One of gaming’s greatest “myths” — that thousands of copies of the poorly-selling ET game for Atari were buried in the desert — has been proven to be the truth.
The cartridges were dug up this weekend as part of a documentary, ironically to be distributed via XBox consoles. There’s no word yet on how many cartridges are in the landfill site, with that number also being disputed in tellings of the story.
The game was designed as a cash-in on the success of the movie but, with the movie released in the summer, Atari had just five weeks between securing the rights to the game and having to complete it in time to catch the Christmas gift market, leaving little time for play testing.
What’s often forgotten is that the game did relatively well by the standards of the Atari 2600, with around 1.5 million cartridges sold. The problem was that the initial production run was somewhere between 4 million and 5 million. The sales were largely those made as gifts ahead of Christmas and quickly dropped off after extremely hostile reviews citing poor gameplay, with dramatic price cuts failing to make much difference. Atari’s revenue just about covered the licensing costs of the game, leaving it to eat the entire production, manufacturing and marketing costs.
The game’s failure became legendary in the industry and has even been cited as a cause of a 97 percent drop in video game revenues in North America in just two years. In fairness, ET is more symbolic of an oversaturation of poor-quality games than a cause in itself.
The story always went that Atari had so many copies of ET left over that it put them into landfill near Alamogordo, New Mexico. Whether that was true, and how many cartridges were involved, has always been disputed.
Production company Fuel Entertainment has been working to make an original documentary on the collapse of Atari in the early 80s and bought the rights to excavate the landfill. It’s since reached a deal for the documentary to be available through Xbox consoles.
On Saturday diggers began excavating the site and found it did indeed contain copies of the game. They are still in reasonably good cosmetic condition, though there’s no real hope they’ll be playable.
Staff are still working through the site, but so far it appears to bear out the recollections of Atari’s James Heller, who oversaw the original burial. He says that more than 700,000 cartridges were buried, though that included many other surplus games rather than being made up entirely of ET.
(Image credit: Xbox)