Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Dirt Behind the Great E.T. Landfill Dump

You may have heard that one of our most cherished urban legends has been destroyed.

Not the one about the stoned babysitter and microwave.
That one is still going strong.
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial has been found in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Or at least, a bunch of copies of the crappy video game bearing his name. And there is much rejoicing.

If you know anything about video game history, you probably know that the home gaming industry in the United States got off to a huge start in the 1970s and 1980s, only to have it crash disastrously in 1983. The Japanese eventually had to save our asses by inventing Nintendo, which was Japan's way of officially forgiving America for that time we atom-bombed them.

They even threw in Hello Kitty to show there were no hard feelings.
One of the reasons the gaming business tanked was a little cartridge called "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial." The Steven Spielberg film by the same name had been a huge hit in 1982. If you weren't around when it came out, you have no idea how big this movie was. I mean, it was like The Avengers, except the special effects were better and you didn't have Robert Downey, Jr. tossing off lame one-liners every two minutes. It was like Avatar with no blue people having sex and not directed by a douchebag. It was like 12 Years a Slave, except not about slavery and also it made a lot of money and had, like, one black person in it.

Yo, dawg, I think they get it. You can stop now.
Anyway, in 1982, E.T. was huge, and the Atari 2600 was huge. It didn't take a genius to figure out that an E.T. video game for the Atari would be mega-super-totally-pretty-big. Unfortunately, the same not-a-geniuses who greenlit the game also decided that it absolutely, positively had to be ready for release by Christmas 1982.

Now, to a generation raised on video games with hyper-realistic animation, intricate story lines, and complex gameplay, this next statement may come as a surprise: Back in the early 1980s, the novelty of being able to play games on your TV far outweighed the actual quality of most games. It really took a leap of imagination to believe that the clump of pixels moving choppily around on the screen was a tank or an explorer or a football player. But we didn't care, because it was the most advanced technology most of us had ever seen.

Although this came damn close.
So it wouldn't have taken much to create an E.T. video game that would sell a jillion copies and make everyone happy. I mean, they could have just slapped an E.T. figure over the frog in "Frogger" and it would have worked. And in retrospect, maybe they should have.

Who wouldn't enjoy seeing the plucky little alien
repeatedly being greased by a semi truck?
Instead, Atari tried to create an all-new, exciting, challenging game entirely from scratch in the space of weeks. Sure, if they had succeeded, E.T. the game would have advanced home video games to an entirely new level. Instead, it established a cardinal rule of gaming: When you make time to market the guiding principle in developing a new title, you end up with a game that has not been well thought out, designed, or tested on any level and plays like a total cash-in.

Just like in Hollywood.
In the case of E.T., Atari created a game that had mediocre graphics even by the standards of the time. Worse, the controls were confusing, and the game was simply too damn hard for its target market - kids who loved the movie and wanted to play with E.T. forever and ever and feed him Reese's Pieces until his little alien guts exploded on the shag carpeting - to play.

I know that was a terrible sentence. But it was a lot of fun to write, so it stays in.

Even in pre-Internet 1982, word of mouth on the game spread like wildfire. Seemingly every person who rushed out to buy a copy told 300 people how terrible it was. And after the initial burst of sales, nobody bought the damn thing. It wasn't just a disappointment: It was a disaster. Again returning to movie terms, it was like Johnny Depp putting a damn bird on his head to play Tonto.

People will pay to see Johnny Depp in
almost anything, except a crow fedora.
Atari had made millions of copies of the E.T. game, believing it had the hot Christmas gift of the year on its hands. Instead it took a bath on heavily discounted sales, retail returns, and of course consumer ill will. The failure of the game destroyed Atari and put the entire home video game industry in Beanie Baby territory for years.

Shown here: Upwards of $12.00 worth of Beanie Babies,
adjusted for worthlessness.
So what did Atari do with all the unsold game cartridges? Somewhere along the line, a story got started that an Atari executive ordered nearly a million of them to be dumped into a landfill in the dead of night. Since there wasn't really anyone around to confirm or deny the story, it grew. Over the years it became a full-blown urban legend.

But now, an intrepid team of archaeologists, documentary filmmakers, and nerds have actually unearthed the first few hundred of what may be hundreds of thousands (or maybe just a few more hundreds) of the fabled discarded cartridges. It really is sort of like casting a line into Loch Ness and pulling out a sea monster.

Also would have made a much better video game.
While it's really cool that the tale of the midnight video game dump turned out to be true, and the mystery has been solved, the fact is that we're now down one urban legend. Half the fun of these things is in trying to unravel the myth; unlocking the actual secret is sort of anticlimactic. Like losing your virginity or watching the final episode of "Lost." That's it? Now what?

Don't despair. I'm here to restore some of the mystique of the E.T. legacy by revealing, for the first time anywhere, the real reason why all those video games were buried in Alamogordo.

Are you ready?

You're on, Mr. Nimoy.'s a heavily guarded secret that video games are actually alien technology. When the Roswell UFO crashed in 1947, among the technology the military extracted from the wreckage were sophisticated video rendering modules, including highly complex computer simulation programs. Modern flight simulators used by the military and commercial airlines are based directly on the alien technologies.

In exchange for positive portrayals of U.S. military interests, the government also allowed the entertainment industry to use the secrets of Roswell for its own ends. Over the years, this unholy alliance has resulted in the development of the Hollywood special effects we all know and mindlessly believe in, as well as top-quality pro-military fare such as "I Dream of Jeannie," Top Gun, and Gears of Duty: the Return of Halo: the Game.

 The thing is, the alien technology is so powerful that it has to be extensively modified for civilian use, lest it inadvertently alert the aliens that we murdered their comrades and stole their secrets. That's why movies and video games take so long to develop; they have to go through an extensive vetting process by the U.S. government to ensure their programming can't be tracked by space baddies.

Whoa, those Transformers look familiar.
When E.T. became a huge hit in 1982, Atari saw dollar signs that looked like money. And in their rush to get the E.T. video game to market, they bypassed the normal security protocols that would have made sure it was scrubbed of code that would attract the aliens' attention.

"Hey, Groblx, doesn't the alien in that video game
look an awful lot like Zlyob the Overlord?"
The results of this terrible decision have been heavily covered up by the powers that be, but traces of the aliens' retaliation against us can be discerned on the cultural landscape of the 1980s: the Dukakis presidential campaign. Post-Thriller Michael Jackson. Scrunchies.

Enslaved the minds of all who wore them.
By the time Madonna released her first album, civilization was on the verge of collapse. The government knew it had to round up all the unsold copies of the E.T. video game and bury them so deep they couldn't broadcast their malevolent signals to the aliens. So they paid off Atari and orchestrated the infamous midnight landfill run. Since no one bothered to play the copies of the game that had actually been sold more than once, the aliens lost track of us and stopped their attacks. The Earth was saved. And when Japan developed the NES, they solemnly swore to follow the security protocols that keep our extraterrestrial enemies from making us break dance.

Curses, foiled again.
I ask you: What will become of us now that the E.T. cartridges have been unearthed and exposed to the listening frequenices of our darkest adversaries? Think about it.

That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

Now go, Drunkards, and tell the tale. Preserve the legend, and pump up the jam.


  1. Hey -- I came here to hear your take on the latest news about a left-handed Jewish singer-songwriter married to a former member of New Bohemians. I will wait, patiently.

    1. I just found out about it myself. I'm meditating upon it. Stay tuned.

  2. So where are the hagfish? Ate these alien gaming hagfish?


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