Thanks to a Canadian digital media company, at least one urban legend might be soon be either proven to be true, or finally put to rest.
No, it’s not Bigfoot, nor the giant man-eating flushed-as-overgrown-babies albino alligators lurking in the New York City sewer system. (No amount of ‘disproof’ in the world is ever going to make me stop believing in either of those.)
Or whether or not the kid who played ‘Mikey’ in all the Life cereal commercials really did shuffle off this mortal coil from ingesting a dangerously volatile combination of Pop Rocks and soda.
My childhood friends and I mythbusted that one decades ago in a schoolyard gastronomic Russian Roulette that, in our experiments, introduced the x-factor of sucker punches to the gut to speed along the supposed deadly chemical reaction.
No one, I’m happy to report, perished, but many a wind was broken that day in the pursuit of science.
What I’m talking about is whether or not videogame pioneer Atari really did dump upwards of three-and-a-half million crushed copies of one of the most reviled games ever coded, the licensed E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600, into a New Mexico landfill, then layered the refuse over with concrete, literally burying their shame.
I was born in 1972, the exact same year partners Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney founded Atari, so I was among the first generation of gamers to grow up alongside the new medium, dropping untold numbers of quarters into a slot with our reward to be dazzled for about two, maybe two-and-a-half minutes, before begging our impatient parents for just one more coin.
You know, I’ve often wondered if there wasn’t some secret pact between game designers and parents of that era that the parents would readily fork over the pocket change IF the game-makers made the difficulty curve of any given coin-op title increase exponentially every thirty seconds or so. That way parents would only have to stand around bored for maybe five minutes tops waiting for their progeny to use up their virtual lives so that Mom and Dad could get on with their real ones.
My Dad had pretty much mastered the empty pocket jangle pantomime to prove that he didn’t have any further food to let me feed the machines with far more quickly than my Asteroids skills had developed.
If there was a treaty between the two sides, it was completely obliterated come 1976 when Bushnell and his team started work on the Atari Video Computer System, which would allow videogames to be taken from the bars, grocery stores, and pizza parlors directly into the living room at home. As kids, we rejoiced en masse.
Our parents, meanwhile, grumbled at the prospect of battling not Invaders from Space, but their own children over control of the family TV in the afternoons and evenings. Television manufacturers salivated at finally giving the prospect of giving the bourgeois American family a reason to have more than one set in a household.
While many gamers wax fond nostalgia over the NES, with its various 8-bit iterations of Mario or Link, by then, for us Gen 2600ers, gaming was old hat.
Although I’m sure any of us will admit, those cutting-edge translations of Shigeru Miyamoto’s creations were impressive — especially having cut our teeth on technology that only allowed for user-controlled squares that were alternately supposed to represent either spaceships, baseball players, tanks, or whatever the awesome looking painting on the adhesive label of the Atari VCS cartridges reminded us we were supposed to be doing instead of what was actually going on on-screen: making squares move around the screen and shoot other squares.
This would be why the sole button on the Atari 2600 joystick controller was usually referred to as the ‘fire’ button. Even if you were playing a non-violent game, like, say, Othello, it was still the fire button. We did a lot of shooting in those days, often at aliens from another world set to obliterate mankind, which all us youngsters fervently believed (or at least hoped) would be an applicable skillset to develop, if for nothing else to guilt our mothers who were aghast that we were spending entirely perfectly good sunny summer afternoons indoors.
If fact, enough of us had this shared dream that Hollywood eventually made a movie about it: The Last Starfighter. Wherein a young high-scoring videogame ace was whisked to the far end of the galaxy to do engage in intergalactic war that today looks quaint compared to the virtual simulations of Halo.
“And you wanted me out getting fresh air, playing kickball instead of Laser Blast, Mom. Did kickball save us from being subjugated by a hostile spacefaring species from ten thousand light years away? No, me and my Left Thumb of Steel did. And I got this commendation from the President for doing it, too. ”
Nascent saviors of the human race or not, we really had no excuse for leaving our Atari ‘tapes’ lying around underfoot to be stepped upon and summarily confiscated for our irresponsibility. Somewhere, there was teachable moment in all those primitive BLEEPs, BLOOPs, and BLAATs, and mothers were usually a little more practical than just developing the muscle memory necessary to fry those extraterrestrial starfighters out of the sky with our particle beam cannons at some future watershed moment.
