Raiders of the Lost Cartridges

Posted by | on January 7, 2008

The odd history of E.T. for the Atari system and 5 million unwanted cartridges buried in the desert.

Atari logo taken from I was stumbling around the statistically-driven, yet somehow poignant StumbleUpon network and I fell into the warm embrace of a particularly nostalgic music video “When I Wake Up” by a brilliant band called Wintergreen. The video features the band (who look suspiciously like some guys I knew in Vancouver) hanging out , signing , and going on a Odysseus-esque journey to find a stash of buried Atari cartridges buried in the New Mexico desert. Yeah I’m serious !!!

Here’s the Youtube version of the Wintergreen video “When I Wake Up”

So, my interest was immediately peaked, but my inner-nerd (that highly critical bastard) was kinda skeptical about the whole story. So after work, I floated through the usual channels (ie. Wikipedia and beyond), and hold on to your high tops…. it’s apparently all true!!!

Back in 1982, the Atari company was up to their collective eyeballs in debt and failure. Their game programmers had jumped ship and leaked all their game secrets to the competition. Newer video game consoles were overtaking the old Atari VCS system like lions on the scent of a blind, deaf, legless fat kid. And, when they attempted to upgrade their chances at profit with the new Atari 5200, no-one bought it (little tip : nobody is gonna buy your system when you don’t release any games for it, and the games you do release can be played on the competition’s console). When Atari’s version of the beloved arcade classic Pacman failed to bring any gamers back into the fold (due to jerky controls and annoying sound effects), they bet the farm on the only horse they had left… The story of a young boy and his brightly-fingered, telephone-challenged alien friend.

It was almost Christmas, and Steven Speilburg’s blockbuster film E.T : The Extra-Terrestrial was set to blow audiences away. Steve Ross (Warner Communications Co. chairman) and the boys at Atari struck a deal with the legendary Hollywood director to produce a game based on the multi-million dollar script. They were under the impression that people would buy the game (hell, they might even buy the console) just to play something with Spielburg’s name on it.

…They were mistaken…

The game was rushed into production so fast that there was nothing “finished” about the finished product. The man who was given the scarlet letter for churning out this video game abortion was none other then Howie Warshaw (responsible for another famous Atari game Yar’s Revenge).

No-one in North America could figure out just what the heck this game was about, let alone how to progress from level 1 to the non-existent level 2. The character that everyone assumed was supposed to be E.T. vibrated around one of five screens and fell into holes while trying to find dots that do something… I think… I really don’t know. Wait… there is also a guy in a trenchcoat that can grab you and take away your dots. This was bad in some way… no that’s wrong too, it was all bad.

Front of ET Atari cartridgeAlmost all of the 5 million E.T. cartridges that were produced just in time for X-Mas were sent back to Atari in disgrace. Retailers had finally had enough of Atari’s lackluster product and refused to be left holding the proverbial bag. Atari, in a fever dream or maybe a fit of self-loathing, decided that the best way to deal with mountains of un-sellable merchandise was to bury it. In September 1983, fourteen truckloads of E.T and Pacman cartridges were dumped in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico, never to see the light of day again…. At least until the guys from Wintergreen went and dug ‘em back up (unlikely, considering that the cartridges were supposed to have been pulverized with a steamroller before being buried).

For more info on this unfortunate affair, trip the light fantastic over to the Five Million E.T. Pieces article at the Urban Legends Reference Pages site. These guys know all there is to know, and have great writers to boot !

The loss of millions of dollars, coupled with the company’s dwindling popularity, crippled Atari, and spelled the end for home video game systems in general until the release of the NES in 1985. All together, it was a pretty bleak holiday season for the good people at Atari, and for the fans of the burgeoning video game culture at large. The moral, I suppose is never rely solely on hype without substance to back it up… or maybe to bury your skeletons in something a little more impervious then desert sand. You never know when some nostalgia-crazed musicians might go prowling for souvenirs.

Grab a shovel… There’s got to be some cartridges left out there !!!

Much love…

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3 Responses to “Raiders of the Lost Cartridges”

  1. AvatarMidnightzak

    I found them on StumbleUpon as well and they are amazing!!

    Reply to this comment.
  2. AvatarFinn

    I stumbled upon it also…

    it was very cute, I had an Atari 2600 and it is still running at my uncle’s house, I want to aquire this game

    Reply to this comment.
  3. AvatarNostalgiaholic

    My buddy Bill inherited my old Atari 2600, and he found the best way to stack up games for it was on Ebay. People sell lots of 10-15 games for pretty cheap, never in cherry condition, but what can you do ?

    Reply to this comment.