” when quotas were hit)
  • Early Atari hits like Pong (their first in 1972), Tempest, Asteroids and Gauntlet
  • Warner Communications’ acquisition of Atari and the 2600 console’s explosive launch

Watch Atari: Game Over for free on YouTube at

You can also watch it for free (with ads) on Tubi, Freevee, PlutoTV, Plex, ShoutTV and Roku. Check out for streaming options.

2) Once Upon Atari

Released in 2003, this four-episode doc is helmed by Howard Scott Warshaw—yes, the same guy who designed the infamous “E.T.” Atari game (from “Atari: Game Over”). The 4 episodes last about 30 minutes each, totaling two hours of tech history.

Howard (in his early 60s) doesn’t just narrate; he lived it. The doc offers rare interviews with Atari pioneers like Nolan Bushnell (founder) and Tod Frye (programmer).

Money flowed, but so did egos. A memorable scene?

Nolan Bushnell detailing Atari’s downfall—the loss of focus, the financial free-fall.

To watch Once Upon Atari, the only options I see are:

  • GogCom (720p resolution) (for $5.99)
  • DVD ($20) at 8BitClassics and Amazon.
  • There are some short clips of it on YouTube: Part 1 (4:12), Part II (3:45), Part III (3:47)

3) Easy to Learn, Hard to Master: The Fate of Atari

Tomaso Walliser directs, previously known for “Videofilia.” This 2017 doc is meaty—110 minutes long.

It digs deep into Atari, once valued at $2 billion in the late ’70s.

Characters matter. Nolan Bushnell Atari’s founder (some say “Carnie”), talks strategy and regrets. He’s in his 70’s at the time of filming.

Al Alcorn, the engineer behind Pong, provides technical insights. He’s also in his 70s. Their age adds a layer of retrospection to their interviews.

Key scene? Alcorn explains the Pong prototype. Originally a training exercise, it becomes Atari’s first smash hit.

Atari had 95% of the coin-operated video game market in 1976.

From ’70s TV commercials to internal Atari memos, the doc is a visual time capsule. Soundtrack remains retro, with arcade-like tunes enhancing the mood.

Best reason to watch? It offers a rarely seen, up-close look at the volatile early days of the video game industry. Catch it on Amazon Prime.

Watch Easy to LearnEasy to Learn, Hard to Master: The Fate of Atari by renting it on Apple TV, Amazon, Google Play and YouTube (see for details).

4) World 1-1

The documentary World 1-1 is a 2015 documentary funded by a $15,000 Kickstarter campaign)

The 120 minute doc is directed by Daryl Rodriguez and Jeanette Garcia an bridges 1970s Atari to modern gaming.

Atari’s rise and near-fall headline the doc.

Nolan Bushnell’s business deals saved video games from obscurity.

Fastest-growing U.S. compan.

Atari even gave Steve Jobs his start. E

Engineers like Al Alcorn and Dona Bailey emerge as unsung heroes, building games sans microprocessors. They introduced games-on-chips, a design still in use.

People interviewed include:

  • Nolan Bushnell – co-founder of Atari
  • David Crane – co-founder of Activision
  • Al Alcorn — Atari employee #3 and Creator of Pong
  • Warren Robinett – creator of Adventure, one of the world’s first RPGs
  • Dona Bailey – co-creator of Centipede, one of the first games to attract a large female audience
  • Dave Shepperd – creator of Night Driver, one of the first racing games ever
  • Garry Kitchen – programmer for Atari 2600’s Donkey Kong
  • Walter Day – founder of Twin Galaxies
  • Owen Rubin – creator of Space Duel and Major Havoc
  • Franz Lanzinger – creator of Crystal Castles
  • Ed Rotberg – creator of Blasteroids and Battlezone
  • Peter Lipson – creator of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
  • Those who want to tell you the story as well:
  • Colin Moriarty – IGN Editor
  • Peer Schneider – Senior Vice President of Content & Publisher at IGN
  • Patrick Scott Patterson – Video Game Media Personality
  • Rick Medina – Owner of Arcade Odyssey

The only place I can find to watch World 1-1 is for $3.99 at

5) Bloomberg: “How Three Men and a Bar Launched the Video Game Industry”

A brief (7 minute) history of Atari by Bloomberg. It’s through the eyes of the first 3 employees:

  • Guest 1: Nolan Bushnell (co-founder of Atari)
  • Guest 2: Ted Dabney (co-founder of Atari)
  • Guest 3: Allan Alcorn (Employee #3 and Creator of Pong).

A couple of highlights: Two paddles, one spot, and score—Pong was born. A dreamer and entrepreneur, the youngest Silicon Valley president, paved the way for Jobs and Gates. Inspired by chess and a third-grade electricity lesson, invention was inevitable.

Inventing motion circuitry led to a critical decision—digital play. Competing with Magnavox Odyssey, a fuzzy, soundless game, gave them the push.Bushnell lies to Alcorn about a General Electric to get Alcorn to create “Pong”.

Tested on a barrel, the game defies expectations. It breaks—not from a fault but because it overflowed with quarters.

Turning a bug into a feature, Pong became foolproof; good players couldn’t play indefinitely.

Consumer Pong initially flopped at the New York Toy Fair.

But Sears offered a lifeline, buying 150,000 units.

Sears Bank even supplied the capital.

Result? Pong skyrocketed, birthing the video game industry.

Watch Bloomberg: “How Three Men and a Bar Launched the Video Game Industry”for free on YouTube by clicking the embed video above or clicking here:

I’ll add to this Atari docs list as I find more.

Thanks for reading!

-Rob Kelly