Were E.T. Atari Games Really Buried in the Desert?
After ‘the North American Video Game Crash of 1983’ unsold copies of Atari’s E.T. were buried in a landfill in a New Mexico desert along with other Atari games.
On April 26, 2014, the Atari burial was confirmed when hundreds of cartridges were dug up out of the ground. It turns out the legend was true, there really were a bunch of unsold E.T. games buried in the desert. According to a former manager of Atari, “728,000 cartridges of various titles were buried”.
Below we cover the events leading up the crash of 1983, the E.T. game, the fall of Atari, and what lessons the gaming industry should have learned at the time (but didn’t).
Atari: Game Over Movie Review – Gaming Historian.
TIP: If you are into Atari, consider checking out the review above and buying the E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial burial site documentary from Amazon Atari: Game Over (Amazon).
The North American Video Game Crash of 1983
At its peak, Atari was the fastest growing company in the history of the United States. The home video game industry was exploding with Atari leading the arcade and home video game markets. (Learn more about Atari’s early history here).
Despite success in the 70’s and early 80’s, Atari (and the rest of the gaming market) all took a turn for the worse between 1982 – 1983 when over-saturation of bad third party titles and gaming systems, rushed production, over-production, and new home computing options all led to what is called “the North American Video Game Crash of 1983” (AKA the “Atari Shock” in Japan, although the Japan market never suffered the same fate).
A video from the Gaming Historian looking at the video game crash of 83′. The crash is sometimes referred to as the “Atari shock”. This story goes hand in hand with the E.T. burial, which is seen by many as symbolic of the crash. This supplements the Gaming Historian review video shown above.
Events Leading to the Video Game Crash of 83′
The events leading up to the crash are pretty clear in hindsight. Below are a few notable events that foretold the crash:
Lack of Quality Control and Quantity Over Quality – Rush, Rush Make the Pac-Man
The rush of the Atari version of Pac-Man for Christmas of 81′ was one of the first signs of the impending crash of 83′.
NAMCO’s Pac-Man was one of the most popular arcade games. Atari was the most popular home system with about 10 million Atari owners. What could go wrong with the first ever Pac-Man port to the home console just in time for Christmas? Everything.
The “suits” at Atari and Warner Communications were so confident that Pac-Man would sell that they ordered a copy for every Atari system and 2 million extra (for the 2 million who would buy an Atari just to play Pac-Man). If that seems insane, it’s only truly insane when paired with the actual story.
Tod Frye, the lone Tod Frye, produced the port of NAMCO’s Pac-Man. Warner (Atari’s parent company) choose to rush the release of Pact-Man for the 81′ holiday season before it was ready. This along with other factors, like Atari choosing to use a 4KB cartridge instead of the new more powerful 8KB cartridge to save money, led to a lackluster release. The end result was a rather unfinished looking Pac-Man, that while not unplayable, it simply didn’t look like the arcade version.
A video showing Tod Frye discussing a new 8k version of Pac-Man for the 2600 or so people like to “fix” old Atari games for fun.
12 million units of Pac-Man were produced and rushed to the shelves. An impressive 7 million were sold (although many demanded their money back), but the end result was far less impressive. 5 million versions of the failed Pac-Man port in history sat in an Atari warehouse waiting to be sold in bargain bins around the world.
The other problem aside from the 5 million games in a warehouse, 7 million children spent Christmas morning with a bad Atari flavored taste in their mouths. This the first punch of the combo that would spell the end of Atari.
A video showing the only two people who actually enjoyed Christmas morning in 1981 (joke, it’s the commercial for Atari’s Pac-Man).
QUESTION: What do you think the chances are that there is a Pac-Man landfill out there somewhere?
The Events Leading up to the Video Game Crash between 82′ to 83′
Between 82′ and 83′ even more systems, bad games (especially third party games), and new home computers starting showing up on shelves of about every retailer from Sears to the corner drug store. It’s understandable, the market saw the fastest growing business in the United States and wanted a piece of the action. However, due to the rapid expansion of the market, a lot of quality control went out the window. There was so much “junk-gaming” at this time it’s hard to cover all the events. Suffice to say, the rising popularity of video games was cut short by the increasing confusion and disappointment of the games and systems actually being produced.
