In the nerd-infested world of video game lore, legend says that Atari was so embarrassed by the abject failure of its “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial” video game cartridge, the company buried all remaining copies of the game in a secret, desert landfill. Following the phenomenal success of Steven Spielberg’s big-budget, heart-wrenching feature film of the same name, the E.T. game was released in 1982 for the classic Atari 2600 game console.
Recently, the legend of the secret cartridge burial was confirmed as a documentary filmmaker set out to unearth the long-lost Atari graveyard, located in a landfill outside Alamogordo, New Mexico, about 200 miles southeast of Albuquerque. Three hours and several layers of trash later, digging in a 150 by 150-foot area, workers uncovered the first signs that this was, in fact, the legendary Atari burial site.
The dig was undertaken by Microsoft Corp’s Xbox Entertainment Studios, the producers behind the documentary film reportedly to be focused on the early years and eventual collapse of the Atari video game empire. The story goes that Atari was saddled with most of the 5 million E.T. cartridges, which were a commercial failure, and buried them, secretly, under cover of night.
One of the VIP’s at the dig was Howard Scott Warshaw, the game’s original designer, who told the press that there could be as many as 750,000 game cartridges buried at the site. Warshaw also designed one of Atari’s biggest hits, “Yar’s Revenge.” Given the “archeological” nature of the Atari dig, there’s an irony in that the game maker also put out a “Raiders of the Lost Ark” video game, also listed with E.T. as one of the company’s worst releases.
On a personal note, and possibly stranger than this story to some, is the fact that I actually still have my original, 1982 Atari 2600 console and game cartridges, all in pristine, working order. Ah, I still marvel at the sleek, faux wood grain finish and the uncomplicated joystick with a single button; classic. I know weird, right? But I always loved my Atari set. It was one of the first “computer” games to which I was exposed and probably contributed to the years of work I spent as a programmer and computer specialist.
A couple of years ago, a friend gave me a modern knock-off of the classic console which is considerably smaller with wireless joysticks and 20 or so games already programmed into it – so no cartridges. Strangely, it loses something on the 46-inch, HD TV screen it’s plugged into. I kind of miss my little, 19-inch color Zenith. Incidentally, I still have my Atari E.T. cartridge and a book that tells you how to win the game. The newer version is just not the same.
In spite of the nostalgia experienced by those of us who grew up in the 80s, there’s a lot to be learned from the E.T. game story. In 1983, Atari was struggling to recover from a failed product and losing sales during a national recession. When a company like Atari creates a product based on a film franchise like “E.T.” or “Batman,” the expense of licensing alone can significantly increase the cost of production over an original title like “Pong” or “Missile Command.”
Because of the added expense, the licensed products must far outperform their counterparts just to be considered successful and add profit for the manufacturer. The E.T. game clearly started out in the red and, because people simply didn’t like the over-priced cartridge, Atari couldn’t recover from the financial blow.
Since Microsoft’s production division is funding the excavation of the Atari landfill site, it stands to reason there is finally money to be made from the demise of the game. My guess is that the dig is simply a film-length “advertisement” for the Xbox game consoles engaged primarily as what now appears to be a highly successful publicity stunt; something Atari could have used more of back in the day.
There’s probably a lot more to be gained from a study of Atari’s successes and failures, but I just don’t have the time. I have to go and see if I can get to the next level on my “Asteroids” cartridge. Good gaming!
Gery L. Deer is an independent columnist and owner of Deer Computer Consulting, Ltd. in Jamestown, Ohio. More at www.deerinheadlines.com.