Back in those heady days, we really didn’t have a way to determine whether or not a given game was five stars or negative two. The internet, at that time, was still fulfilling its primary function of being room-sized computers connected via telephone lines in order for authorities to redistribute the only foodstuffs immune to the rigors of global thermonuclear war — Twinkies — as well as coordinate defenses against the roving packs of giant radioactive cockroaches that would immediately rise past us to the top of the foodchain, all thanks to those stinking Commies.
And, probably, trading ASCII pr0n. Because you know that somewhere, there was a lonely university geek who was hellbent to translate Miss July’s shapely form from the pages of Playboy onto cardboard punch cards and send it to an equally lonely geek hundreds of miles away.
When you were, by some miracle, able to choose what Atari 2600 game you got to bring home from the department store or order from the Sears & Roebuck Christmas Wishbook catalog (kids, imagine if all of Amazon could be compressed into a single, physical tome, which would only be a couple hundred pages long, because back then, we simply didn’t have as much stuff), you usually made the choice based on multiple factors, such as:
A) the single screenshot on the back, which *always* resembled a virtual world built out of Legos placed on their side
B) how interesting the title of the game was (*very* important — if the word ‘blast’ or ‘attack’ was in there somewhere, you could usually assume that to be a relatively sure signifier of quality, or at least you knew what you were getting into — not like that weird game Donkey Kong where, at least in the 2600 port, you played a fat little stick figure guy who just jumped over barrels and fireballs instead of just nuking his simian nemesis into oblivion with single press of a button: we called it the FIRE button for a REASON)
and C) whether or not someone else in your family and/ or peer group was likely to get the same game, since we not only didn’t have Xbox Live for multiplayer fragfests, we didn’t have cable TV, and there was no need for two of us to each have a copy of, say, Warlords.
No one had yet copped to the idea of renting videogames out by the day, because they knew damn well that an exchange that let a VCS cartridge go for, say, a dollar, meant by the end of the week they’d never see any of those things ever again and we’d have been totally thrilled that we got a brand new game for the price of a few packs of baseball cards.
So those of us who chose Atari’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial in 1982 had no idea just how toxically bad that game was. The movie was awesome, and my ten-year-old friends and I all loved it. To say otherwise meant we’d secretly dump Pop Rocks into your Pepsi when you weren’t looking and hope for massive internal combustion.
An Atari videogame where you got to play as E.T.?
That was all but unheard of, and better than a truckload of Reese’s Pieces overturning in the middle of the street and the driver knocked unconscious and unable to stop the pre-adolescent looting as well as the subsequent sugar rush.
Without IGN or Kotaku or any of a multitude of other gaming sites or blogs to meticulously follow each step of the game’s development and allow three hundred different people to simultaneously weigh in each minute detail (and invariably launch into the flamewar of whether or not E.T. would be better on, say, Colecovision than the Atari 2600, or that the disc-shaped directional pad on the Intellivision controller would clearly be much better suited for the game), we had no idea that the game had to be made, from the time the ink hit the contracts to the finished code being turned in, in five weeks so that it would be able to be in stores for Christmas.
We also didn’t know that even Atari’s CEO, Ray Kassar, who hadn’t brokered the reported $20-$25 million licensing deal with Steven Spielberg and Universal Pictures — done instead by Atari’s parent company, Warner Communications — stated that he thought the whole thing was a “dumb idea”.
No one told us that programmer Howard Scott Warshaw only had three days to design a game that Atari would ultimately spend a reported $125 million on (including the licensing fees), or that even Spielberg himself was not impressed with Warshaw’s ideas, with the visionary filmmaker suggesting that perhaps instead they should just make a simple Pac-Man clone with E.T. running around a maze, gobbling his beloved Reese’s Pieces (and presumably being pursued by a quartet of joykilling government-employed Men in Black).
