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Atari's Hidden Gem - Trash or Treasure?

Published: September 6th, 2021

Author: Caitlynn Joann


The day Atari hoped would never come, September 22nd of 1983, was the day their evidential shame was discovered. Found buried underground were millions of Atari E.T. video games in a desert located in Alamogordo, New Mexico. This discovery was made just under a year after its release date in December of 1982.

At just 25 years old, Howard Scott Warshaw was a driving force behind Atari, which was revered as the “king” of the gaming industry. Warshaw was contacted by Steven Spielberg, yes THAT one, to work on Raiders of the Lost Ark. When Raiders exploded Spielberg decided E.T. would be their next project. Keep in mind that Warshaw has ten months to work on Raiders of the Lost Ark, while the E.T. game’s deadline was in five weeks; a tenth of the time as the previous project. Why such a tight deadline? The rights to E.T. were granted in July and it was to be released for the approaching holiday season. Warshaw shares that he set up a work station at home where he barely slept or ate & worked through the night to meet the intense deadlines.

While the E.T. game was met with joy and excitement, it quickly ran out as complaints and frustrations rolled in about gameplay. Hundreds to thousands of copies were returned to Atari and they were simply unsellable. Atari had paid $22 million dollars in ET rights alone, equating to a little over $60 million today. In 1983 Atari, unfortunately, lost $563 million and was sold to Jack Tramiel in July of 1984 for $50 cash and $240 million in promissory notes. It is believed that E.T. was the culprit for Atari’s downfall.

Although the downfall of ET led Warshaw to leave the gaming industry altogether, Warshaw was overjoyed when the ET cartridges were found. After seeing dozens of fans arriving to see what had been discovered, he shared his appreciation for the excitement over the game that carried on many decades later. James Heller, former Atari manager, was at the excavation and confirmed over 700,000 games had been buried with some even being successful titles. The majority of the E.T. games were buried near Atari’s HQ in California.

Fast forward to 2014, Zak Penn was hired to direct a documentary over the phenomenon, “Atari: Game Over.” He expresses his interest in this film stating, “I like exploring how a story gets forced on to the reality. Why do people want to believe this specific version of this story? Why did it need to be that the game was buried? Is it that we naturally are storytellers, and it sounds better than it was because it destroyed the video game industry?”

Since having viewed this documentary, game fans everywhere were emotional and reconsidering Warshaw’s place in gaming history. The film has opened the eyes of millions to the truth behind the “retched” E.T. game. The game is now added to the video game history collection at the Smithsonian museum with certifications of authenticity.

After having watched a review of ET (linked below), I might be the one percent. I thoroughly enjoyed watching it and it seems like a fun game to pass the time without a stressful mission, as you see today with action-packed games. Although maybe I am biased, given E.T. was one of my favorite childhood films.

Saddened by the downfall of Atari, I find myself asking, had Warshaw had more time for development, would the game have done as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark?


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