As skeptics, we’re prone to doubting those stories that are told and retold over long periods of time, often taking on mythic proportions. The video game world has its own share of such urban legends, though few as impactful as this one.
In the midst of a glut of competing consoles, and a glut of poorly programmed games trying to cash in on the then-burgeoning home video game market as pioneered by Coleco and Atari, the entire market reached a saturation point and consumer backlash. Stores flooded with overstocks of games that they couldn’t sell attempted to return them and failed when the companies who made them went under. Even the industry’s flagship, Atari, and their movie tie-in game E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, quickly became financial failures when that bubble burst in 1983.
E.T. had been rushed to market in a mere six weeks to make the Christmas season, and the game’s state certainly showed. Despite it having a number of innovations in the industry — side-quests, cut-scenes, a title screen, an open-world, and a quest that could be completed — it was a shambles gameplay-wise. Its pixel-perfect collision with pits meant that if E.T.’s head touched one of the various traps, he’d fall in and be forced to expend precious energy getting out. A bug caused E.T. to always fall into a pit when entering one of two rooms from a particular direction. And though the game was very innovative and non-confrontational — the scientist and FBI agent would take your phone parts and drag you to their screen, causing you to have wasted energy — that precious energy was your only real frustration in the game. Every action took energy, and it bled away during the necessary exploration. What should have been a peaceful game, rife with potential and innovation, was an exercise in frustration. It’s widely regarded as the worst video game ever. (Though, in my opinion, incorrectly — I’ll tell you about the very worst game, in my eyes, sometime. Remind me.)
And it was vastly overproduced. Atari had commissioned some four million cartridges, and the vast majority of them went unsold — three and a half million were returned to the ailing company. Rumours abounded that the company had sent most of these cartridges (as well as many of the equally reviled Atari 2600 port of Pac-Man, which was nigh-unplayable with the flickering enemies and ridiculously simplified “maze”) to a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Until very recently, those rumours were just that — stories, urban legend, which nobody could confirm and a number of important people in the industry actually actively doubted.
An excavation team working for a documentary on the video games industry, however, just found exactly what was long rumoured to exist: a burial site filled with shrink-wrapped E.T. cartridges.
Film director Zak Penn showed one “E.T.” cartridge retrieved from the site and said that hundreds more were found in the mounds of trash and dirt scooped by a backhoe.
About 200 residents and game enthusiasts gathered early Saturday in southeastern New Mexico to watch backhoes and bulldozers dig through the concrete-covered landfill in search of up to a million discarded copies of “E.T. The Extraterrestrial” that the game’s maker wanted to hide forever.
“I feel pretty relieved and psyched that they actually got to see something,” said Penn as members of the production team sifted through the mounds of trash, pulling out boxes, games and other Atari products.
Despite it being widely reviled, the legend was large enough that not only is a documentary being made, but actual interested parties were on-site to witness the exhuming of the landfill. That says something about how legends are built out of actual events, and to me, it’s pretty exciting that this particular legend turned out to be (at least partly) true.
Whether the landfill has three point five million of these cartridges is another question, but I’m going to guess there’s a very significant cache of these. I would not be surprised if they start popping up on eBay, in fact.
This story has inspired me. I think I’m going to start blogging about video game myths. Surely if El Chupacabra is a serious topic of academic skepticism, so too is video game myths. Like, say… did you ever hear the one about Pokemon Red for the original Gameboy, and the music that drove kids to commit suicide and self-mutilate in Japan? I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow.