Sunday, June 2, 2013

Don't Phone Home, Home Will Phone You

In 1983, the video game industry crashed and nearly died off. As of yet, there was no true review system in place, no kind of quality control, and no real way to find out if a game was good or bad other than to buy it and play it. If you got it wrong, it was an expensive lesson.

The game blamed for causing the crash was the most expensive lesson of all, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial for the Atari 2600. Longtime gamers like me know this story well, but for those who don't, the rights to make a game based on the movie were obtained in July 1982, and orders were given to programmer Howard Scott Warshaw (back then one guy was sufficient to make a console game) to have the game ready in time to have it on shelves for the Christmas season. He had five weeks. Even back then, that was flatly impossible- the time needed to do a game properly was about six months- but Warshaw, who had the critically-acclaimed Yar's Revenge under his belt from earlier that year, and who had created the first licensed game based on a movie (Raiders of the Lost Ark), did what he could.

What he could do wasn't nearly enough. The deadline was so tight that nobody bothered to even put the game in front of a focus group. They just printed 5 million copies, put them on shelves... and proceeded to get what is still the biggest lambasting in industry history. Many call E.T. the worst video game of all time. Certainly it did the most damage to the industry. Nobody wanted to buy ANY video game after that; with no review system other than word-of-mouth, consumers got gun-shy about spending their hard-earned money on a game that might be terrible for all they know. At least half of the cartridges went unsold, maybe as many as 3.5 million. Something had to be done with them. This grave mistake must be atoned for.

According to legend, what happened next was that, in September 1983, Atari took the unsold cartridges, drove them out to the desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico, and buried them, then crushed them and poured concrete over them . Snopes calls the story true (though noting that E.T. was not the only game buried at the site)... but the story seems like legend to gamers as Atari was not that eager to talk. Warshaw told the AV Club in 2005 that he believed the story to be false. Could that really have happened?

Well, either way, a camera crew is going to prove it once and for all, as the city of Alamogordo has given approval to Canadian film company Fuel Industries to dig up the landfill of legend for a documentary. The city council figures this will prove something of a tourism boon.

Inquisitr is fine with this.

Better to shoot the game into the sun.

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