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Doc on Infamous 'E.T.' Video Game Burial Debuts

26 Jul, 2014 By: Chris Tribbey

SAN DIEGO — The story goes that the infamous 1982 E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial video game for the Atari 2600 was almost completely responsible for the fall of Atari, after the corporation buried an untold number of the cartridges in the small town of Alamogordo, N.M.

Zak Penn (writer for X-Men 2, The Avengers and Incident at Loch Ness) said that’s just not true, speaking July 25 at a 2014 San Diego Comic-Con International panel where attendees got their first look at the Xbox Originals documentary Atari: Game Over.

“The movie is a systematic deconstruction of that legend,” he said, “None of that is accurate. And the story of the movie is to find out what really happened.” Even though it’s not completely finished yet, “we’ve got enough to show you,” Penn told attendees.

The documentary may use the “mystery” of the E.T. cartridge burial as a focal point, but on the whole it’s also about the rise and fall of Atari, the people who worked there, and how the company revolutionized video games in the home.

“This was the infancy of the microprocessor revolution,” said Atari founder Nolan Bushnell. “We thought if we squeezed really hard, we could fit 15 to 20 games. But the beauty of the software was we made 100s [565 to be exact].”

“We worked hard and played harder.”

And as for those infamous E.T. cartridges? There weren’t the “hundreds of thousands” that legend held, and the dig found more games than just E.T. And while there had always been a sense of mystery around the burial itself, that only held true for people outside of New Mexico, according to Joe Lewandowski, who works in waste recycling and saw the burial happen.

“Everyone in southern New Mexico had one of the games,” he laughed. “They were coming out as fast as they were coming in.”

Howard Scott Warshaw, Atari’s original video game designer, was the one charged with making the E.T. game, after Atari paid Steven Spielberg a hefty fee for licensing rights. He was given the assignment on July 27, 1982. His deadline? Five weeks. Normally game engineers had six to eight months for a project.

“It was a very intense five weeks. Instead of looking at market demand it was a market push, and they way overbilled it,” he said. “I worked, I worked, I worked, and it was nice to be done at the end. Spielberg showed up, played it a little bit, and said ‘OK.'"

E.T. still stands as the quickest U.S. development in [gaming] history,” Warshaw said, partly with lament and partly with pride. “I’m proud to have done the worst video game of all time.”

Penn showed off one of the E.T. cartridges recovered from the site, and promised to give one away to a fan. But that giveaway came with a warning.

“The smell will make you vomit,” Penn said.

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