Atari E.T. Dump Myth Proven True…Sort Of

It’s finally happened. Excavation has begun at the Alamogordo, New Mexico landfill which for decades has been rumored to be the final resting place of thousands upon thousands of unsellable overstock copies of the Atari 2600 game E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. But now it is the rumor which can be laid to rest: it has been confirmed that copies of E.T. have been found.

What many of the news stories fail to mention, however, is that several other game titles and pieces of hardware, including parts for the iconic Atari joystick, were also uncovered at the dig site. What this means is that the site was not merely the dumping ground for E.T. cartridges – or the symbol of the game’s supposed failure – it has long been said to be.

Rather, it seems to corroborate the theory held by leading Atari historians that the site was a dumping ground for an Atari plant in nearby El Paso, Texas that retooled in the mid-’80s. Machinery, computers, and excess inventory – including, but not limited to, E.T. cartridges – were crushed, dumped, and written off by the company. Such practices, while not exactly eco-friendly, were not uncommon at the time.

More questions surrounding the urban legend will be answered as the dig continues. In the meantime, the big question is: how long will it be before games uncovered at the landfill start showing up on eBay?

(c) 2014 Jeffery Koss

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A closer look at: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Title: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Platform: Atari Video Computer System
Publisher: Wizard Video
Year: 1983

Another example of grossly misleading early ’80s box art.

This is an interesting one. Not so much for the game itself, but rather for its background and its place in video game history.

In the early 1980s, the home video distribution rights to the classic horror film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were owned by an independent distributor called Wizard Video. And at that time, video games were a hot business to be in; virtually everybody and their mothers were churning out video games, especially for the Atari 2600. Wizard decided that some video games based on its movies would be a lucrative product line. The company created and released just two games based on its properties –The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween- while the home console game market was imploding under their feet. Both games amounted to little more than cash grabs from yet another company that had no business making video games (see also: Ralston-Purina, Quaker Oats, Johnson & Johnson).

(Fun Fact: Wizard Video was owned by B-movie legend Charles Band, who produced such cult classics as Subspecies, Puppet Master, and Gingerdead Man. With Wizard Video Games he intended to make video games for adults, including a game adaptation of Deep Throat which never came to fruition.)

The Texas Chainsaw Title Screen.

The games were controversial due to their unprecedented violence; they were the first games to feature graphical representations of blood and homicide.¬†Moreover, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre earned the dubious distinction of being the first video game in which the object is outright murder. Most retailers wanted nothing to do with Wizard’s games, and those that did carry the games kept them behind the counter or in the back room, out of customers’ sight, making them available only by request. Predictably, they did not sell well, making them rarities today.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre puts you in control of Leatherface, the chainsaw-swinging maniac from the film, as he patrols his farm. Something seems lost in the translation from film to game, as he looks a little more like an entranced Coach Buzzcut from Beavis & Butthead than Leatherface (which in all honesty is probably more terrifying). Coach Buzzcut is equipped with a chainsaw, represented in the game as a long, nubby stump protruding from his torso.

Leatherface and his doppelgänger.

Randomly appearing on the screen (and chirping shrilly when they do) are teenage girls that bear a striking 8-bit resemblance to Loretta Lockhorn. Your mission is to kill Loretta Lockhorn as many times as possible within the limits of three tanks of gasoline.

The teenage girl might be a bit older than she said she was.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds, though. Randomly appearing to thwart your efforts are fences, cattle skulls, wheelchairs, and thickets (each is a reference to the film, but they seem a bit zany in the context of this game). And it is ridiculously easy to get snagged on these things; even the slightest collision of pixels will get you rigidly and maddeningly stuck. To get unstuck, you can either saw through the barrier or simply wait a second or two and Leatherface will get out of it on his own. The thickets must be sawed through, however; it seems Leatherface doesn’t know his way out of a pile of sticks and weeds.

When you’re a chainsaw murderer on the loose, these are the last things you want to see.

The obstacles (and the girls, for that matter) appear randomly no matter which direction you run in. There is no pattern or map. Like, at all; even obstacles you’ve already passed will disappear or rearrange. Going one way and turning around will reveal a completely new layout of obstacles. It’s a little disorienting, but when you’re a psychotic chainsaw killer, these things matter little.

