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Published: Friday, 5/9/2014

CULTURE SHOCK

‘E.T.’ finds a home in Atari lore

BY KIRK BAIRD
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Did Atari dump a glut of unsold cartridges and products in an Alamogordo, N.M., landfill as the home video game industry collapsed in 1983?

Nearly two weeks ago, a documentary crew answered that decades-old question with proof positive of the Atari urban legend. Using a backhoe to dig deep in the dump site, they unearthed 8-bit relics numbering in the thousands.

Why would a then-major company unceremoniously dispose of its products like that? E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial for its 2600 Video Computer System, for one.

As despised as much as its Hollywood progenitor is beloved, Atari’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial — in which players guide the pixelated friendly alien in a quest to collect three pieces of an interplanetary phone to call home, dodging villainous scientists and FBI agents, as well as deep pits along the way — was rushed to market for the 1982 holiday season. Buggy and difficult to play, the adventure game was an Edsel-level failure, with initial sales success succumbing to waning consumer enthusiasm and overzealous manufacturing. Months later, Atari attempted to make its multimillion-dollar mistake disappear forever in that Alamogordo landfill, along with truckloads of excess inventory from its El Paso storehouse.

In the decades since, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial has been doubly vilified as one of the worst video games of all time and as a major culprit in Atari’s demise — and thus a leading factor in the industry crash.

But for some of us who played the cartridge growing up in the ’80s and later as nostalgic classic gamers, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is hardly worthy of such scorn.

Dave Richardson agrees. And after listening to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’s detractors for years, the 33-year-old Greenville, Pa., resident did something about it: He made the game better.

What began as a discussion on the message board of the Atari-centric website Atariage.com became a mission for Richardson, as he dug into the game’s programming code to make subtle improvements to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, including addressing the game’s legendarily frustrating collision detection, in which players would watch helplessly as the alien fell into those aggravating pits — even when only its head would touch the holes.

“On New Year’s last year I decided to give it a shot,” he said. “It took a little longer than I anticipated and I made more changes than I anticipated to make, working every weekend in January ... about 30 hours total, if I had to guess.

“But I’m happy with the result. It came out better than I thought it would come out.”

The Atari community praised his work. More important, so did Howard Scott Warshaw, the game’s original programmer. He emailed Richardson to say he liked the fixes, and appreciated the first real contribution to the game since it was released more than 30 years ago. Then at the landfill excavation, Richardson had the opportunity to play E.T. 2.0 with Warshaw in person.

Richardson said Warshaw took the event in stride, perhaps appreciating that much of the mass spectacle was about the game he created: “I think at least for that day, he was really enjoying the fact that he was author of the program.”

When asked if he appreciated his own connection to the infamous title, Richardson laughed.

“It does make you feel good to be part of something like that. That’s special,” he said. “I want to stay humble here, because what did I do? But I’d like to think of myself as part of the legend.”

Besides, he said later, “It wasn’t really that bad of a game.”

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.



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