E.T. Games uncovered in New Mexico desert

discusses gaming’s biggest mystery and why bad games do matter

Photo credit: Digital Game Museum

Over thirty years after it was supposedly buried in a landfill in the New Mexico desert, the infamous E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial game has been found and dug up, solving one of gaming’s greatest mysteries.

Released back in December 1982, in the wake of Steven Spielberg’s movie of the same name, E.T. was produced for the Atari 2600. While movie tie-ins may have a bad reputation in gaming, E.T. took things to a whole new level. Atari, in a frantic attempt to capitalise on the success of the film, bought the licensing for millions of dollars, and then hurried things along so that it would be out by Christmas of 1982. While E.T. was released on time, having only taken a mere 6 weeks to produce, public reaction to the game was abysmal.

The final product was glitchy, ugly, and barely playable. Even in 1982, when games were much less complicated and far more straight-forward, it was hard to understand what was going on. The E.T. sprite would run around the map looking for candy and the pieces of his phone whilst being chased by FBI operatives and scientists. Then there were the infamous pits which the player would constantly get trapped in. The only way out of these pits was to get E.T. to fly out by elongating his neck. It makes as little sense now as it did back then.

The decision to produce E.T. turned out to be the biggest mistake Atari ever made. After investing so much in E.T., it was released at a time when the public seemed to have lost interest in home consoles, and video games as a whole. Sales were slumping, and after the great video game crash of 1983, Atari’s fate was sealed. The company had lost $310.5 million in the second quarter of 1983, and took the sad decision to quietly bury excess E.T. game cartridges along with a load of other Atari equipment in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico. In 1984, Atari was split between the computing side of the business, which was sold to Jack Tramiel, and the arcade division which was sold to Namco.

Photo credit: taylorhatmaker

Photo credit: taylorhatmaker

Despite a New York Times article from 1983 documenting the burial, some Atari employees denied that it had ever happened. Some said that the company would have told them if such a decision had been taken, while Atari itself seemed to be rather unsure in regards to what had been buried and why. With so many conflicting accounts of the events that transpired in Alamogordo, the mystery was born.

And now, over thirty years later, that mystery has been solved. The site of the burial has been found, and a treasure trove of E.T. cartridges has been discovered and excavated.  The excavation is the subject of an upcoming documentary which will be released on the Xbox One and Xbox 360. According to The Guardian, the makers of the documentary, which is being directed by Zak Penn, will get 250 cartridges, or 10% of the cartridges dug up, depending on whichever is bigger.


But why should we care, when E.T. is considered to be one of history’s worst video games? Specifically because it was one of the worst ever. It’s the same reason we enjoy bad movies – often we find delight in watching or, in this case, playing something that is so bad it’s good. It seems that games, but also movies, become extremely interesting and entertaining when they are unintentionally terrible. Games such as E.T., Sonic the Hedgehog, and Hotel Mario are far more well-known than thousands of other games, despite the fact that they are so much better. But who can deny that it’s far better to be considered utterly dreadful rather than mediocre?

While E.T. may be considered to be one of the worst games in history, you’ve got to respect the designers who worked on it all those years ago, for making something so terrible that we’re still talking about it now. It’s rather impressive considering the fact that the game not only contributed to Atari’s downfall but also saw itself become part of one of the longest-standing mysteries of gaming’s history. Howard Scott Warshaw – one of the E.T. game designers – put it best: “I did something, I did a little program, that I wrote 32 years ago, and today it is still generating social discourse, media, entertainment, focus.”

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