One of the most disastrous video games in history is now part of the Smithsonian Institution. Last week, Museum Specialist Drew Robarge announced on the National Museum of American History’s blog that an “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” Atari 2600 cartridge excavated this April from the New Mexico desert was acquired by the museum.
How hundreds of thousands of unsold Atari cartridges ended up buried is one of the weirder stories of the downfall of gaming from 1982 to 1985. “The Smithsonian is no hall of fame — it’s our job to share the complicated technological, cultural, and social history of any innovation, including video games,” Robarge writes. And the loathed E.T. game is an icon of those “dark days of the 1980s when the US video game industry crashed.”
The Smithsonian already has artifacts representing early innovation like Ralph Baer prototypes for gaming on television from the 1960s, and the artistry of the medium, like the recently acquired Flower. E.T. is none of these things. Shambled together in 1982 by creator Howard Scott Warshaw with a bare budget and just five and a half weeks of programming time (a fraction of the up to nine months for most games of the era), the game was rocketed to a Christmas release to coincide with the popularity of the Steven Spielberg movie that year. Kids gifted with the game generally hated it, as you basically propelled a minimally animated extraterrestrial through a barely soundtracked green landscape, plummeting into inescapable holes. Atari needed to sell four million to break even; they only got to about a million, with many returns. The company, once one of the most successful in the United States, was forced to get rid of its overstock. According to the Smithsonian, Atari “found itself with a surplus of game cartridges that they needed to remove from its warehouse in El Paso, Texas” and to keep them from being scavenged, they interred of E.T. and other titles in New Mexico.
The burial turned into urban legend as there was only the barest of documentation. Then a team of filmmakers with Fuel Entertainment set out this year to see if the shameful secret was true. Robarge at the Smithsonian, meanwhile, already had his eye on the story, as it represented a low point of American video gaming where it would be supplanted by Japanese rivals like Nintendo and Sega. The resulting documentary — Atari: Game Over — premiered this November, the last title of the short-lived Xbox Entertainment Studios, itself a failed video game experiment.
While the Smithsonian’s cartridge, along with the dig vest and hard hat they acquired, isn’t currently on display, you can buy your own “dig cartridges” on eBay from the Tularosa Basin Historical Society of Alamogordo for $50–60, although it appears to mainly be busted copies of Mission Command and Defender at the moment. The proceeds are aimed at turning the dig site into its own tourist attraction, a reminder of one of the more bizarre missteps of commercializing movies into games, and of how quickly epic failure can turn into myth.
Read more about the E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial cartridge acquisition at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s blog.