Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

E.T. Exhumed from New Mexico Desert

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 29, 2014

ataricart_etI suppose everyone has heard about this by now. I was knee-deep in getting this website put back together, and even I heard about it over the weekend. I’d heard it was happening a couple of weeks ago, but then promptly forgot about it. It seems Microsoft and others got permission to exhume (and document) one of more famous landfills of all time – the one where, according to legend, millions of E.T. Cartridges for the Atari 2600 were buried.

Atari E.T. Cartridges Unearthed in New Mexico Desert

I was a gamer back then, though I never owned an Atari 2600. I played it at a friend’s house. Well, lots of friends’ houses. I was pretty jealous of it until I got my Commodore 64. I’d heard the same stories. As the legend goes, Atari was in a world of hurt, and E.T. was something of a “hail mary” play for them. They actually produced more cartridges than the install base of consoles – on the theory that the mega-hit movie license would revive the flagging sales of the machine. It failed, and the game was a disaster. In a show of spite (at least to the ears of gamers who heard the story), they covered it with a slab of concrete.

At the time, we accepted it as Truth. It was a couple of decades later before doubt began to be cast on the story.

ataricart_lotsNow, it seems, the legend was at least essentially true. Atari had written off a good chunk of their inventory for tax purposes as the business was collapsing, and had to dispose of it – something like three-quarters of a million unsold game cartridges (rather than millions). It wasn’t just E.T. cartridges either – although that made up a good chunk of the unsold inventory. But when stories of kids sneaking into the dangerous landfill at night and scavenging game cartridges came to light, they decided to pour concrete over the dump site and seal it off. Forever…

… Or at least until last weekend.

Considering the state of the cartridges, I don’t know if you’d call it a “treasure trove” of lost games or anything. For those who don’t remember – the business had gone so far south that these cartridges were being discounted down to… well, not quite as cheap as your average iPhone game, but down to less than the cost to manufacture and distribute the cartridges. At the time, the U.S. at least was saturated by the game console and its cartridges. It was 1970s technology, and hotter tech was not only on the horizon, but it was already here. While an exclusive game license might slow its descent in the marketplace, its fall was already mature and inevitable.

But after thirty years, it does take a little bit of the flavor of an archeological dig. Maybe not an ancient one, as some of the people responsible for it were there for the exhumation, but certainly one of historical interest to some of us.  It’s also more than a little sad, as I remember seeing these boxes in pristine shape on the store shelves.

et_figureApparently, they are making a documentary of this event, which will be cool to see when its done.

And what about the people calling E.T. the “worst game of all time?” I dunno. I’ve seen some pretty bad games in my time. At least a few people think its reputation is unearned, and one guy (?) has made an effort to “repair” the game and make it more playable. There’s seriously only so much you can pack into 4K, but the article was enough for me to revise my view of E.T. (which I didn’t really hate… I was just bored when I played it, and frustrated when I fell into the pits). I haven’t played this “improved” version, but if you have Stella or some other Atari 2600 emulator, you can give it a shot.

It’s pretty cool, 32 years later, to learn the truth about one of gaming’s best-known legends. Now if we could only uncover the truth behind Polybius! 😉


Filed Under: Geek Life, Retro - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

  • Ottomobiehl said,

    Ah, the Atari 2600. My first console.

    I do remember playing E.T. back in the day. I didn’t dislike it. I thought it was fairly hard but then I didn’t really have anything else, other than my other Atari 2600 games and some arcade games, to judge them against.

    I was looking at some of the other games they found at the site and I was surprised. I owned a quite a few of those titles and they were actually pretty good. I have some pretty fond memories of playing those games.

    An interesting thing is the Atari 2600 version of Pac Man. I’ve heard people belittle that game up, down, left and right. I guess some of it was warranted but I don’t know if a lot of people who are criticizing that game remember the fact that there were about a bajillion variations of the Pac Man game with the same mechanic. Run around mazes and collect dots or other items. I looked at the Atari 2600 version as just another game like that. It wasn’t that bad to play and I still fondly remember the sound effects when you’d start a game.

    A few years ago I bought an Atari 2600 Jr. and a few games from a retro site. I was blown away at how much I enjoyed the games. Sure, there was a hit of nostalgia but the games, in most cases, were down right enjoyable…and, in a lot of cases, hard! I remember mastering these games as a kid!

    I’m glad that they found those games at that site and I think that people over exaggerate how bad E.T. was.

    Now, I’m off to play a bit of Pitfall.

  • McTeddy said,

    I’ve been remaking “Bad” old games for my One-Game-A-Month yet ET is one I don’t think I could “fix”. While it’s nowhere near the worst game ever, it’s just dull.

    Even the GBA game that tried expand the concept was boring. Nothing was broken… it just wasn’t satisfying.

    But AVGN exaggerates things for the sake of a show. Much of the internet doesn’t realize that it’s an act and takes his words as gospel.

    It’s actually why I remade Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It’s actually a fairly solid game that was insanely difficult to understand. It had plenty of issues, but turning it into something fun was a simple job.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    McTeddy – I LOVE that idea.

  • Xian said,

    I did get to play ET at a friends (I had an Atari 800 computer where they went with a console). The main thing I remember having issues with was the collision detection. In the green screenshot above for instance, you can see where ET should avoid the hole, but many times you would fall in when only the upper part of your body was over the hole, your feet still firmly planted on the ground.