Playing tip: instead of trying to meander through obstacles in search of chainsaw fodder, move back and forth rapidly to generate new obstacles. When a girl appears, you should have a clearer path to her. This can be especially helpful later in the game, when the increased speed makes fluid navigation of obstacles impossible.

Once you’ve gotten a bead on a prospective victim, you are free to run straight up to them and let loose, except that they have the annoying habit of teleporting behind you if you get too close. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and they’ll let you ‘saw them right away, but more often you’ll have to chase them back and forth a few times (the number of times varies depending on how much they want to piss you off), wasting precious fuel before you can finally do them in.

Another one bites the dust: although quaint today, it was this kind of brutality that made this game a pariah among retailers and consumers.

Playing tip: wait until your chainsaw is visibly overlapping the victim before revving up with the fire button.

When your chainsaw dries up, it’s the teenager’s turn to kick some ass. And that she does, in one of the silliest Game Over sequences I can recollect. How a helpless teenager can suddenly kick a hulking monster out of existence has baffled physicists for decades.

A little extra fuel is awarded every 5,000 points, and the game speed substantially increases every 10,000 points. The extra fuel usually isn’t enough to get you more than one or two more kills, though. And the increasing game speed, random and unmercifully sticky obstacles, backward-warping teenage girls, and limited, unreplenishable fuel all seem to conspire to create a maximum score ceiling of around 30,000 points, give or take a grand (I’m told the world record is 34,000; my best score is 28- or 29K). This is what prevents The Texas Chainsaw Massacre from being more than a novelty game; the real challenge of the game lies in wrestling with its flawed and arbitrary mechanics rather than honing any gameplay-related skill. It’s impossible to earn extra fuel at a rate that can keep you in the game much past 30,000 points (that’s 30 dead Loretta Lockhorns). The randomness of the obstacles and the teenagers would really have to work in your favor to get any further.

This cartridge looked awfully out of place in a pile of games including Ms. Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and Math Gran Prix.

As stated earlier, this game is very uncommon today (read: expensive) since few were ever sold. But I have to imagine that even if it had proper marketing and exposure, it probably wouldn’t have sold that well anyway due to its being exactly the kind of substandard game consumers had grown leery of. It isn’t completely without gameplay value -I pop it into one of my many Ataris once in a while myself- but it’s really the novelty factor that is its draw. It’s worth playing for the novelty value, but it probably won’t hold your attention very long. I recommend this cartridge to serious collectors only; for casual or curious gamers, I suggest emulation or a reproduction cartridge…or a different game.

It bears mentioning that there was also a different version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the prototype of which was recently discovered, dumped, and released. This version was completely different from the released version, but the premise is the same: for Leatherface to kill as many victims as he can. You can read more about it at Matt Reichert’s excellent AtariProtos.com.

(c) 2012 Jeffery Koss

Quintessentially ’80s video games

Ah, the 1980s.

It was an exciting time of terrible fashion, cocaine, angular automotive design, Middle Eastern crises, AIDS, and music excellent and awful in equal measure. Arnold Schwarzenegger had not yet ascended to governorship of California. Mike Tyson had not yet descended into full-fledged lunacy. People thought you looked cool and tough when you wore a red bandana and a cutoff jean jacket instead of just thinking you might have mental problems. Maggie Thatcher was the man, the A-Team had the plan, and the San Francisco ’49ers dominated like few other football teams in NFL history.

Few other time periods in the history of the world are so synonymous with the products they birthed than the 1980s. Rubik’s Cubes. Cabbage Patch dolls. The DeLorean. Leg warmers. Members Only jackets. Transformers. Walkmans. VCRs. Boom Boxes. New Coke. Old Coke. And then there were the video games. And few of those video games exemplify the glorious yuppyism and Russophobia of the Reagan years more than these:

Tax Avoiders (Atari 2600)
Run around a platform-laden screen collecting “$” while trying to avoid “red tape.” Then, in the second screen, run around and climb up and down ladders to avoid the IRS agent; the longer you can keep out of his clutches, the more points money you earn. Then repeat the cycle until the tax year is up. Only in the ’80s could a game like this ever have seemed like a good idea.

