The Strange Resurrection of Atari’s Long-Buried E.T.

A video game that once was blamed for the downfall of the U.S. gaming industry now resides at the Smithsonian. Atari's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was an unvarnished attempt to capitalize on the success of the popular film. Atari rushed out the game, and it was bad -- very bad. The company dramatically attempted to bury its shame in a landfill, but its E.T. has come back to life.

The National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian, has added a vintage copy of the Atari 2600 video game E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to its collection. This particular game is meant to fill a void in the museum’s collection, namely the unrepresented dark days of the 1980s when the United State video game industry crashed.

This Atari game didn’t come from an old collection, though. Rather, it’s an example of the truism that one person’s trash is another’s treasure. Many museums around the world feature pieces of art that were recovered at archeological dig sites, but this game cartridge was unearthed at a New Mexican landfill.

Atari E.T. Cartridges

Some of the Atari E.T. Cartridges Found at Dig in Alamogordo, New Mexico (Photo: taylorhatmaker; CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

Video Game Crash

Atari helped launch the home video game console market in the late 1970s. By 1982, the company faced intense competition from the likes of Mattel’s Intellivision and Coleco’s Colecovision. At the same time, a slew of independent game developers, hoping to cash in on the install bases of those consoles, began to flood the market with lackluster titles.

The market already was poised for a crash when Atari made the rash decision to rush out a game tied to Warner Bros.’ hit film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Atari, which reportedly spent between US$20 million and $25 million for the rights to the Steven Spielberg film, commissioned a game title to be produced within six weeks at a time when game development typically took six to nine months. It needed to sell 4 million copies for the title to be a success.

“That is a lot to pin on one game,” said video game industry consultant P.J. McNealy.

Atari had set itself up for disaster — it shipped fewer than a million copies.

Still, it is “worth remembering that this is one of the first — if not the first — big movie tie-ins for games,” McNealy told TechNewsWorld. “The game didn’t sell, but it is really a broad stroke. This is part of the correlation not causation” of the industry’s decline.

From Trash to Treasure

Since the E.T. games weren’t selling at stores, and many that did sell subsequently were returned, Atari made another rash decision and buried some of the unsold games in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico. To deter people from seeking out the games, Atari claimed they had been covered by concrete. The company kept their exact location secret.

For more than 30 years, rumors about the location of the site circulated, and the intense speculation gradually transformed into an urban legend.

Last year, Alamogordo’s city council voted to allow gaming company Fuel Industries to search for the games, and the site was discovered. Dozens of copies were found, and one was supplied to Smithsonian museum technician Drew Robarge.

The cartridge and what is left of its packaging have been added to the permanent collection of The National Museum of American History.

“Despite it being a dreadful game, E.T. represents something more substantial than bad design,” said Jon Gibson, cocurator of Iam8Bit.

“It’sa symbol of the game industry’s ambition,” he told TechNewsWorld. “They manufactured more E.T. cartridges then there were Atari consoles to play them on. E.T. is a relic of impossible, hilarious ego.”

Part of the Bigger Crash

Atari’s E.T. is just one aspect of a much larger problem that developed during the early days of the game console industry.

“That game has become a symbol of the domestic crash in the video market that occurred between 1983 and 1985,” said Lewis Ward, IDC research director for gaming.

“Ascribing a multiyear crash like that to a single game is of course a misleading oversimplification of what happened,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“Still, the symbol stuck, and the strange details of the saga — such as the fact that millions of copies of the game were buried in New Mexico, like some reverse Roswell — helps to keep the story alive,” Ward noted.

“Contrasting the massive hit that was E.T. the movie and the massive flop of the Atari game tie-in is another memorable juxtaposition,” he observed. “The video game industry was in its infancy in the early ’80s. Volatility is normal in such a young market.”

Ancient History

Because the video game industry is just a few decades old, it is somewhat ironic that one of its historic artifacts was recovered through a type of archeology. The Smithsonian no doubt sees the tongue-in-cheek value of pulling an historic flop from the muck and preserving it for posterity.

“From the Smithsonian’s perspective, this is a bid to stay relevant among millennials. They’re trying to augment their collection of material that relates to fairly recent cultural developments,” said Ward.

“Gaming tends to be much more popular among youths and younger adults, so by adding this type of content it may help drive the next generation of Americans through the turnstiles,” he added.

“There are now four generations of gamers,” McNealy noted. “The Smithsonian is finally taking notice of an exciting time for the industry — even if it was a dark one. Gaming is finally getting its historical due.”

Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who has covered consumer electronics, technology, electronic entertainment and fitness-related trends for more than a decade. His work has appeared in more than three dozen publications, and he is the co-author of Careers in the Computer Game Industry (Career in the New Economy series), a career guide aimed at high school students from Rosen Publishing. You can connect with Peter on Google+.

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