A video showing video game consoles from 1972 – 1982. Notice the amazing amount of junk released around the early 80’s. Today your choices are Wii, Xbox, PlayStation, PC.
The gaming disappointments beginning with Pac-Man in Christmas 81′ came to a head when history repeated itself with Atari’s E.T. heading into the Christmas of 82′.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and it’s Many Holes
The movie E.T. had been released in June of 82′ and it was a hit. Steven Spielberg and Howard Scott Warshaw of Atari had put their heads together just months before to create the incredible Raiders of the Lost Ark game, so what could go wrong with creating an E.T. game? What indeed…
A review of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (before the burial site was confirmed).
Howard Scott Warshaw the Sole Designer of E.T.
Howard Scott Warshaw was the sole designer of the E.T. game. He was given only five – six weeks to go from concept to finished product to be on the shelves in time for Christmas. The game was hyped up and many copies were pressed.
Despite Warshaw’s talent and portfolio the rushed version of the game paled in comparison to Warshaw’s past titles. Warshaw’s Raiders of the Lost Ark game (released in November of 1982) was a commercial success and his critically acclaimed Yars’ Revenge (released May of 1982) was Atari’s best-selling original title for the year.
The events surrounding the Crash of 1983 ended the careers of Atari and Warshaw and resulted in 3/4 of a million games behind dumped in a landfill in the New Mexico desert.
A video where the Angry Video Game Nerd and Howard Scott Warshaw discuss E.T. and his other games.
FACT: In retrospect E.T. and its game designer are as “bad” as history likes to remember. Once you figure out what the point of E.T. is it actually fairly interesting. The biggest complaint is the fact that it was essentially unplayable without proper instructions and E.T. constantly fell into holes, which were time-consuming to exit. Much like Pac-Man, the rushed release meant the quality of a great game suffered and that hurt Atari.
How the Crash Impacted Gamers, Video Game Makers, and the Markets
The crash of 83′ wasn’t something that the average gamer noticed. The crash was something that happened to the industry, it wasn’t marked by a decrease in home gaming per-say. Even at the lowest point between the crash of 83′ and the release of Nintendo in 85′, gamers in the United States still played Atari at home and in the arcade.
On one hand, so many arcade machines, home games, and systems had been released leading up to the crash that people were hardly without video game options. On the other hand, Atari continued to release games and systems after the crash this included games with Lucasfilm, a port of Mario brothers before Nintendo was released in America, and even the 1986 version of Atari 7800 Prosystem was made until 1991!
While neither Atari nor video games died in the crash, Atari was never able to fully recover to compete against Nintendo.
The Burying of the E.T. Game in 1983 (The Urban Legend Confirmed)
After releasing bad Atari games for two Christmas’s in a row, and with the rest of the events of 82′ – 83′, Atari was losing money fast. Atari losses totaled more than $500 million causing Warner’s stock price to slide from $60 to $20.
In the chaos, someone ordered about 700,000 excess games, including many copies of E.T. to be taken out to a desert in New Mexico and be buried. The games were buried in a landfill and then cemented over.
FACT: The Atari burial was an urban legend for about 30 years until the site was excavated in 2014. It was believed that millions of copies of E.T. were disposed of in the landfill, Atari officials later verified the numbers to be around 700,000 cartridges of various titles, including E.T.
The E.T. Game Beyond 2014 and the Lessons Learned
After Being Dug Up in 2014, the cartridges found at the site went on to sell for over $107,000 total at around $1,500 each. The Smithsonian has even kept a copy due to its significance.
The E.T. game and the events of the crash serve as a reminder “that, like the Power Glove, business people should stop rushing video games for Christmas season…” Wait no, “that we there should be quality control of third party titles”… Wait it’s, “don’t make rushed games about movies using the property to sell copies of bad games”… I could go on.
The truth is there were a lot of lessons to be learned from the events of the crash. The money to be made from video games is attractive, but ultimately gamers and games should be treated with respect. That means quality control every step of the way. This is a lesson that has been learned in many ways, but remnants remain. As the video game market changes, it’s important never to forget the many costly mistakes made along the way.
FACT: According to the Smithsonian: the Atari game represents “the ongoing challenge of making a good film to a video game adaptation, the decline of Atari, the end of an era for video game manufacturing, and the video game cartridge life cycle”.