Sometimes the best laid plans simply don’t work out as intended. In the video game industry, things can change very quickly. Developers and game manufacturers are constantly playing a game of “catch up” while also trying to set the pace themselves for where the industry will go. During the rocky times of the 80s, anyone involved in the industry would learn this lesson firsthand. None would learn it quite as hard as Atari, however.
If any of you are old enough to actually remember when “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial” came out for the Atari, then you will also recall how much it sucked. I was too young for this but I do know the story well. What some now refer to as “The myth of Atari’s tomb”, there is a harrowing tale of the video game crash of 1983, one terribly made E.T. game and a company that took “trash it” to a whole new level. Here Atari sat with millions of unsold game cartridges that no one was going to want.
The Atari video game burial was a mass burial of unsold video game cartridges, consoles, and computers in a New Mexico landfill site, undertaken by American video game and home computer company Atari, Inc. in 1983. The goods buried were believed to be unsold copies of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, one of the biggest commercial failures in video gaming and often cited as one of the worst video games ever released, and the Atari 2600 port of Pac-Man, which was commercially successful but critically maligned.
Since the burial was first reported in the press, there have been doubts as to its veracity and scope, leading to a minority considering it an urban legend. However, the event has become a cultural icon and a reminder of the North American video game crash of 1983; it was the end result of a disastrous fiscal year which saw Atari, Inc. sold off by its parent company. Though it was believed that millions of copies of E.T. were disposed of in the landfill, Atari officials later verified the numbers to be around 700,000 cartridges of various titles, including E.T.
In April of 2014, someone decided to do something about this. They would get to the bottom of the Myth of Atari’s Tomb, one way or another. So Fuel Industries, Microsoft and a few other backers teamed up with the Arizona government to excavate the landfill. What was actually buried in that desert?
Wikipedia tells us more of the burial story:
In September 1983, the Alamogordo Daily News of Alamogordo, New Mexico reported in a series of articles, that between 10 and 20 semi-trailer truckloads of Atari boxes, cartridges, and systems from an Atari storehouse in El Paso, Texas, were crushed and buried at the landfill within the city. It was Atari’s first dealings with the landfill, which was chosen because no scavenging was allowed and its garbage was crushed and buried nightly. Atari’s stated reason for the burial was that it was changing from Atari 2600to Atari 5200 games, but this was later contradicted by a worker who claimed that this was not the case. Atari official Bruce Enten stated that Atari was mostly sending broken and returned material to the Alamogordo dump and that it was “by-and-large inoperable stuff.”
On September 27, 1983, the news service UPI reported that “people watching the operation said it included cassettes of the popular video games E.T., Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, the consoles used to convey the games to television screens and high-priced personal computers.” The news service Knight-Ridder further reported on the looting of the dump on September 28 by local kids, stating “kids in this town of 25,000 began robbing the Atari grave, coming up with cartridges of such games as E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, Defender, and Berzerk.”
On September 28, 1983, The New York Times reported on the story of Atari’s dumping in New Mexico. An Atari representative confirmed the story for the newspaper, stating that the discarded inventory came from Atari’s plant in El Paso, which was being closed and converted to a recycling facility. The reports noted that the site was guarded to prevent reporters and the public from affirming the contents. The Times article never suggested any of the specific game titles being destroyed, but subsequent reports have generally linked the story of the dumping to the well-known failure of E.T. Additionally, the headline “City to Atari: ‘E.T.’ trash go home” in one edition of the Alamogordo News seems to imply some of the cartridges were E.T., but then follows with a humorous interpretation of E.T. meaning “Extra-territorial” and never specifically mentions the game.
Starting on September 29, 1983, a layer of concrete was poured on top of the crushed materials, a rare occurrence in waste disposal. An anonymous workman’s stated reason for the concrete was: “There are dead animals down there. We wouldn’t want any children to get hurt digging in the dump.” Eventually, the city began to protest the large amount of dumping Atari was doing, with one commissioner stating that the area did not want to become “an industrial waste dump for El Paso.” The local manager ordered the dumping to be ended shortly afterwards. Due to Atari’s unpopular dumping, Alamogordo later passed an Emergency Management Act and created the Emergency Management Task Force to limit the future flexibility of the garbage contractor to secure outside business for the landfill for monetary purposes. Alamogordo’s then mayor, Henry Pacelli, commented that, “We do not want to see something like this happen again.”
So was it true? The only way to be certain what was down there would be to dig it up. And dig it up they did! After all the speculation, all the years of rumors, we would finally find out what happened in that Arizona landfill. On May 28, 2013, the Alamogordo City Commission granted Fuel Industries, a Canadian entertainment company, access to the landfill for a period of only six months, in order to film a documentary. Xbox Entertainment Studios planned to air this documentary series as an exclusive to the Xbox One and Xbox 360 in 2014 as part of a multi-part documentary series being produced by Lightbox, a US/UK production company. It would be called called Atari: Game Over.
See the trailer here:
Now, the actual excavation began on April 26, 2014 and was open to the public. E. T. the Extra-Terrestrial designer Howard Scott Warshaw and director Zak Penn were present as part of the documentary and many local residents and government officials attended as well. But it wasn’t just E.T. they found in there.
In fact, they also found other game cartridges from the time as well. While the myth tells us that millions of game cartridges were buried in the desert, James Heller, the former Atari manager in charge of the original burial says it was only 728,000 cartridges. Of these, only around 1300 were found in the excavation.
So what happened to all the goodies they dug up in this great excavation?
Of the recovered materials, some were given to the New Mexico Museum of Space History for display, and another 100 to the documentary producers Lightbox and Fuel Entertainment. The city of Alamogordo then got approval to sell the remaining games at auction to raise funds for the city. They also talked of making the burial site a tourist attraction in the future. As of September 2015, over $107,000 has been raised through the sales of about 880 unearthed cartridges, with one E.T. copy selling for more than $1,500. About 300 cartridges remain to be sold at a later date given the historical value of the cartridges.
Other titles sold on eBay included Asteroids, Missile Command,Warlords, Star Raiders, Swordquest and Centipede.
One of the E.T. cartridges was taken by the Smithsonian Institution for its records, calling the cartridge both representative of the burial site but also in terms of video games, how the cartridge represents “the ongoing challenge of making a good film to a video game adaptation, the decline of Atari, the end of an era for video game manufacturing, and the video game cartridge life cycle”.
Well… that pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it?