By Andrew Dodson on April 27, 2014 at 12:46am
In 1982, Atari cashed in on the wildly popular movie "ET" by creating a game based on the same story. Howard Scott Warshaw was tapped to design the game, having had recent success making the Atari adaption of the "Raiders of the Lost Ark" game. There was just one catch. They wanted it ready for the 1982 Christmas season, and because it had taken so long to secure the rights, Warshaw only had five and a half weeks to design the game from scratch.
It went about as well as you think it would.
After the successful movie, fan anticipation of the game was incredibly high and Atari made a lot of copies, about four million. Even with all the hype, however, only about 1.5 million copies sold, forcing retailers that had too many on the shelf to drop the price to almost nothing (from $49.99 to about $1). They just couldn't get rid of them, and Atari ended up with truckloads of unsold cartridges. The game was a holiday bestseller, netting Atari about 25 million in sales. However, Atari ended up losing 100 million through overproduction and returns.
Public critical response to the game was also very low. The game was not fun. It is often noted as one of the worst games of all time. A quick Google search for critic reviews of the game say more than any "worst game list" ever could. Brad Hicks from Swankworld:
Everything about "ET" oozes the terms “rush job” and “cash in” like no other game. The mixture of bad visuals (even by 2600 standards), overly frustrating and often times broken gameplay, and seemingly unreachable goals make "ET" less like a game and more like a bunch of pointless busy work that make a root canal or taking care of your grandmother ridden with the crabapple mcnasties more entertaining by comparison.
What did Atari do with these millions of unwanted game cartridges? The same thing anyone does with literal physical evidence of their shame: take it to New Mexico and bury it in the desert.
Alamogordo, N.M. was the chosen cemetery for the millions of unused "ET" cartridges (as well as other old junk that Atari didn't want). The location was chosen because the landfill had a "no scavenging" rule, and everything they had was crushed and buried on a nightly basis. 3.5 million "ET" games (and other junk too apparently) were, crushed, buried, and encased in concrete over the course of one night, never to been seen again and only spoken of in the same way one speaks of alligators in NYC sewers or the legendary Sasquatch.
30 years passed.
For a documentary chronicling the fall of Atari (the failed "ET" game is often cited as one of the reasons for the company's failure), Zak Penn, the film's director (known for work on "X-Men 2" and "The Avengers"), was given permission to dig up the landfill and try to find the boxes of crushed history on a sunny day on April 26. A backhoe scrapped through decades of sand, rock, and trash until finally a load of boxes bearing the Atari logo were uncovered. As the crew investigated, they uncovered a cartridge. Then another. And then another.
Against whispered rumor, decades of time, and the desert itself, they succeeded in uncovering the lost trove of Atari's hastily hidden failures.
"I feel pretty relieved and psyched that they actually got to see something," Penn said as the crew sifted through the piles. Originally, there had been a crowd of several hundred, including game designer himself Howard Warshaw. But as the day worn on and winds kicked up dust and garbage, most had dispersed. Only a couple dozen remained to see the actual discovery. The city of Alamogordo is giving the Penn and his documentary 250 copies of the recovered game. They plan on attempting to sell the rest to raise a bit of tourism interest in their city.
I suspect the games will end up back in the landfill before too long.
Zak Penn Twitter ET Atari Wiki USA Today