Tax Avoiders (Atari 2600)

Tax Avoiders: Income screen. Yup.

Interestingly, the game mechanics of Tax Avoiders -and even the character you control- are identical to those of 20th Century Fox’s Atari adaptation of the movie Porky’s (speaking of ’80s wonders…), which was released around the same time; it is inconclusive who ripped off who.

Communist Mutants From Space (Atari 2600 + Supercharger)
This game’s story reads like the plot of an exceptionally bad ’50s sci-fi propaganda movie: “The evil ruler of the planet Rooskie has launched a diabolical attack. A cunning Mother Creature, filled with irradiated vodka, transforms helpless slaves captured on peaceful planets into bloodthirsty COMMUNIST MUTANTS!” Irradiated vodka? WTF? Anyway, playing the game reveals that none of the title’s nor instruction manual’s references to communism actually have anything at all to do with, well, anything. Simply calling this “Mutants From Space” wouldn’t have made the slightest difference, although it wouldn’t be the campy curiosity it is today.

Communist Mutants From Space (Atari 2600)

Is this what Lenin had in mind?

Despite the cheese factor of the title and premise, Communist Mutants From Space is actually a surprisingly good take on Galaxian. Additionally, it earns extra ’80s Points for being not only an Atari 2600 game, but an Atari 2600 game on cassette; a device called The Supercharger plugged into the Atari and allowed advanced games such as this, which couldn’t be done at the time on cartridge, to be loaded from cassette tape.

The Great Wall Street Fortune Hunt! (Odyssey 2)
First off, this one has a board and pieces. Secondly, it’s a stock market simulation game. It’s exactly as much fun as it sounds like.

The Great Wall Street Fortune Hunt! is one of the Odyssey 2’s three Master Strategy Series titles. These games are interesting in that, in an effort to create large and relatively expansive games while circumventing the Odyssey’s hardware limitations (which were painfully obvious even by 1982), they included game boards, playing pieces, special keyboard overlays, and other means of physical game interaction. They were, in a sense, hybrids of video games and board games, a concept never really seen before (the original Odyssey notwithstanding) or since. But while two of these three games, Conquest of The World! and Quest For The Rings!, respectively offered complex military strategy scenarios and Tolkienian adventure, The Great Wall Street Fortune Hunt! offered a rudimentary and austere stock market simulation that was difficult for Odyssey 2 owners bother with when they could play UFO!, K.C.’s Krazy Chase!, or Pick-Axe Pete! instead.

Just what you always wanted in a video game: a stock market ticker tape.

And yes, all Odyssey 2 games have exclamation marks in their names (except for the very, very few titles released by Imagic and Parker Bros).

Take The Money and Run! (Odyssey 2)
Have you ever had one of those nightmares where something is relentlessly chasing you, and no matter where you go, you can never escape? That’s basically what Take The Money and Run! is.

When a game takes place on a planet called “Keynesium,” it’s like it is warning you to stay away. Take The Money and Run! puts two players -and only two players (if you want to play alone, you have to watch the other guy just stand there)- into Keynesium’s “electronic labyrinth of more than a trillion different mazes!” as they do battle with the forces of…uh…economics. These economic forces -Inflation, Taxes, Income, Investment, Expenses, Reward, and Thief (just like you learned in Econ 101)- are represented by little robots, one to each player. The robots chase the players when a decrease to cash is in effect, such as Taxes, Expenses, Inflation, and Thief; when an increase to cash is in effect, the players go on the offensive. The longer a player goes without being caught by the (-) robot, or the sooner he catches the (+) robot, the better the score, which is naturally measured in dollars. It’s actually pretty similar to Tax Avoiders (or should I say, Tax Avoiders is like Take The Money and Run!, which came out earlier). But that’s basically it. It’s tag. With money. And relentless little econobots that haunt your dreams.

Beware the pink robots that chase you throughout Keynesium’s trillions of mazes!

What was the deal with games like this? Were we so obsessed with money in the ’80s that we actually needed video games about money?

Campaign ’84 (Colecovision)
Somebody, somewhere, thought this game needed to exist. Damn if I know why.

Campaign '84 (Colecovision)

Apparently Campaign ’84 even tried to ban itself.

(c) 2012 Jeffery Koss