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Retro Vault: Altered Beast, E.T. and an Atari 2600 promo VHS

Plus: The Nintendo VS System and when Mean Machines went wrong

Retro Vault is our regular weekly feature in which we dive into gaming's past and share five classic nuggets of retro nostalgia. If you want to catch up on previous Retro Vaults, check out the CVG Retro Vault archive.


September 1982 - E.T. magazine ad

The story of E.T. is now legendary but given that it's about to become a big gaming story again we thought it would be useful to recap for the sake of those who may not be aware of its troubled past.

The massive success of the E.T. movie in June 1982 inspired Warner Communications, the parent company of Atari, to quickly sign up the video game rights. Proudly announcing in July that it had acquired these rights, Warner then made the worst decision in gaming history - it demanded that an E.T. game be ready in time for Christmas that year.

The unlucky game designer tasked with this impossible feat was Howard Warshaw, who had previously worked on the much-loved Yar's Revenge. However, while that game had taken Warshaw seven months to develop, he was told that in order to have E.T. manufactured and on store shelves by Christmas the entire game would have to be ready in just five and a half weeks.

Confident that the E.T. game would be a smash hit, Warner ordered somewhere between 4 and 5 million copies of the game to be manufactured - an insane number for the time. While it ended up selling around 1.5 million copies, which should have been considered a success at the time, this meant more than double that number remained unsold.

What's worse, the game was atrocious: unsurprising given its five-week development. Countless customers returned it to stores citing its broken gameplay and near-unplayable sections where E.T. falls into a pit and struggles to get back out.

This caused long-term damage too: burnt by E.T., numerous gamers and parents decided they were done with video games and didn't want to waste their money on them anymore. Sales of Atari 2600 games and consoles plummeted and the big Video Game Crash of 1983 began. There are a lot of bad games, but not many are so bad they bring down the entire games industry.

According to Atari's CEO Roy Kassar, a total of 3.5 million copies were sent back to the company as either unsold or returned products. As legend has it, these unsold copies were then buried in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico, where they have been lying for decades. That may soon change though, as a documentary crew plans to dig up the landfill and uncover this mass grave of E.T. cartridges later today.

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