Here’s what happened. E.T. the movie was released in June 1982. The tender story of a lonely boy befriended by a lost alien creature was an unexpectedly massive hit, spending its first six weeks at #1 at the box office. It was late July by the time Atari, the most popular video game brand in the world at the time, secured the rights to make an E.T. video game. However, the company gave designer Howard Warshaw just six weeks to create the product, so it could be on store shelves by Christmas. End result: a terrible, nonsensical game, even by early 1980s standards. Bearing little resemblance to the movie, players had to control a thing that sort of looked like E.T. as it collected pieces of a phone to “phone home.” E.T. mostly fell in holes, or encountered one of the game’s many bugs.
But Atari was banking on the E.T. brand, and manufactured millions more E.T. cartridges than there were game consoles in existence to play them on. The company believed that the availability of an E.T. video game would lead customers to purchase an Atari console if they didn’t already have one. It didn’t work. Atari lost $356 million from 1982 to 1983 and was left with warehouses full of unsold (or returned) E.T. cartridges. It’s become the subject of what sounds like an urban legend. Dozens of semi-trucks reportedly emptied an Atari warehouse in El Paso, Texas and drove the contents to the New Mexico desert, where they smashed it to bits, buried it, and covering it all in concrete.
Atari has never made a statement on the matter; the only real evidence that the big dump actually took place is that in September 1983, a newspaper in Alamogordo, New Mexico, reported the influx of Atari trucks. But did it all really happen? A Canadian documentary crew is about to find out. In May, the Alamogordo City Council granted Fuel Industries, a film production company out of Ottawa, the right to sift through and dig up whatever they like at the landfill just outside of town where the unsold E.T. video games were supposedly crushed and dumped. The crew’s expressed purpose: to find all those millions of copies of E.T. The intent: To prove (or disprove) the urban legend once and for all.
Look for the documentary in 2014…unless the film industry collapses, Atari-style.