SDCC | ‘Game Over’: Unearthing ‘E.T.’ and the Rise and Fall of Atari
Have you heard the legend about how, in the early ’80s, Atari created the worst video game of all time, based on the blockbuster movie E.T., but the game was so bad, the company took millions of cartridges and buried them in the middle of the New Mexico desert?
Filmmaker Zak Penn set out to deconstruct that legend, and made a fascinating documentary called Atari: Game Over, chronicling the history of the company and the quest to dig up the rumored artifacts of gaming history. The film will premiere this fall on Xbox Live as an Xbox Original Documentary.
Penn appeared on a panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego along with legendary Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, original Atari video game designer Howard Scott Warshaw (Yar’s Revenge, Raiders of the Ark, E.T.), Game Over executive producers Simon Chinn and Jonathan Chinn, Fuel CEO Mike Burns, and waste-disposal guru Joe Lewandowski, who was in charge of the desert excavation. The panel was moderated by Larry Hyrb, director of programming for Xbox Live. They discussed the history of Atari, the E.T. game, and showed attendees a clip from the movie.
Bushnell began by speaking of the early days of Atari. “The microprocessor had not been invented until 1974. This was the infancy of the microprocessor revolution. We wanted to make a game that could play a whole bunch of different games,” he said. “We thought if we tried really hard we could squeeze 16 to 20 games out of the hardware.” In reality, Atari developed hundreds of games for the 2600.
Warshaw ended up at Atari because he loved working with microprocessors. “I had no idea I would love making video games until I got there. The idea that this could tickle the creative side of me was an amazing bonus,” he said. “The game was making the game.”
The Atari 2600 became a phenomenon, with games like Asteroids, Centipede, and Missile Command becoming huge sellers.
Having already developed two bestselling and critically acclaimed titles for Atari — Yar’s Revenge and Raiders of the Lost Ark — Warshaw was asked to created a game based on Steven Spielberg’s 1982 box-office champion E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. While most video games of that era took six to eight months to develop, he said E.T. was given the shortest development time of any game in history. “I got the call on July 27 that the game had to be ready on September 1st,” he recalled. “It was a very intense five weeks. One day Steven Spielberg showed up at Atari, played a little of the game, and said ‘OK.’”
Only three people were involved in the game’s development: one person did the graphics, one person did the E.T. theme music that played at the beginning of the game, and Warshaw, who did everything else.
“Would you have given somebody five weeks to make a game?” Hyrb asked Bushnell, who left Atari in 1978.
“No. You can put nine women up to having a baby in a month, but it’s not a very good baby. People who aren’t gamers get driven by different ideas, particularly in Hollywood. They felt that they could put a kiss and a promise on unrealistic schedules and build a game that makes sense, because of the license,” Bushnell said. “They paid a massive license to Spielberg for that. The amount they spent drove the number of cartridges they had to sell. So instead of looking at the market demand, it was market push based on the deal they cut. Since they’re all brilliant people who understood how to do promotions, they way overbuilt [the cartridge inventory].”
Bushnell was working on Chuck E. Cheese, the pizza/gaming chain he founded, when the E.T. game was released. He was sent a copy of the game from sources he still had at Atari, and he took some time to play it. “I said, ‘Clearly, this is not finished.’”
“There’s a whole legend — that E.T. was made, it came out, and it destroyed the video game industry for three years. It did so badly that the industry collapsed for a number of years until it bounced back, and Atari buried it,” Penn said of his reasons for making the documentary. “The movie is a systematic deconstruction of that legend. None of that is accurate. There’s an element of truth in all of those parts, but it’s all jumbled up. The story of the movie is figuring out what actually happened.”
Warshaw said his experience making the game and what he would later read about his experience making the game over thirty years are very different, seeing it simply as a very intense five-week period in his career. “I am proud to have made the worst video game of all time,” he said, getting applause from the room. That said, he doesn’t believe the title is apt, nothing that he thinks the “honor” belongs to the Charlie’s Angel: Full Throttle video game released on Nintendo Gamecube and Playstation 2.
No one on the panel would say what they uncovered at the dig site, only teasing that they found many items and surprises that will be revealed in the film. They did admit to finding some E.T. cartridges though and one “lucky” attendee in the room won a Ziploc bag containing an E.T. cartridge found there. They were, however, warned not to open it in the room because of the horrible smell.
‘Atari: Game Over’ premiere this fall on Xbox Live.