Let's flashback to the heady heights of 1982. The first CD player was sold in Japan, then-UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was busy dividing up the UK's soul for the highest bidder whilst warring with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, and Steven Spielberg reigned supreme at the box-office with classics like Poltergeist and E.T. - The Extra Terrestrial.
Most importantly though, things were looking pretty prosperous for the video games industry; Atari dominated living rooms across the globe with its seminal, wood-panelled 2600 and the reams of iconic games that released on it. But then a year later the industry was thrown into chaos. Why?
Well there are a multitude of reasons cited such as the oversaturation of consoles in the market confusing potential customers, tonnes of poorly developed clones of popular games, amongst other reasons. But, perhaps harshly, a fair amount of the blame rests at the cartridge slot of one game. A game so bad copies had to be buried in order to be rid of. A game so bad it drove Atari, quite literally, into the dirt. This is the story of-
E.T. - The Extra Terrestrial: "The Worst Game Ever Made"
In late 1981, 25-year-old video game developer Howard Scott Warshaw's stock was rising. With Warner Communications's (Atari's parent company) CEO Steve Ross & Steven Spielberg's express permission, Atari got the rights to create a game based on Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark (which was said to have set Atari back almost $25 million), and the honor of development was left in the capable hands of Warshaw himself—who even dressed up as the fedora-loving adventurer in order to get into character whilst coding.
Come '82, the game released and sold like hot cakes. It was so successful Spielberg almost instantaneously okayed a video game adaptation of his biggest hit to date, E.T. - The Extra Terrestrial, much to Atari's joy of course—imagine the kind of revenue that could be accrued after the success of Raiders.
In July 1982, Atari CEO Ray Kasser handed the reigns of development over to Warshaw after Spielberg personally requested he work on the game. Naturally Warshaw agreed, I can imagine there wasn't much saying no to Spielberg back in his prime. But there was a massive catch to be found with the creation of E.T..
Where Raiders had a six month development period, E.T. was only afforded five weeks due to Atari's insistence that the game had to release at Christmas. No pressure there. So on worked Warshaw, in attempt to meet his September 1st deadline, and possibly resisting the urge to cosplay as the wrinkled space-dweller for artistic inspiration.
"I'll Be Right Here"
The concept of the game was split into four different ideals. First was game world, then came objective, the path to achieving said objective and finally the obstacles the little, squidgy tyke would encounter. Then, Warshaw would go on to figure out the main goal of the game. Naturally E.T. was working its butt off in attempt to, you know... get home. But how would the creature actually go about that in the game?
With the game world designed like the faces of a cube, E.T. would have to shimmy itself around the map in attempt to find three pieces of the telephone it requires to bell his family, whilst attempting to outrun scientists and the dastardly FBI. Then, with all three pieces of the phone in your possession, back would E.T. have to amble in order to make it to its rocketship and escape Earth and its creepy, pokey men in white coats and the feds.
After allegedly being offered $200,000 and an all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii for completion of the task, Warshaw finished the game on time working between Atari HQ and his home. Somehow though, the developer seemed totally nonplussed when it came to the hurried development process.
"I knew it was a lot to ask. I didn’t just think, ‘I’ll give it a go.’ If you’re gonna bite it off you might as well take a big bite.
People were basically feeding me food and oxygen and checking that I was OK, and I was sleeping here and there. But it was the most intense five weeks I’ve ever endured.”
E.T. Comes Home
E.T. - The Extra Terrestrial released at Christmas 1982 without a hitch, and was the most sought after title. For a while. Seriously, it was so successful it had highly respected news outlets claiming the video game movie tie-in would become a future staple of revenue for developers and publishers. Which wasn't wrong I guess.
But then disaster struck. Atari produced 5m units of the game to supply high demand. A move which would ultimately herald their downfall. Retailers, who had previously requested tonnes of copies of E.T. were suddenly cancelling their orders. The market became flooded with clones, which drove competition through the roof, rendering the once lucrative E.T. tie-in yesterday's news. An occurrence Atari had somehow failed to forecast.
Then reports of shoddy gameplay started rolling in. E.T. was insanely tough to play, the cutesy alien kept on getting stuck in pits impossible for the vast majority of gamers to escape, the game's visuals were shockingly bad for the time and its plot was as uninteresting as watching paint develop increased viscosity as it dried on your favorite wall.
Then, somehow, it got even worse for Atari. Retailers began sending back copies of E.T., 3.5m of the 5m in fact, simply because they just weren't selling. The company managed to lose $563 million thanks to some terrible business ideas, and by '84 it was divided up and sold as Atari Corp (to Commodore 64 founder Jack Tramiel, and its arcade division, Atari Games, was sold to Namco in 1985.
Then, the biggest commercial video game failure to date (it's up there with the 2600's Pac-Man port), the beleaguered giants decided to cut their losses and dispose of the remaining units. So on the evening of 22nd September, 1983, over ten trucks, loaded to the brim with E.T. (and Pac-Man allegedly) drove to a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico, and basically dumped the remainder of the stock and went about their day.
This act would go onto become myth, then legend and then completely true as in April 2014 the site was excavated by Zak Penn and his documentary crew whilst they were creating Atari: Game Over, a documentary based on the fantastical story behind the creation, failure and dumping of the "worst game of all time", and the death of one of the world's biggest and most infamous games corporations.
Here's the trailer for Atari: Game Over if you haven't seen it already.
This wasn't the Spielbergian ending I had in mind for one of the first movie tie-in games. I expected Atari to float over the moon on a ray of dollar signs. Alas, much like E.T. itself, the once proud company is now a nice little snippet of nostalgia to wear on a T-shirt or on a fancy backpack. Or satchel, if you're that kind of person. I don't judge.
Well if you liked that little saunter down Memory Street, why not try these posts out for size too?