That might’ve been nice to know, and obsess over.
E.T. went on to actually sell 1.5 million copies over the 1982 holiday season, even though Atari had went ahead and manufactured far more cartridges than that based on anticipated demands and plain and simple corporate hubris — this is the same company who, with their 2600 port of Pac-Man, made more carts than there were consoles to play on, assuming that not only would every single person who owned the console would buy one, but the mere existence of an exclusive home version of the arcade mega-hit would drive millions to go out and finally buy a VCS.
Which they actually did . . . but then angry consumers returned the crappy port in record numbers, stacking returns on top of the five MILLION Pac-Man cartridges that they weren’t able to sell.
I didn’t actually get a copy of E.T. under the Christmas tree that year, for whatever reason — I actually didn’t get many of the late 2600 era games that were rushed out by third-party publishers and were of extremely poor quality, because my mother cited that I already had enough ‘tapes’ for my Atari (never understood why our parents called them tapes . . . perhaps they confused the ROM carts with the similarly shaped audio 8-track format) and she wasn’t paying $50 for another.
And that was the same logic that kept me from adding an Intellivision or Colecovision or any of the other home consoles that were kicking around during the time to my burgeoning videogame collection.
When you’re ten, it’s hard to get a strong bargaining position. Holding one’s breath or threatening to run away only gets one so far.
That was probably a wise choice on her part, as the game was atrocious. Enough so that even without text messaging and Twitter, word spread quickly and Atari was left holding the bag to the tune of between 2.5 to 3.5 million E.T. carts (reports seem to vary depending on the source), between the overproduced, unsold inventory and the returns. According to one report, retailer J.C. Penney had eventually discounted the game to less than one dollar just to get the stench out of their stockrooms.
One of the kids in the neighborhood who was slightly older than most of our group actually did get a copy of E.T. for Christmas, and was damn determined to make bitter lemonade out of his rancid citrus and actually complete the game.
There was no Gamestop in this era, kids, and no way to easily pawn off your bad purchasing decisions on some other unsuspecting fool and profit in the process.
Most of us had spent about five minutes struggling with the game’s poor, confusing design and lousy controls and just went back to the simpler pastures of, say, Circus Atari, where all we had to do was launch stick figure clowns from a moveable teeter-totter and pop colored squares that were supposed to be balloons yet in actuality were indistinguishable from the intrepid four-sided protagonist-dot of the earliest of the electronic RPGs, the 2600 version of Adventure.
Somehow, I had gotten roped into helping with this insane venture. This might have been due to the fact that I had the highest aptitude for art amongst my peers, having spent countless hours drawing Batman and Spider-Man, and we figured the only way the game was going to be beaten was by drawing actual maps of the various interconnected screens on paper, which consisted of mostly large splotches of dark representing pits that E.T. managed to fall into about every 2.06 seconds.
Or maybe I just felt pity for this poor comrade-in-virtual-arms who was given the choice to select only one game for Christmas and when he put his hand into the hat to pull out the rabbit, it was foaming at the mouth.
Either way, I spent longer than I care to admit watching E.T. elongate his neck and attempt to navigate out of pits that I’d care to admit. This was probably the first game that I was perfectly content being purely a spectator, as when offered the joystick, I simply shook my head and went back to doodling Bat-symbols on our homemade maps.
The best way I can describe playing E.T. to a modern audience is imagine playing something like Call of Duty or Halo, where roughly 75% of the level you have to traverse is pocked with massive sinkholes. And that if you get even too close to the edge of the sinkholes — the exact distance seems to be almost determined randomly — the ground crumbles and you go plummeting into said pit, at which time you have to execute a complex series of button inputs to escape.
But the battery level on your controller is constantly at almost empty, so it doesn’t respond roughly half the time to your button presses, meaning no matter how close you are to the edge of the pit, you go rolling back down to the bottom. (The controller may also have suffered some physical abuse from being spiked off the floor in sheer frustration. I’m pretty sure playing E.T. with my friend is the first time I ever witnessed heated controller tossing. And I think I may have also added a few choice words to my vocabulary, as well.)
