So for the last two weeks there have been numerous articles from multiple sources detailing the exploits of a documentary crew, set to bust a long held urban myth of the video game industry. The supposed burial of countless numbers of unsold cartridges of the legendary poor E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial video game. A game that was made in less than two months and cost the company $125 million dollars to produce, with a sizeable amount going towards gaining the movie rights. It was billed to be the smash hit for the Christmas season based on the success of the Spielberg’s summer blockbuster. However due to the limited development time and the rush to market the game ended up been a complete failure. The sales figures seemed promising at first with 1.5 million cartridges sold but with 3 to 4 million still unsold it resulted in Atari posting a big loss for the end of 1982. The resulting failure of E.T. and other titles such as the console port of Pac-Man would eventually lead to Atari’s downfall and the industry crash of 83’. E.T.’s contribution to Atari’s financial wows is a fairly cut and dry issue. What would become the question that was debated over the next few decades is what did Atari do with all those unsold cartridges?
“The games developer Howard Scott Warshaw has openly embraced the attention his game has received negative or not, he’s just happy it’s still talked about.”
The answer as proven by the documentary crew on the 26th of April, yes Atari did buried the unsold E.T. cartridge among some other titles. Over 700,000 cartridges were exhumed form the landfill site in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The one thing that I can’t get my head around with all the news coverage on this issue is why this is such a big reveal. A company deposing unsold or faulty merchandise in a landfill is not all that unusual. Of course over time the story has been elaborated on and given an altered narrative. The story of a company so ashamed of their failure that in the dead of night they buried the games in the middle of the desert and sealed it off with concrete to forever entomb the worst video game ever made. The real story is far more mundane that sees a company bury merchandise in a standard landfill close to the company warehouse and seal it with concrete to stop local kids trying to dig it up. In fact if the documentary crew had done a bit of research they would have found a New York Times article archived from September of 1983 that reported on the dumping of the cartridges at the New Mexico landfill site. I have to wonder how Fuel Entertainment the documentary crew behind all this is going to produce a full length feature out of it. Microsoft believes in it so much so that they partnered up with the crew for the event and will be releasing the documentary as part of their new Xbox Originals programme series, set to start up next month.
“What couldn’t be sold in 1983 might find some interested buyers in 2014, with the unearthed cartridges planning to be sold off.”
It’s almost comic how excited the video game community was over the discovery of some rubbish Atari threw out over 30 years ago. What’s next the mystery of what happened to all those Nokia N-gage’s that were shipped but never sold or riffling through the dumpster at Valve to find any mention of Half Life 3. Not to say that the documentary crew’s efforts were wasted but why finding these cartridges was such a massive reveal, puzzles me when all that was exposed was a company following standard procedure in finding a cheap way to dispose of unwanted merchandise.