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Updated: Tue, 29 Apr 2014 17:57:41 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

The Atari E.T. video game you didn't know existed



An E.T. doll is seen while construction workers prepare to dig into a landfill in Alamogordo, N.M., on Saturday. Producers of a documentary are digging in the landfill in search of millions of cartridges of the Atari E.T. the Extraterrestrial game that has been called the worst game in the history of videogaming. Juan Carlos Llorca/Associated Press

An E.T. doll is seen while construction workers prepare to dig into a landfill in Alamogordo, N.M., on Saturday. Producers of a documentary are digging in the landfill in search of millions of cartridges of the Atari E.T. the Extraterrestrial game that has been called the worst game in the history of videogaming. Juan Carlos Llorca/Associated Press

If you’re going to pay tribute to a video game, you should probably make sure it’s not one that’s so catastrophically bad that it destroys an entire industry and inspires a mass grave.

That’s the lesson a small team from the Hamilton area learned in the early '80s, when Ancaster's Peter Banting and his cousin Tom Banting were part of a company called Skill Screen Inc.

The company’s first and only Atari 2600 video game was called Extra Terrestrials, and was created in 1983 to cash in on the craze surrounding the classic Steven Spielberg film E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Just one problem: there already was an E.T. video game — and it was bad.

Really, really bad.

The original E.T. the Extra Terrestrial video game was a fully licensed, Spielberg-approved affair that came out just before Christmas in 1982. It tanked. The game’s widespread panning by players in the early '80s led to Atari jettisoning its stores of the game and dumping hundreds of thousands of unsold copies into a big hole in the New Mexico desert — a video game burial ground that was gleefully uncovered by a documentary film crew just a few days ago.

The game was a big part of the Atari company's collapse at the time — and caused what some call the “video game crash” that, in 1983, almost signalled the death of the industry.

But, about that, Tom Banting had no clue. “We didn’t even know Atari had done an E.T. video game,” he told CBC Hamilton. His team just figured that a game that cashed in on the E.T. craze would be a hit.

It was designed, programmed and manufactured in Burlington and featured what Banting calls a “similar, but not identical character” to the much beloved alien from the film. “It’s safe to say it was inspired by the movie,” he said.

Phone home

The two games have a lot in common. In both, an almost identical looking version of the alien is chased by government agents through blocky, pixelated environments — though the 1983 version of the game created by Skill Screen is mercifully devoid of the giant holes that frustrated gamers at the time.

Have a look for yourself. Here’s the infamous 1982 version:

And here’s the 1983 version created by Skill Screen:

“The main character looks like E.T. so much so that the company probably would have been sued had the game really sold in big numbers,” Brantford Personal Computer Museum curator Syd Bolton told Inside Halton.

The game only sold a couple hundred copies, Banting says, so it’s “difficult to say” if Skill Screen would’ve run into legal issues. “I guess that would’ve depended on what Stephen Spielberg thought,” he said. In the end, it never mattered because the market “vaporized,” said Peter Banting, who handled the game’s marketing.

Peter gave his only copy of the game to the Brantford Personal Computer Museum back in 2011 after instructions from his wife to “de-clutter” their Ancaster home. “I was amazed by how excited they got,” he told CBC Hamilton. “It was like finding buried treasure for them.” As far as anyone knows, it's one of the rarest Atari 2600 games ever made.

He, like his cousin, had “no idea” such an infamous E.T. video game came out just a year before the one he worked on — largely because neither of them ever really played video games.

Thousands of games, buried in the sand

Banting is even more bewildered that a film crew and a horde of onlookers would spend days in a New Mexico desert, digging through the sand and searching for the other video game that cut his own venture off at the knees.

But never underestimate the tenaciousness of a cult following. Last weekend, a documentary film crew from Xbox Entertainment unearthed hundreds of thousands of copies of the original E.T. the Extra Terrestrial game in an Almagordo, New Mexico desert.

The game's story has risen to cult status in the more than three decades since it first showed up on store shelves. It was rushed for release over the Christmas season in 1982 — so rushed, that developer Howard Scott Warshaw only had six weeks to program and manufacture the game to make it in time for the holiday spending rush. A timeline like would be a stretch for any company, let alone a developer near the industry’s inception.

The game tanked by anyone’s measure of success. It was overhyped thanks to the hit Spielberg film, and players felt let down by the clunky gameplay, which largely consisted of a blocky version of E.T. falling into holes over and over while trying to find Reese’s Pieces and chunks of a phone (yes, to phone home).

It’s not the classic fun of Mario Brothers, or even the elegant simplicity of Pong. With sales stalling in 1983, news reports started surfacing that more than a dozen trucks dumped loads of unsold Atari products into a landfill. Both the E.T. game and a really terrible port of the arcade version of Pac-Man made up the bulk of the trashed cartridges.

'Nobody here has any idea what that's about'

Why Atari decided to bury thousands of copies of the failed game is part of the urban legend and speculation that has abounded online for years.

Kristen Keller, a spokeswoman at Atari, told the Associated Press that "nobody here has any idea what that's about." The company has no "corporate knowledge" about the Alamogordo burial, she added.

Atari has changed hands many times over the years, and Keller said, "We're just watching like everybody else." Atari was sold to a French company by Hasbro in 2001.

A New York Times article from Sept. 28, 1983, says 14 truckloads of discarded game cartridges and computer equipment were dumped on the site. An Atari spokesman quoted in the story said the games came from its plant in El Paso, Texas, some 130 kilometres south of Alamogordo.

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