Anyone remember ET the computer game? Nope, me neither – which perhaps isn’t surprising when, as myth has it, it was branded the world's worst ever console game on its release in 1983, literally buried in a landfill soon after and, as unreliable accounts ever since have insisted, brought down Atari with it.
What is more surprising in retrospect is that it was not more successful – devised off the back of one of the world’s most popular films, and created by Atari, the gamesmeister bar none of the early 1980s – think, Xbox and Nintendo rolled into one with a mind-boggling 80% market share.
But fail it did, and the story of ‘ET the Game’s rise, fall and rise again is the subject of a totally engrossing, non-nerdy film ‘Atari: Game Over’ which goes on release today.
Director Zak Penn is a gaming enthusiast, a screenwriter of such blockbusting fare as 'The Incredible Hulk' and 'Last Action Hero' a tireless pursuer of mystery, which is what sent him to Scotland with Werner Herzog to enquire after a certain Monster of the Loch. This time around, he’s bemused to be pursuing something far less antiquated.
“It’s one of the only video game legends that has any tangible presence, as it’s a relatively young industry, unlike eg fishing,” he tells HuffPostUK, with a nod to his Nessie pursuits.
"ET was branded the world's worst game in history, the same way we've all decided 'Ishtar' is the worst movie ever made. Not that many people have actually watched it, but that's just what it's become.
“And there’s not often a burial involved with video games. The second you bury something, you give it historical weight. This story lives at the strange crossover between archaeology and digital, most unusual.”
Employed by Atari’s modern-day replacement Xbox, Zak’s mission in this film is to follow a bunch of excavation experts to an unpromising piece of land in Alamogordo, New Mexico where, legend has it, Atari simply buried its ET booty and brushed the sand off its hands. It turns out there was nothing symbolic about this choice of place or method.
“They literally had to destroy the games quickly,” explains Zak. “So they had some shredded, but there was a problem with scavenging in their El Paso warehouse, so they needed a cheaper option, which was burying, believe it or not. Out of such mundane choices is history made.”
At the heart of Zak’s tale is a brilliant, emotionally bruised software engineer by the name of Howard Warshaw. Treated like a rockstar for his programming prowess at Atari, back in 1983 he was the whizzkid tasked with the Herculean feat of creating the ET game for millions to enjoy… in five short weeks.
It was an emotional moment for Howard to stand by the landfill in Alamogordo and see what came up
However, when the Extra-Terrestrial failed – with thousands of cartridges returned to stores amid various complaints of player dissatisfaction and ET falling irretrievably into pits – it was time for Howard to pack up his own toys in Sunnyvale, California and seek out a life post-Atari.
“In some ways, those three and a half years made the next 25 years really tough,” he says wistfully in the film, which is as much about the heady days of pioneer gaming as it is about any one lost cartridge. “It established a standard of what professional life could be, and I never let go of the thought that my life could still be this or better."
“The burial of those cartridges represents the burial of that whole beautiful era” Xbox’s Seamus Blackney
Cut to New Mexico, and Howard standing expectantly with a surprising number of other enthusiasts, as the diggers begin the work.
I just figured we’d get a bunch of ironic hipsters coming out,” laughs Zak, “but the people were genuine fans. They knew Howard’s work, they wanted him to sign games, it was a genuinely emotional response that I would not have predicted.”
This would be a spoiler alert moment, but for the fact that what happened next has already been published around the world – “Werner phoned me and told me he’d read about in Der Spiegel,” says Zak. The first ET cartridge appeared in the rubble, followed by hundreds more – an emotional moment for everyone, particularly Howard.
“He showed up that day, thinking this was going to be tragic, that whether or not cartridges were dug up, people would make fun of him and his failure, but nobody was there to mock him,” Zak describes, feelingly.
“Some of the redemption came in that moment – they had come to praise him, not to bury him.”
The first time this film was screened at Comic Con, Howard Warshaw enjoyed a standing ovation from the appreciative crowd, and now the ET game sits where it belongs in the Smithsonian Museum, along with other important artefacts from that time in history. And Zak can get back to his day job of searching for Nessie.
'Atari: Game Over' is available to watch on VOD from today. Watch the trailer below...