You’ve heard the legend about Atari burying a mountain’s worth of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial game carts in a landfill? Somewhere between 10 and 20 semi-trucks’ worth?
Me neither, though I played the heck out of the game at a friend’s house, cranking on the control stick to get designer Howard Scott Warshaw’s little hammer-headed clutch of pea-green pixels to levitate out of those godawful pits, never fully grasping what it was I was supposed to be doing or why. I didn’t own a 2600, so I never had carte blanche to figure out the game’s idiosyncrasies, but I still remember it more vividly than any other Atari game I played. I was 10 years old when the game came out in 1982 and madly in love with the film. You could have made it about E.T. climbing construction girders to save Elliot from a barrel-tossing scientist in a Hazmat suit and I would’ve done backflips.
Back to the legend I just learned of this morning: It seems Atari may have dumped “several million” copies of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico back in September 1983 while in the throes of a games market meltdown. The burial of something by Atari at the site occurred, that much isn’t disputed, but what actually wound up in the pit — non-working games and game consoles? Prototypes of Atari’s Mindlink controller system? 3.5 million copies of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial? — has apparently been debated by game history wonks for decades. It’s often reported that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was a commercial failure and that millions of carts were created but never sold. Surely, reason the conspiracy theorists of the world, those unsold carts wound up in the Alamogordo landfill.
According to Albuquerque, New Mexico news station KRQE, we’re about to get an answer to a nearly 30-year-old mystery. The burial site has long been sealed beneath concrete somewhere on the 100-acre landfill, but Joe Lewandowski, who ran a garbage company at the time, says he knows where the spot is and that he knew what was being dumped: “It was the game systems, actually the game systems themselves — it was actual cartridges and games, ET and so on,” he told KRQE.
Last week, Alamogordo’s city commission gave a Canada-based film company planning a documentary about the burial site the thumbs up to crack open the concrete seal and sift through whatever’s down below; the company has six months to get the job done.
What’ll they do with all the games if they do find them? Who knows. Atari apparently had everything crushed before burial, so I wouldn’t count on anything being in collectible (much less operable) condition. If the filmmakers are smart, they’ll focus less on the relative mundanity of the burial legend and use it more as a vehicle to delve further into Atari’s company history as well as the so-called video game crash of 1983.