E.T. the interred terrestrial

Was a New Mexico desert the final resting place for one of the worst video games ever made? Amid speculation,a dig is planned

Written by New York Times | Published:June 23, 2013 3:51 am

You are the world’s greatest video game maker,but suddenly you find yourself stuck with millions of cartridges of a game nobody wants. What do you do?

You load the cartridges into trucks and bury them in the New Mexico desert. Atari did just that almost 30 years ago,or so the story goes. The truth lies beneath packed dirt and poured concrete in a sleeping landfill by the railroad tracks behind a McDonald’s in Alamogordo,where a city of about 32,000 dumped its garbage many years ago.

The place may be the resting place for the video game ‘E.T.’,recalled by some as one of the worst video games ever made.

Snopes.com,the web authority on rumours and urban myths,ruled the burial of the E.T. cartridges a legend,though there are enough stories online to feed the mystery. Here—in plastic cases,shoe boxes and tattered paper bags—there is enough proof to be found that at least some E.T. games were buried in the landfill.

The place has captured the imagination of the original joystick generation. It has inspired music videos and an independent film,whose main character,traumatised by the E.T. game,sets out to debunk the legend of the landfill,hoping to save young generations from the trauma of playing it. “Everybody’s always fantasised about digging up those games,” James Rolfe,the filmmaker and star of the series,said.

What could be there?

“Systems,prototypes,” said Joe Lewandowski,who ran a waste-management company in Alamogordo in the 1980s and seems to know a lot more about what happened than he is willing to tell.

Last month,Fuel Entertainment,a digital company in Los Angeles,acquired an exclusive permit to excavate the Alamogordo landfill. “We’re 100 per cent going to be digging,” assured the company’s chief executive,Mike Burns.

There is no definitive account of that day in September 1983 when the trucks brought the Atari haul here. One story put the number of trucks at 20. Others say there were 10 or 14. Lewandowski recalled last week that 29 trucks had left Atari’s plant in El Paso,Texas,just over the border from New Mexico,and that only nine had made it to the landfill.

E.T. was made in five weeks so it could hit the market in time for the 1982 Christmas shopping season. Atari was banking on cashing in on the blockbuster movie E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,and paid Steven Spielberg,its director and co-producer,$20 million to $25 million for the rights to the film’s name.

The game was a huge flop. More than half the 5 million cartridges made were returned.

E.T. was not Atari’s only mistake. The company made more Pac-Man cartridges than there were consoles at the time.

“The market got oversaturated by stuff nobody wanted,” said Andrew Reiner,executive editor of Game Informer,a monthly magazine based in Minneapolis.

City officials here see the excavation as an opportunity. As one commissioner,Jim Talbert put it,“I don’t understand what the fuss is all about,but we welcome it.”

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