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: Alien

Title: Alien
Platform: Atari Video Computer System
Publisher: Fox Video Games (20th Century Fox)
Year: 1982

In your living room, no one can hear you scream.

Before we dive in here, I’m going to grab some coffee -it’s the only thing good on this ship- and tell you a little bit about what this game has meant to me as a gamer and collector:

I’m a huge fan of the Alien movies.  All of three of them. ( [/tongueincheek] )  By the time I was in 7th grade, in 1996-97, I had seen each of them probably a couple dozen times.  In retrospect, I should be shocked that my parents allowed me to watch these movies -especially the exceptionally violent and vulgar Alien 3- but I think I turned out mostly alright. Mostly.

I’m also a huge fan of video games.  And I’m a huge, huge fan of Aliens video games.  I’d played and loved Alien Trilogy on the Playstation, the excellent Alien 3 ports on the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, and of course the Aliens Vs. Predator arcade beat-’em-up (technically that’s a different franchise, but there’s already enough nerdiness on this page without getting into that).  I was even lucky (?) enough to experience Alien 3: The Gun at a local bowling alley.  And I knew a kid at school who had an old copy of a computer game based on the second film, Aliens, probably for the Commodore or Apple.  But I’d never heard of a game based on the original movie.

So you can probably imagine how stoked out of my Surge-addled mind I was when, while feeding my curious adolescent mind information about the game systems of the stone age with help from America Online, Netscape Navigator, and Greg Chance’s website videogames.org, I discovered that the old Atari 2600 had a game for it based on the original Alien.  And that was it; I had to play it.  And to play it, I had to get an Atari (emulation wasn’t really feasible for me at the time).  And on the way to getting an Atari, I got stuff that was like an Atari, such as Odyssey 2 and Intellivision. The jist of the story is that Alien on the Atari VCS helped push me towards collecting vintage video games.  I guess I could have just said that from the start…

But enough of that nonsense – on to the game!  In Alien, you are placed into the air shafts of the Nostromo, the space freighter in which the bulk of the film takes place.  The tunnels are infested with alien eggs, and your mission is to crush all the eggs to clear the ship of the alien menace.  The alien monsters pursuing you can be temporarily destroyed if your human collects a pulsar.  A warp tunnel connects the opposite ends of the screen, and extra points can be earned by collecting a bonus item that periodically appears in the center of the playfield.

If this premise sounds suspiciously similar to that of a certain arcade game that was tremendously popular in 1982, that’s probably because it is.

Alien for the Atari 2600: It’s better than it looks.

Alien is Pac-Man.  I’m not sure which Fox honcho saw Pac-Man in the arcades and said, “Yep, that’s Alien,” but nevertheless, here we are are.  And that’s not a bad thing.  Apart from bearing little resemblance to the Ridley Scott masterpiece, Alien is a very good Pac-alike.  It’s actually one of the better Pac-Man games available for the Atari VCS, in my opinion surpassed only by Atari’s excellent Jr. Pac-Man, which came out about five years later.

It helps to have an imagination.

Alien does have a couple of bells and whistles that set it apart from the rest of the early-’80s Knockoff-Man herd, however.  The coolest of which is the flamethrower.  The coolness of being able to fire an incendiary weapon at the haranguing key-wind chattering teeth aliens is tempered, unfortunately, by the fact that it doesn’t really do anything.  Okay, that’s not totally true; although the flamethrower can’t actually do any damage to the aliens, lighting it off can scare them away momentarily.  It’s not guaranteed to work, and each human (read: extra life) has only a small amount of fuel, but if you’re about to be cornered or worse, at least you have a Hail Mary Pass.

Another of Alien’s distinguishing features is its bonus stage, which can be reached every time the screen is cleared of dots alien eggs.  This stage has your human moving vertically through crossing rows of the pastel-colored alien nasties, a la Freeway, in an attempt to reach the bonus item at the top of the screen.  This isn’t tremendously exciting, but it does provide contrast to a game that could otherwise quickly descend into monotony.  Besides, in a game of high scores such as this, who wouldn’t want a shot at bonus points?

An interesting thing about Alien is that while its connection to the movie is, by and large, contained only in the instruction manual and box description, the game itself actually references other movies.  A few of the bonus items that appear in Alien’s later rounds, analogously to Pac-Man’s various fruits and bells and keys, include what appear to be TIE Fighters and Starship Enterprises. It’s hard to know exactly what these objects are truly supposed to represent, since even the instruction manual refers to them only as “1st Surprise,” “2nd Surprise,” and “3rd Surprise.”  They sure look like TIEs and Enterprises, though.

The back of Alien’s box does give a nod to Tom Skerritt’s character from the movie, however, noting that the game was programmed by “Dallas North” (actually Doug Neubauer, who went on to do the outstanding Solaris, Super Football, and Radar Lock games toward the end of the 2600’s life).  “Dallas” also provides playing tips in the instruction manual.

As if you’d want playing tips from this guy. If you do, you probably didn’t see Alien.

