Atari’s rapid ascent into a gaming superpower and the crash afterward is nothing less than a legend among gamers. So it’s probably no surprise that relics of its past are going to be treated like long lost treasures.
A few, like the whereabouts of the Sword of Ultimate Sorcery, are real treasures of the gold and platinum kind (the sword, made at the expense of then $50,000, is still missing today along with a jeweled crown and a ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ kept in a gold and jewel encrusted box). No on really knows where those went in “the Fall” though rumors have pointed to the Tramiels in being the owners even though Jack Tramiel had long denied it.
But knowledge is also a kind of treasure and at the very least, the affirmation of all of those E.T. carts in a New Mexico landfill is something that retro gaming historians can at least get behind. Holding and seeing a piece of history like this is still pretty amazing, especially given the dodgy state of video game preservation slowly whittling away at the physical pieces. And apparently, those weren’t the only things that the diggers have also discovered and they’re still going at it to see what else Atari has buried in the dirt.
Yet it also surprises me at how much some people had considered it an “urban legend” (it was reported in the New York Times and Atari Age has a several more links to local papers essentially stating that it happened).
Was it really a legend? I never really thought of it in that way since it wasn’t that hard to find confirmation the way that AtariAge had above. It seems, though, that the long years had mythologized it to the point where it just seems that way as one generation added their own impressions to the last, so on and so forth, as E.T.’s video game fate fell into further obscurity over the years.
After all, E.T. wasn’t really ‘lost’ — there were tons of carts for the taking and more than enough to be used as critical fodder fortifying its growing status as a legendary game that “singlehandedly” took down Atari. It didn’t, but the game grew into something of a poster boy for Atari’s hubris and its spectacular downfall in being so inexorably tied to it.
Duane Alan Hahn over at Random Terrain wrote up a big article on why E.T. has been getting an unfair shake and why it’s a much better game than the wave of negativity around it has suggested (thanks again Atari Age). And he’s not wrong. E.T. was a pretty sophisticated piece of programming for the time with a number of clever tricks and features.
Over at 2600 Connection, Mark Androvich wrote an article that also pushes back at the negativity surrounding the game, arguing too that it wasn’t responsible for an entire industry imploding. He also touches on the fact that there were many other factors involved that went far beyond this one game which, at least from my perspective, wasn’t quite as bad as others such as Imagic’s Fire Fighter.
Maybe if Fire Fighter were licensed to a big movie name, things might have turned out very differently.