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The Atari Video Game Burial



E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was a 1982 movie from Steven Spielberg that gained huge success and was the highest grossing movie of its time. The story focuses on a young, lonely boy who befriends an alien stranded on Earth and attempts to help him reach his home planet.

Atari wanted to piggy-back on the success of the movie by releasing a video game for their Atari 2600 console. They had high hopes for the game and wanted to release it in time for the Christmas period. However, negotiations for the gaming rights didn’t end till July given Atari just five weeks to develop the game. They therefore rushed production and skipped on the public testing phase resulting in what many call the worst video game of all time.

You play as E.T. collecting pieces of technology to help you “phone home”. These pieces of technology were represented by green dots you had to collect while avoiding two police officers. One would take pieces off you while the other would throw you in jail. Alien jail, no doubt. Other than poor gameplay, people found it very confusing and there was little explanation on how to actually play the game leading to frustration from the start. The Atari 2600 only had one button and it was used for a variety of functions making it very difficult to do what you wanted to as it all depended on where you were standing and in what direction you were facing.

The Game Crash

Between 1984 and 1985 North America was hit by a video game crash. In 1983 revenue was at $3.2 billion but by 1985 it was just $100 million, nearly a 97% drop. Many video game and home computer businesses went bankrupt, including Atari, and led to many believing it to be the end of video games for good.

This was not the case however as Nintendo released the NES in 1985 which found widespread success and revitalized the industry.

There were several reasons for the crash. The most common is to blame it on E.T. and how exceptionally poor it was but perhaps that isn’t fair. There was no content control which meant anybody could knock out a game for the Atari resulting in some very poor quality games which knocked consumer confidence. The home computer had greatly dropped in price meaning they were getting popular for people to have inside their homes, often chosen over video game consoles. Gaming consoles were therefore thought of as becoming obsolete. Furthermore, there were over a dozen consoles to choose from, unlike today when there are only a hand full worth purchasing.

The Rumour

So the common belief is that as a result of the crash, Atari dumped all their remaining copies of E.T. (roughly five million) in a New Mexico desert landfill. This was due to it being common knowledge of the games poor quality and retailers thus refused to purchase any copies.

As well as millions of copies of E.T. the rumour says that Pac-Man was also dumped. While Pac-Man had much more success, they produced over 12 million copies of the game and sold a little over 6 million. The thought process being that the game would help sell more consoles, which it may well have done but not nearly enough. So even if everybody who had an Atari 2600 owned Pac-Man, there would still be millions left over.

The Truth

The Great Video Game Burial is more recently thought of as a myth or urban legend. Thirty years ago though it was strongly believed and was reported in local newspapers.

There is some truth to the rumour though, Atari did dump a lot of games in a land fill in New Mexico. But it was not just E.T. and Pac-Man. There were other games, consoles and controllers as well. A former employee of Atari stated that these were dumped because they were faulty and not fit for sale. It’s not as exciting as the rumour but this story sounds the most likely explanation for what happened.

At the time they simply claimed they were making room for their new console but this was likely just a way to promote it without anyone questioning the story. It’s most likely due to it being embarrassing for them to have to dump so much of their own faulty product.


While there are lots of theories as to why the market crashed in 1983 we’ll let you make up your own mind. It does seem a little odd that one game could cause so much trouble and though it may not be entirely to blame it could very well be a contributing factor.

The E.T. video game flop combined with all the other facts above was inevitably heading for trouble and we can all be thankful to Nintendo for bringing the industry back from the brink.


A film crew has been given the green light to make a documentary about the video game burial and will try to uncover some of the buried products. See the full news report below for more details.

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