In spite of its idiosyncrasies (and what Atari VCS game is without those?), Alien is one of my favorite Atari games. It’s arguably a better Pac-Man game than Atari’s own 2600 version of Pac-Man, and unquestionably superior to weak “me too” titles like Apollo’s Shark Attack.  It’s got pretty good graphics (by 1982 Atari VCS standards) and effective sounds.  The controls are responsive and tight.  The game is well-designed, and has a good mix of difficulty with four skill levels.  It’s based on the greatest science fiction movie ever made.  And most importantly, it’s fun.  What’s not to like?

If you’re looking to build up your Atari library, or maybe get into collecting, Alien is a pretty easy title to come by and shouldn’t run you much more than $5.00, maybe $10-15 with a box and manual.  I highly recommend picking it up.  There is, however, another version of Alien that is exceptionally rare.  This is the version “released” by Xante.  By “released,” I mean Xante’s cartridges were actually created in kiosks where a customer could select an existing game -licensed from other companies, in this case Fox Games- and download it over a phone line onto an EPROM, creating the cartridge on the spot.

Regular Alien cartridge = $5.00…

…Xante Alien cartridge = $ Crew Expendable

Until next time, this is Jeffery K., last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off!

(c) 2012 Jeffery Koss

Complete copy of Atari VCS game “Air Raid” sells for $33,433.30

This boxed copy of the Atari VCS game Air Raid sold for over $33,000 earlier this week.

The Atari 2600 game Air Raid has long been considered one of the system’s “holy grails” by collectors.  It is believed that only 20 or fewer copies of the distinctive powder blue-colored, T-handled cartridge were ever manufactured by the game’s elusive and mysterious creator, Men-A-Vision, in 1982.  Until recently, it was also believed that no packaging (read: box and instruction manual) ever existed for the game.  That theory got blown up when the first and only known boxed copy surfaced in 2010; its discoverer subsequently sold it off for a handsome $31,600.

The Air Raid cartridge itself. Even apart from its rarity, it is coveted by collectors due to its unusual blue color and “T” handled shell. The quality of the artwork is not far removed from that of pirated cartridges from Asia and South America.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when a father and daughter duo were prompted to search through their own impressive Atari collection, which had long been in storage, after belatedly reading about the discovery and sale of the first and only boxed Air Raid two years earlier.  The father and owner of the collection, Harv Bennett of Pomona, California, recalled possessing a boxed copy of Air Raid himself.  And as you have surely deduced by now, Harv was correct.

After coming to the forums at AtariAge (whose user community is widely considered to be the authority in all things Atari) and having the game and its box verified, the game was posted for auction at GameGavel.com.  The rest, as they say, is history.

You can read the story behind this example of Air Raid in the auction link above.  In short, it was a promotional/demonstration copy that Mr. Bennett, the assistant manager of a local drug store, was lent by Men-A-Vision’s agent to try out at home and see if he wanted to sell in his store.  Mr. Bennett declined to order Air Raid for his store (citing uninteresting gameplay, strange packaging design, and his belief that nobody would buy it) and kept the game after Men-A-Vision’s agent declined to take it back; apparently the agent had received similar feedback about the game from his other prospects as well.  

But what makes this example particularly exciting -and indeed more valuable than the previous boxed Air Raid– is that, during the auction, Harv and his daughter Alana discovered something hidden inside the box behind the cartridge tray that most collectors were convinced didn’t even exist: the game’s instruction manual.  On top of that, the game cartridge, box, and the manual are all in pristine condition.  Apart from the brief time Mr. Bennett demoed the game for his store, the cartridge has only been played two other times since 1982; once in the mid ’90s, and once a couple of weeks ago to prove that it works

The discovery of the instruction manual is doubly important and exciting for Atari collectors because, in addition to merely existing, it provides the first solid lead to learning who was involved with Men-A-Vision, where it was located, how it operated, how Air Raid came about, and how many copies may still exist: a street address.  Before the discovery of the instruction manual and Men-A-Vision’s Sunset Boulevard mailing address, it was unknown whether Men-A-Vision was even located in the United States; Air Raid was often theorized to be yet another Taiwanese pirated cartridge or hack, as much of its source code borrows heavily (read: was lifted outright) from that of the far more common game Space Jockey, by U.S. Games.

It must also be noted that during the time this CIB (“complete in box”) Air Raid was up for auction on GameGavel, yet another boxed copy appeared on eBay.  This surprise copy lacked the instruction manual, however, and the box was in substantially lesser condition than Harv and Alana Bennett’s copy; it sold for a “mere” $13,988.89, less than half of what the complete copy on GameGavel sold for.  It does, however, raise the number of known boxed Air Raids to three.  It is rumored that the only reason we even know the game is called Air Raid is because a former collector owned a boxed copy in the early ’90s (this follows, as there is no print on the cartridge label or in the game itself to indicate its title), and that this most recent “ebay copy” may be that box; this is unconfirmed, and likely unconfirmable, at least as of now.

While the $33,000+ the Bennetts earned from their Air Raid sale may be the record price for an Atari VCS game, it still fails to match the $55,000 that one wealthy Nintendo fanatic was willing to pay for a prototype of The Legend Of Zelda.

(c) 2012 Jeffery Koss