Unburying The Atari E.T. Video Game Scandal

E.T. The Extra-Terrestial Video GameThe 1980’s home video game revolution crashed and burned in after Atari introduced “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” a movie-based video game that it overpaid to license, ordered millions of cartridges more than all the Atari 2600 video consoles in existence, rushed the game to the store shelves, and buried the whole thing in a New Mexico landfill. According to Snoops, the E.T. landfill burial was an urban legend. A documentary team went sifting through the landfill and found the E.T. cartridges. For those of us who lived through this particular episode of video game history, some things are best left buried in the ground.

I had an Atari 2600 and 30+ video game cartridges worth $1,000 USD when I was a preteen, a small fraction of the 500+ cartridges available back then. Toy “R” Us had one whole aisle dedicated to video game cartridges, where consoles and empty cartridge boxes hung from pegboard. You take a tag from the sleeve below the item you want, pay at the cash register, and take it over to the “cage” that used to house the high-priced specialty toys. At the height of the video game revolution, so many cartridges lined the cage from floor to ceiling that the clerks had little room to move around.

I knew the industry had jumped the shark when a camera store sold video games along side their expensive cameras under the glass case. The young sales clerk reassured me that “Shark Attack” by Apollo—one of the first cartridge companies to file for bankruptcy—was a great game. It wasn’t great; it was horrible. My friend and I exhausted the replay value of the game in less than an hour. I paid $30 USD for this piece of crap. That was the last cartridge I ever bought for the Atari 2600.

As for E.T., I paid little attention either the movie or the video game because I detested Reese’s Pieces.

After being split into several companies by Warner Communications in 1983, the intellectual property rights floated around the industry for years. I was working as a video game tester at the family owned Accolade when Infogrames, a French video game company that no one heard of, bought it out while on a buying spree to become the next Vivendi Universal that bought its way into the American multimedia markets. One of the companies that got bought was Hasbro Interactive, which owned the intellectual property rights for Atari.

Speculation was rampart that Infogrames would change its name to Atari after relocating the office from San Jose to Sunnyvale, which was where the old Atari had its headquarters. Shortly thereafter, the company became the new Atari and I became a lead tester in 2001. Alas, the new Atari didn’t escape the old Atari curse when every video game title became available for every platform (i.e., Microsoft Xbox, Nintendo GameCube/GameBoy Advance, PC, and Sony Playstation 2), flooding the market with DVDs for games that were excellent on some platforms but terrible on others.

I knew the new Atari jumped the shark when it acquired the rights for “Enter The Matrix” in 2002, a movie-based video game based on the popular Matrix movies, featuring two-hours of exclusive video from the forthcoming sequels. Security was tight. When a DVD without the exclusive content disappeared, five testers got fired. I avoided the game like the plague and spent only three days testing the rabbit hole tunnel sequence that was a black screen for the Nintendo GameCube version towards the end. Although it sold five million companies, the game was so horrible that it made E.T. look good in comparison.

The new Atari sold off all the video game studios that it bought over the years, realizing that it paid two to three times for what each studio was actually worth, reduced itself to peddling Facebook games for a while, and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2013. The newly reformed Atari has only ten employees out of a company that once employed hundreds.

Meanwhile, I quit the company after six years in 2004, finished my associate degree in computer programming, and changed my career to help desk support. That was the best decision I ever made in my life, as being a video game tester was a dead-end job if you weren’t young and stupid to tolerate the abuses that went with it. After a while, you stop being young and stupid.