PlayThings: E.T. and the U.S Market Crash

Did an Alien really destroy American videogames in 1983?

Bringing you the latest instalment in our Playthings news series, examining the fascinating stories behind the objects from our Playthings exhibition.

Over the years, the Atari 2600 game E.T. The Extra Terrestrial has got a pretty bad rap.

It has become commonplace in videogame history to almost single-handedly blame it for the 1983 US market crash. 

Boxed copy of E.T for the Atari 2600.

The story goes that Atari were so certain that the game would follow the astronomical success of the film that they actually manufactured more E.T. cartridges than the number of Atari 2600 consoles they’d currently sold. The idea was that people would want to play the game so much that they would go and buy a 2600 to do so. And that’s why Atari reportedly paid somewhere between $20–25 million for the license. 

It was a guaranteed winner. Videogames were fantastically popular, E.T. was the hottest film in town, the 1982 holidays season was approaching. How could it fail?

Well, how about giving the programmer, Howard Scott Warshaw, just six weeks to complete the game? How about ignoring Spielberg’s suggestions for the game’s design? How about not conducting any audience play-testing before the release? Yes, that could help it fail. In fact, it sounds like a recipe for disaster. And that’s exactly what happened.

If we fast forward to gory details of the poor reviews, even poorer sales, and the lines of players who did purchase the title waiting to disappointedly return it, and cut to Alamogordo in New Mexico, we find lorry-loads of cartridges being dumped in a landfill site. 

Why bury them? Basically, it was considered that getting rid of them made more economic sense than storing them or trying to sell them in such a hostile market. So, from the 1982 excitement and anticipation of the biggest title in videogame history to a 1983 mass cartridge burial, we see how quickly fortunes can turn. 

Except it isn’t really the full story, laying the collapse of an entire market at the stumpy feet of one alien just isn’t fair. The game itself isn’t even that bad, with many claiming that the game simply needed a better way of explaining its core features (unlike today, in the 80’s instructions for games were almost always delivered in an included manual). It’s even still one of the more commonly played games of that generation played today, but perhaps that’s as much due to its notoriety as any game play features.

Want to learn more about E.T and the US Market crash of 1983? Check out the links below:

‘Atari Gets E.T. Rights’ – Archive from the New York Times, 1982

‘A Squeeze in Videogames’ – Archive from the New York Times, 1982

The Videogame Crash of 1983 – Wikipedia

‘E.T. Found in New Mexico Landfill’ – Kotaku, 2015

Fixing E.T. The Extra Terrestrial – Neocomputer.org


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