E.T. and the Pit of Horrors

So I get back from a pizza run to find 25 different iterations of an article seemingly “confirming” the urban legend that a zillion copies of Atari’s E.T. cartridge were buried in the Alamagordo city landfill. But here’s the thing: there’s a picture floating around also confirming that unsold copies of Centipede – far from a bomb of a game – were also buried there. The entire contents of a warehouse in El Paso on which Atari no longer wanted to pay the lease are buried there, which, yes, includes copies of E.T. The story that holds that most of the inventory of E.T. produced was returned and buried is simply not true. If it was, why would copies of E.T. be so plentiful on the collectors’ market? I’m worried that, much like King Of Kong, whatever footage is being shot of this event will be automatically slanted to “prove” that E.T. destroyed the industry in general, and Atari specifically. It didn’t help, sure, but neither did US Games and Games By Apollo and a dozen other bandwagon-hoppers producing crappy shovelware for the system because it was the “in thing” at the time.

I’ve got a horse in this race, I’ll admit – I consider Howard Scott Warshaw a friend. He took on the task of programming an impossibly high-profile game on an impossibly tight schedule, and the bull’s eye landed on his back because he’d made a decent game out of Raiders Of The Lost Ark for E.T.Atari, and Spielberg specifically requested that he program the game for the E.T. license. He’s had to stand by and graciously take a lot of crap over the years for this game. (Here’s a hint: sooner or later, everyone turns out a turkey. Doesn’t matter if you’re Warshaw or Meier or Miyamoto.)

I’m not trying to defend E.T. to you; it’s far from my favorite game, but also far from the worst ever to grace anyone’s Atari 2600 library. I’m trying to defend the legacy of a friend whose only crime was saying “Sure, I’ll take on this incredibly daunting task” and coming up with results that were wide of what most people considered to be the mark. (And yet, what would have been better? Texas Instruments also pitched for the E.T. license and prototyped a game that was little more than a Frogger clone. Would that have been better… or just someone else’s failure to read the public’s mind about what kind of game they envisioned from this license?)

What irks me is that now, thanks to a lot of “reporting” done by people who’d already drawn their conclusions, the myth is firmly perpetuated. No wonder HSW ditched game programming to become a therapist. As much abuse as he’s been subjected to over this game for 30 years running, he probably had to spend some time on the couch himself. “Ooooooouuuuuuch!” indeed.

E.T.I strongly urge the filmmakers who financed this odd exhumation of history to tell the story as it really happened, rather than editing around a truth that inconveniently fails to support an urban legend.

Anyone who ever played the game knows that E.T. winds up dying in a pit. Let’s not keep the truth buried with him.

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