Strange to think of videogame cartridges turning up as archaeology, but a legend of the gaming world was just confirmed by a documentary crew working on a series to be broadcast over Microsoft’s Xbox network next year.
Microsoft is trying to shore up its flagging videogame brand (the latest-generation Xbox One is getting shellacked by the Playstation 4) by streaming video content through the online network that connects all Xbox units. The most exciting and expensive of these streaming video projects is a TV series based on the hit “Halo” game series, in the vein of the surprisingly good direct-to-video movie “Forward Unto Dawn.”
Another show coming to the Xbox network is a documentary series chronicling the history of video games. The producers set out to confirm a wild rumor that has been haunting the industry for three decades. Back in 1983, Atari spent an insane amount of money – over twenty million dollars – licensing the rights to a videogame based on the movie “E.T.”, figuring that a game for the ubiquitous Atari 2600 console based on the most popular movie of all time was a can’t-miss proposition.
It missed, big time. The videogame cartridge bubble burst just as the E.T. game was released, and the game was absolutely God-awful, a sloppy pile of hastily-written code, laughably crude graphics, and enough gameplay to keep a small child interested for about ten minutes. But because Atari had gambled a fortune on producing the game, they were left with a huge inventory they couldn’t sell. Legend had it that tens of thousands… perhaps even millions… of E.T. cartridges, plus some other leftovers, ended up getting dumped into a landfill in New Mexico. (The other game they made an epic mistake in over-producing was Pac-Man, which was not as bad a game as E.T. but still a pretty lousy port of the monster arcade hit. According to some accounts, Atari actually produced more Pac-Man cartridges than there were Atari 2600 game consoles, making it literally impossible to sell them all.)
According to an article at The Verge, the Xbox documentary crew actually found the fabled E.T. graveyard, and began exhuming piles of long-buried cartridges from the New Mexico landfill. They’ve got some pictures of the dig posted with their article. I grew up with the good ol’ 2600 in my living room. It seemed like a miracle of technology at the time. I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of being able to play Space Invaders at home, any time I wanted to. We were shelling out $20 or $30 for gameplay so simplistic it would be laughed off a smartphone screen today, but we added a dose of imagination and made those games come alive in our heads.
Some of the early Eighties designers were able to milk an incredible amount of clever performance out of that limited hardware…. but the jokers who wrote “E.T.” were not counted among those gaming gods. I never had a chance to play that turkey – I didn’t actually care for “E.T.” all that much in my early teen years – but I did blow my Christmas money on the almost equally absurd “Raiders of the Lost Ark” game. It sucked, but I loved it anyway, for the chance to spend a few minutes being a blocky, pixellated version of Indiana Jones. I sometimes wish I could give younger people a chance to see the digital miracles of the new millennium with my eyes, so they could share my sense of endless wonder. Learning that the lost graveyard of E.T. cartridges has been found gives me a feeling more akin to time travel than nostalgia.