By now, you’re probably familiar with the story: in the summer of 1982, E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial hit theaters and became a massive box office success. Hoping to get in on the lucrative brand, Atari’s parent company, Warner Communications, enter into negotiations with Universal Pictures and director Steven Spielberg to get a tie-in video game for the film released by Christmas of that same year.
An Atari developer named Howard Scott Warshaw is enlisted to create the game single-handedly in five weeks, who accepted the challenge posed to him directly by Spielberg. The game was tested and completed in early September, and production was ready to begin for the holiday season. Initially selling well that Christmas, the game was universally derided by most people who played it, and a series of en masse returns contribute to the impending demise of Atari and the video game crash of the 1980s.
With so much extra stock of games and accessories that they literally cannot give away, Atari adopts to instead bury their excess products in a landfill just outside of Alamogordo, New Mexico. Decades afterward, rumors of the “Atari landfill” circulate among the gaming community, until an excavation reveals that it did in fact happen when Atari artifacts were unearthed in 2013, thirty years since they were initially dropped into the earth.
Now, one of those cartridges is headed to the Smithsonian Institution. According to Smithsonian museum technician Drew Robarge on the institution’s official website, Robarge details the story of his acquisition of one of the famed cartridges, and his museum’s desire to add one to their collection. He said, “…I was excited when we added a copy of the E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial Atari 2600 game to our collection, thanks to Mike Burns, Daniel Schechter, and Gerhard Runken from Fuel Entertainment. Unearthed from a landfill, the object personifies the video game crash that took place from 1982 to 1985.”
Coordinating with the producers of a documentary film project on the subject developed by Microsoft’s Xbox Studios and writer/director Zak Penn, Robarge was able to secure one of the famed cartridges for the museum’s collection after learning about their project and determining the artifact’s cultural significance to an influential period in American video game history. Summing up the find and why it deserves a place in the institution, Robarge wrote,
The cartridge is one of the defining artifacts of the crash and of the era. In addition to the crash, the cartridge can tell many stories: the ongoing challenge of making a good film to a video game adaptation, the decline of Atari, the end of an era for video game manufacturing, and the video game cartridge life cycle. The cartridge also serves as closure for many things: the urban legend of the burial, the golden years of Atari, an era where American companies dominated the console scene. All of these possible interpretations make for a rich and complicated object. As they say, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
For more on the Smithsonian’s acquisition of the cartridge, be sure to check out Robarge’s piece on the Smithsonian blog!
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