The story of the E.T. Atari 2600 cartridges buried en masse in the New Mexico desert was a bit like the Moon landing – we were always pretty sure that it was true, but a persistent few out there on the World Wide Web were still persistent in their denials. No room for denial now. The legendary Alamogordo landfill has been excavated, and the cartridges have finally seen the light of day they were never supposed to see again.
In case you need a quick primer, here’s the lowdown – E.T. was made as a video game tie-in to the movie in 1982. Like so many movie tie-in video games, E.T. was put on an impossibly rushed holiday release schedule, and like so many movie tie-in video games, E.T. was terrible. Terrible enough to land it on many ‘worst games of all time’ lists and, yes, terrible enough to convince Atari to bury the enormous surplus of terrible games in the middle of the desert.
Funny thing is, E.T. sold well in that 1982 holiday season and beyond – over 1.5 million. But, it was still bad, and, thanks to irrational optimism and a five and a half week development timeframe, millions more units went unsold. Legend had it that those millions of cartridges were buried at the Alamogordo landfill by Atari, which never really recovered from the fiasco.
Well, we’re all believers today. Fuel Entertainment and Xbox Entertainment Studios are making a documentary appropriately called ‘Atari: Game Over,’ and got permission to use the landfill for filming and excavation last year. Saturday ended up being the big day, and it didn’t take the team long to hit paydirt.
Hundreds, and then thousands, of E.T. cartridges have since been excavated, but as it turns out, the burial site is more of a testament to the fall of Atari than we thought, because the team isn’t just finding E.T. cartridges. Centipede, Space Invaders, Asteroids – good games! – have been found at the burial site as well, showing just how boned Atari was in 1983.
So, I don’t know how I feel about a known abomination seeing the light of day once more – no, E.T., please don’t phone home – but we can at least take heart in the fact that classic, awesome games have been saved from an ignoble death in the desert. I’d say they might become worthy of being collector’s items, but don’t bet it – some still estimate there are literally millions of cartridges down there.