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The E.T. Dig

Yesterday, in a landfill in New Mexico, copies of E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial for Atari 2600 were unearthed, apparently confirming rumors of their mass burial in 1983.

I recalled hearing this story at some point, many years ago, but I don’t recall exactly when. It’s been repeated often enough. A number of Atari employees said that it was true, but as I recall the company officially denied it, leading to speculation as to whether it was really true or not. Likely the denials were to avoid admitting that the business was in trouble.

While the find confirms that Atari product was buried in the landfill, it’s still unclear how accurate the rumors really were. Over the years, I heard many things about the burial:

  • Supposedly, according to some, the games were crushed (whether by a compactor, or a steam roller or other heavy vehicle, it’s unclear) before burial, in order to take up less room in the landfill, or to prevent their being dug up and salvaged. This appears not to be true, as intact cartridges apparently have been recovered in what appears to be nearly pristine condition (unless of course the recovery story is a fabrication).
  • I also heard that the games were covered over with a layer of cement. This seems likely an embellishment. To my knowledge, landfills do not typically use cement to cover over layers of deposited waste, although they do sometimes use earth to bury waste in order to reduce pests such as rats and seagulls, reduce the odor, and prevent winds from blowing the waste away. Cement is expensive, and there’s really no reason for it, since this isn’t radioactive waste, but I always thought that it suggested a deep shame on Atari’s part, that they wanted to hide the fact so much that they would cover it up with cement, like a murderer burying a victim in the basement under a cement floor.
  • Supposedly, something like 5 million copies of E.T. were manufactured, and most were unsold, so the number of games buried in the landfill is supposedly a vast number. So far what I’ve read of what’s been reported has said that a few hundred copies have been recovered. So it remains to be seen whether more will be found at the site.
  • E.T. is remembered as one of the worst games of all time, but this is actually a somewhat unfair label to pin on the game. It sold quite well, 1.5 million copies, which is an unqualified hit, but for the fact that it was greatly overproduced. Selling well isn’t quite the same thing as being a good game, and the game did have a fair share of negative reviews. The complaints for the most part had to do with the difficulty of avoiding falling into pits that exist nearly in nearly every screen of the game, and play a prominent part in the game, but which don’t exist at all in the movie. Movie adaptation games often suffer from poor treatment, and failing to faithfully follow the plot of the movie story. Of course, the same can also be said of film adaptations of books. Apart from the pits, the game does actually include a lot of plot elements from the film, and somewhat reasonably follows the plot. What’s more important is not that the game re-tell the movie, but that it be a good game. E.T. may or may not be a good game, that’s a subjective judgement. But from a technical standpoint it was relatively well executed, including numerous innovations and technical feats that were impressive considering the hardware limitations. Apart from the pits, the game also suffered from a strange zone-based mechanic that was difficult to understand without referencing the manual. At the time E.T. was released, most games were simple arcade action style games involving shooting and dodging. E.T. involved a complex quest for pieces of the phone he uses to call home to arrange to be picked up by his people’s space ship, and many players likely simply weren’t ready for a complex game like this, and disliked it more for that reason than anything.
  • E.T. is often blamed for causing the Crash of 1983. It’s more accurate to say that the Crash of 1983 contributed to E.T.’s sales falling far below expectations, resulting in huge losses due to overproduction. As such, it was more a victim of the Crash than a cause of it. It was certainly a high profile commercial failure, but the real cause was a lack of quality control among the dozens of fly-by-night companies that sprung up to capitalize on the immense success of the Atari 2600. Atari could not control third parties through licensing, and the market was flooded with poor games, many of which were far worse than E.T.

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