While it’s anticlimactic to admit, I can’t say whether or not we finished E.T. or not. I honestly think I might have lied to this kid and told him I was grounded just so I didn’t have to go back to his house. Even if we did complete it, it was a pyrrhic victory.
If parents at the time had been at all savvy toward videogames, rather than return E.T. for a refund, they would’ve kept that plastic and silicon piece of @#$% and used it as a means of punishment for failing to do chores or poor report card scores. Juvenile delinquency in the early 80s would’ve dropped a good double-digit percentage.
E.T. was such a miserable failure that it triggered an avalanche that helped lead to the videogame industry crashing and burning over the course of the following year to the point where it made the Hindenburg look like a minor mishap with a balloon and an open flame. Warner’s stock alone dropped 35% with weeks of the game’s release, shredding $1.3 billion of the company’s overall value.
Atari, forced to cut costs and adjust to greatly reduced demand, closed a domestic manufacturing plant in El Paso, Texas, outsourced production overseas, and decided to just write off massive amounts of unsold cartridge inventory. They cut a deal in 1983 with the town of Alamagordo, New Mexico to use their landfill, and depending on reports, moved ten to twenty truckloads of unspecified inventory into the dump, which was crushed, and then had concrete poured over it.
Why the extreme measures?
According to one source, it was to ‘protect’ the area kids, who, town officials believed would end up rooting around in the dump looking for free games, and there’s ‘dead animals in there’. Indeed, one source claims that the contract with Atari was for twenty-six truckloads’ worth of refuse, total, and almost immediately, with the first three trucks coming in, word had spread and teenagers were digging up and hauling off what they could salvage, so the plan was changed to crush the materials and then bury it encased in cement.
(Which I’ll have to admit that my friends and I would’ve been right in there, had this happened in our backyards. Free videogames? We used to play in and around far worse things that a few raccoon skeletons for far less reward.)
The great Atari landfill has been a subject of debate ever since, with various sides claiming they saw it first-hand — that while Atari claimed it was defective merchandise, the initial dumps were of factory-sealed boxes of merch, with others saying it wasn’t only unsold and returned inventory but possibly may have included rare prototypes.
On the opposing side, many, including E.T. programmer Howard Scott Warshaw himself, have suggested the landfill story was a huge hoax, a nice denouement to Atari’s massive faceplant with E.T. to say that millions of copies of the games were buried in a dump.
In any case, Fuel Industries has been granted six months to go poking around the 100-acre Alamagordo landfill and make a documentary of their efforts, in the hopes of bringing a closure to the thirty-year-old mystery. With no official record of where on the hundred acres the entombed Atari treasure trove may be, they’ve clearly got their work cut out for them.
My thoughts on the subject? Well, and let me adjust my tinfoil cap here, place tongue firmly in cheek . . . we all know what else is in New Mexico: a little town called Roswell.
Maybe the E.T. buried there in Alamagordo isn’t exactly the same kind we’re all thinking of.
According to this report, there is actually a not-making-this-up (seriously, I’m not) connection between Roswell and the Atari landfill — the father of the female reporter who first broke the Atari story locally in the Alamagordo Daily News was the editor at the Roswell Daily Dispatch and got the Air Force’s initial press release concerning the recovery of a crashed ‘flying disk’ in 1947.
What if all those trucks backing up with the Atari logo on the side weren’t really from Atari, and didn’t really come from Texas? Roswell and Alamagordo are only 116 miles apart. You know, I *was* just joking around, but I think I might be on to someth —
Hang on, someone’s at the door.
Yeah, I —
So what was I saying?
Oh, yeah, that clearly this whole thing is a hoax and those guys at Fuel Industries are sadly on a snipe hunt.
Thanks for dropping by . . . uhm, Public Domain! Wait, why do I have a bunch of notes here that say (REDACTED) and that (CLASSIFIED) and why am I wearing this stupid tinfoil on my head, anyway?
There’s the door again. Wow, I’m popular today.