One of the worst video games ever is Atari’s 1983 attempt to cash in on what would go on to become one of the most beloved movies of all time, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The game is so legendarily bad that all the unsold copies the manufacturer could get their hands on were buried in a landfill in New Mexico. At least that is the urban legend. But you know why this sort of rumor gains so much traction is because on occasion they do turn out to be real, and this just happens to be the case. A team has in fact uncovered a butt-ton of unwanted copies of the game.
After having problems getting approval, a documentary crew who, for some reason, wants to unearth the long-forgotten stockpile, finally got the go ahead to excavate the Almagordo Landfill in Almagordo, New Mexico. The dig was scheduled for yesterday, and now numerous news outlets are reporting that they did in fact find what they were looking for. In this case, their payday is the 14 truckloads of cartridges that were reportedly dumped and left to rot. They also apparently found one stray copy of Centipede, too.
Backed by Microsoft, the Fuel Entertainment documentary team, which is helmed by Zak Penn (Incident at Loch Ness), enlisted the help of Joe Lewandowsky, a local garbage contractor to help with the dig. The question that has been bandied about by those outside of the realm of video games, however, is why the hell anyone would want to do this? People love to prove or debunk rumors—how else do we wind up with shows like Mythbusters?—and in certain circles, this is the nerdy equivalent of finding Jimmy Hoffa’s body. (I’m not sure if this really qualifies as a true urban legend, though, the New York Times did report on the burial in 1983, and it the team knew where to look, but still…)
Even though it was an abysmal game, E.T. the Game was the first attempt to crossover between film and the burgeoning home game console business. This is part of history in that regard—now we can’t imagine any big movie that opens without an accompanying game—but also because of the impact it had. E.T. was such a spectacular failure, both as a product and as a commercial venture, that it is widely credited for the temporary collapse of the industry in 1983.
The Almagordo site was reportedly chosen for its isolated location and because the trash was compacted on a daily basis. Apparently Atari didn’t want anyone to see them dumping their wares and trying to hide their very public shame. The cartridges were said to have been discarded, crushed, and covered with cement. The unearthed copies of the game definitely appear to have been smashed and buried, but I don’t know about the cement.
This is an interesting bit of history, especially for anyone interested in video games and gaming history and culture. We’ll have to wait and see, however, if this topic will capture the attention of a wider audience. But with Microsoft behind them, and the amount of coverage this event has received so far, there just might be.