I don’t know about you, but commercials can often take me back to my formative years as quickly as any song or movie can. That is why we will continue this semi-regular feature on ’80s commercials that I consider particularly memorable, noteworthy, or forgotten. Television commercials were much more influential back when we were forced to watch them without the luxury to fast-forward through and/or stream shows with limited or no interruptions. This issue will cover some E.T. video game for Atari 2600 from 1982.
Back in 1982, there were at least two things most kids my age loved… the film E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and the Atari 2600 video game system. So an E.T. game for the Atari 2600 seems like it would be a natural and its coming was indeed highly anticipated after Atari had acquired the rights to create it. To say the result was disappointing would be a severe understatement. In fact, the commercials for the game might be the best thing to come out of this surprising debacle.
E.T. (the film) was released in theaters in early June of 1982 and became the biggest blockbuster to date remaining the top box office grossing movie for six straight weeks and holding either the #1 or #2 spot until January. A video game based on this epic film seemed like a no-brainer. Warner Communications (Atari’s parent company) completed negotiations with Steven Spielberg and Universal Pictures to acquire the license to produce a video game based on E.T. on July 27th of that year. Howard Scott Warshaw was then commissioned to develop the game, but was given a deadline of September 1st (just five weeks!) in order to meet the production schedule necessary to get it on the market for the key Christmas selling season. Due to time limitations, Atari decided to skip audience testing for the product which was a necessary but still unwise decision. As one would expect, anticipation for the game was extremely high and it was one of the most sought-after Christmas gifts that season. What resulted is considered to be one of the worst video games ever released as well as one of the biggest commercial failures in video game history.
More on that in a little bit. To help create demand for this video game release, television commercials were created capitalizing on the beloved character from the film. I remember seeing them quite often during that December of 1982 and, though the game did not make my personal list to Santa that year, they did leave quite an impression. Here is the extended version of a commercial introducing E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600…
You don’t see his face, but you know it is him from his distinctive waddle and of course his memorable fingers. And here is one more that recreates the scene where Elliott hears E.T. in the shed…
With commercials like those, what kid wouldn’t want that game? Kids were waiting to eat the game up like it were Reese’s Pieces. Sales of the game were initially successful as one would expect, but not nearly to anticipated levels. The game eventually sold 1.5 million copies which is a lot, but it is reported that between 2.5 and 3.5 million cartridges went unsold. Critics and players alike panned the poor quality game as a disappointment in nearly every aspect. I remember being excited to play the game because of my love for the movie and the commercials, but I was another one of the disappointed when I was able to play it myself at my cousin’s house that Christmas. Despite decent initial sales figures, the quantity of unsold merchandise coupled with the expensive movie license and the large amount of returns made E.T. a financial failure for Atari. It was reported that Atari earned $25 million in sales, but netted a loss of $100 million in the end.
Piling on to this epic failure, E.T. (the game) is blamed as one of the causes of the entire U.S. video game industry crash which began in 1983. Industry revenues that had peaked at around $3.2 billion in 1983 fell to around $100 million by 1985. The game led Atari to report a $536 million loss in 1983 and led to the company being divided and sold in 1984. It certainly cannot all be blamed on this one game, but it surely was a catalyst. As most of us know, the video game industry was reborn a couple years later with the introduction of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).
What happened to all of those unsold copies of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600??? It had been an urban legend for several decades that they were buried in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico. In September of 1983, it was reported that between 10 and 20 semi-trailer truckloads of Atari boxes were crushed, encased in cement and buried there. It was speculated that several million of the unsold copies of E.T. were part of this mass burial. This had never been completely verified for several decades, but in 2014 an excavation took place to prove that the urban legend was in fact true. You can watch a short documentary of those excavation efforts right here if interested…
There you go, another trip down memory lane in the form of TV commercials. Certainly not as iconic as some Christmas commercials from that decade plus they only ran that one season and are connected to a sad story, but at the same time also connected to video games, the most-watched movie of the decade and a story that’s become infamous. That makes it another chapter of wonderful ’80s pop culture and Christmas history.
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