Searchers unearth grave of “E.T.,” the video game Atari wanted us to forget

Atari ET video game

(CNN) — “E.T.” may have soared in the movies. But as a video game, it was an epic turkey.

When electronics pioneer Atari rushed a game based on the 1982 Hollywood blockbuster to market for its then-dominant home consoles, it was a flop, compounded by the fact that the infant industry was hitting its first slump at the time.

So Atari literally buried the project, dumping truckloads of unsold games in a desert landfill in New Mexico. And amid a decade of entertainment-industry disasters bookended by the movie “Heaven’s Gate” and Milli Vanilli, the “E.T.” game quickly faded into urban legend.

“Riiiight,” you say.

No, really. And over the weekend, with a couple of hundred onlookers watching, excavators led by a documentary film crew began to unearth stacks of 30-year-old Atari cartridges from a landfill outside Alamogordo.

“Urban legend CONFIRMED,” Larry Hryb, one of the creators of Microsoft’s Xbox gaming platform, reported via Twitter from the dig site. Microsoft’s Xbox Entertainment Studios is one of the backers of the planned documentary, tentatively titled “Atari: Game Over.” Hryb also tweeted a photo of the first cartridge to be dug out.

Not so fast, Atari historian Curt Vendel said Monday. “E.T.” cartridges were just one of more than 20 titles found over the weekend, and may not make up more than a fifth of the estimated 700,000-plus units the ailing Atari discarded in 1983, he said. As far as he’s concerned, the great “E.T.” caper remains “a myth.”

“This was a write-off dump,” said Vendel, the co-author of a 2012 book on the company. Atari was being hit from all sides by a saturated market for arcade games, competition from other companies making games for its famous 2600 console and by a large volume of returns from retailers — a problem it had never before faced and wasn’t prepared to handle.

“Poor sales, the video game crash, ‘E.T.’s’ not a great game — the whole thing kind of snowballs together, and then you find Atari is dumping cartridges in the desert,” he said. “That’s how this whole myth kind of self-generated.”

One of those on hand at the landfill Saturday was Howard Scott Warshaw, the game’s designer. When excavators started to retrieve the first of what may be hundreds of thousands of copies of his misbegotten baby, “Everybody went nuts,” Warshaw said.

“I’ve been carrying this thing, the theoretically worst video game of all time, for 30 years now,” he said. “It was a game that was done in five weeks. It was a very brief development. I did the best that I could, and that’s OK.”

But seeing the cartridges emerge from the desert dust was a rush for Warshaw, who’s now a Silicon Valley psychotherapist.

“Something that I did 32 years ago is still creating joy and excitement for people,” he said. “That’s a tremendously satisfying thing for me now.”

Today’s Atari, which still sells games but no longer makes its own platforms, did not respond to a request for comment Sunday. The original company folded in 1984, and several successive companies have bought the name, Vendel said.

“E.T” was rushed to stores in time for Christmas 1982, hobbled not only by its short development time but by a license and royalty agreement that promised the film’s director, Steven Spielberg, $21 million, Vendel said. The company needed to sell out of the 5 million units it produced to break even; it sold about 3.5 million by the following fall, he said.

By that time, Atari was collapsing. About the time “E.T.” hit the shelves, a poor and badly delayed earnings report spooked investors, “and everybody started running to go sell,” Vendel said. At its peak, it employed about 11,000 people; it was shedding employees by the thousands in 1983, and had only about 900 left by the time it closed down.

“They were just cutting the meat off the bone,” he said.

And so in 1983, the company dumped 14 truckloads of merchandise from its service center in El Paso, Texas, in the Alamogordo landfill, about 90 miles away, Vendel said. To keep scavengers from reselling them, the cartridges were covered by a layer of concrete.

None of the “E.T.” cartridges unearthed over the weekend was playable, Warshaw said. But he said there may be as many as 750,000 of them in the landfill, with many successful titles mixed in with the “E.T.” games.

“It was the end of the first product life cycle, and nobody really knew what they were doing,” Warshaw said. Now, manufacturers are designing their next systems even as their new ones start shipping to stores.

“It was a very wacky company, but that’s one of the things that made it amazing place to work,” said Warshaw, who’s come to embrace the game’s infamy.

“I don’t really believe it’s one of the worst games ever, but I really like it when people identify it that way,” Warshaw told CNN. And because he also designed of one of Atari’s best-rated games, “Yars’ Revenge,” he said, “I have the greatest range of any game designer in history.”

By Matt Smith, CNN

CNN’s Steve Almasy contributed to this report.

The-CNN-Wire
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