It’s an epic urban legend most gamers have heard of at some point or the other. One that imparted a lesson still true today: just because your game is based on a good movie, that doesn’t mean it’s a good game. Such was the lesson Atari learned the hard way in December of 1982, when the official tie-in video game based on Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial arrived for the Atari 2600. While Atari might have hoped the game would hit the market with the grace of E.T. ship descending during the film’s climax, it instead cratered like the Tunguska blast of 1908. To this day E.T. is considered one of the worst games of all time, and there’s a longstanding story — possibly true, possibly not — that Atari dumped millions of unsold copies of the game in a New Mexico landfill. Now a Canadian documentary plans to excavate the site and find out once and for all if the legend is true.
It had all the makings of a tragedy from the get-go. E.T. opened to massive success in June 1982. While the video game industry was still quite young, it didn’t take a genius to sniff potential there. Warner Communications, the parent company of Atari, moved quickly to nail down the rights to make games based on the movie. They announced the deal in late July, and reports eventually claimed that Atari had paid as much as $25 million for the rights, which would buy a hell of a lot of Reese’s Pieces.
Now, you might have noticed that we said above that the E.T. video game came out in December 1982, after the movie’s June 1982 release. You might think that five or six months probably wasn’t enough time to properly develop a high-profile video game. You would be correct. E.T. sold well initially and even got some positive press. It sold some 1.5 million units during and after the holiday rush, but between bad buzz, returns, and a significant overestimation of demand, between 2.5 and 3.5 million units were left gathering dust. Landfill ho!
The story about the mass landfill dumping began when a September 1983 issue of the Alamogordo Daily News said that 10-20 semi-trailers full of Atari game cartridges were crushed and buried at an Alamogordo landfill. It was later reported that local teenagers were raiding the dump and finding intact cartridges, and the landfill eventually buried the games beneath cement, citing safety concerns. The story gained national attention, even becoming the subject of a New York Times article. It was reported early on that the games included unsold copies of E.T., and somewhere along the way the story evolved to suggest the millions of E.T. cartridges alleged by the infamous urban legend. It may or may not be true, but it looks like it will finally be proven or dismissed, assuming the Canadian filmmakers can actually find what they’re looking for.
Last month the Alamogordo City Commission approved a deal with Canadian-based production company Fuel Industries to excavate the landfill for a documentary timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Great E.T. Dump of ‘83. They’ve got permission to poke around the landfill for six months. No word yet when the documentary will be released.
It’ll be interesting to see if they can finally confirm a 30-year-old legend, or if we’re going to get the video game equivalent of Geraldo opening Al Capone’s vault.