Microsoft's silly waste of money searching for the 'E.T.' game

Good ole' Atari 2600 Credit: Image credit: flickr/Chris L

This weekend, Microsoft's Xbox Entertainment Studios plans to dig out an old landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico where it believes Atari buried millions of copies of "E.T" for the Atari 2600 more than 30 years ago.

Well, at least there's a party beforehand.

On Friday night, Microsoft will hold a free party in Alamogordo to celebrate both the dig and Atari's game legacy in general. The event will be held from 7 to 9 pm at the GameStop location at 516 1st Street in Alamogordo.

The dig itself will begin at 9:30 am on Saturday at the Alamogordo Landfill, located at 4276 Highway 54 S in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The dig will be filmed as the central part of an upcoming documentary about what happened with the 1982 game based on the hit film.

For you young 'uns, a little history. More than 30 years ago, Atari dominated the console market with its 2600 console. It was to the '80s what Nintendo was in the '90s and PlayStation has been in recent years. There were other consoles but the 2600 ruled the market. "E.T." had been a monster hit in theaters, so of course a game was commissioned for the 2600 console.

It was an unmitigated disaster.

The developer was certainly capable. He had developed the games "Yar's Revenge" and an "Indiana Jones" adaptation, both of which were excellent. But he had just six weeks to create the game, literally, in which E.T. provide largely uncontrollable and did nothing but fall in holes and get stuck. Five million game cartridges were made, 3.5 million were returned to Atari. Those carts were buried in a landfill but no one would say where. The Alamagordo landfill is widely thought to be the place.

The failure of "E.T." pretty much killed game consoles at the time, although they were already on the decline, and it took several years before Nintendo revived the market with the NES. Snopes has a nice writeup on the whole ordeal.

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Now I realize this whole exercise is for fun. Microsoft will give away 75 Atari "E.T'' dig canteens and 250 T-shirts to the first people who show up for the event on Saturday, both of which have the coordinates of the landfill printed on them along with 2600 version of E.T. himself. But I will laugh if this turns into the modern equivalent of Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone's vault on live TV.

But you know what I'd rather see Xbox Entertainment Studios and/or Atari do? Finish the "SwordQuest" series. In 1983, Atari started a four-game series called "SwordQuest," consisting of four games, titled "EarthWorld," "FireWorld," "WaterWorld," and "AirWorld." Each game cartridge was accompanied by a comic book draw (beautifully) by DC Comics that told the story the game could not tell, since the 2600 was too primitive.

Each of the games had hidden clues that you had to find by playing. You sent in what you found to Atari and those who scored best would take part in a contest held by Atari, which gave out some gorgeous awards made of precious metals and gemstones for each game. The four winners would then compete in a final game for a sword made of precious metals and gemstones.

Unfortunately, the contest never finished. Atari collapsed, thanks to "E.T." tanking at retail, and the contest ended after "FireWorld." "WaterWorld" was released through the Atari Club and "AirWorld" never saw the light of day. The whole history is here.

I've seen Atari revive so many old titles in recent years but it never went back to resurrect and finish "SwordQuest." With today's advanced PCs, there would be no need for a comic book to tell the story, either. "SwordQuest" was one of the first videogames to attempt to tell a narrative story through gameplay but was hamstrung by the limits of the console.

People remain obsessed with the game to this day. I've seen "WaterWorld" carts go for $100 on eBay. So after you get done digging, Xbox team, how about finishing the most famous unfinished game series this side of "Half-Life?"

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