Hidden for three decades in a landfill deep in the New Mexico desert lie thousands of Atari cartridges from what is widely believed to be worst video game ever made – or so the urban legend goes.
A group of filmmakers hopes to get to the bottom of the mystery by digging up the concrete-covered landfill in search of up to a million discarded copies of “E.T. The Extraterrestrial” that the game’s maker wanted to hide forever.
The game and its contribution to the demise of Atari have been the source of fascination for video game enthusiasts for 30 years, and the search for the cartridges will be featured in an upcoming documentary about the biggest video game company of the early ’80s.
“Bottom line, this is just trash. But there is a legend in it, we want to unlock that legend, that mystery,” a spokeswoman for the public relations firm working on behalf of Xbox Entertainment Studios, one of the companies developing the film.
The documentary is expected to be released later this year on Microsoft’s Xbox game consoles.
The event is expected to draw hundreds of video game enthusiasts, pop culture fans and self-described geeks to Alamogordo, a small town in southeastern New Mexico that is home to an Air Force base and White Sands National Monument.
Whether – and most importantly, why – Atari decided to bury thousands or millions of copies of the failed game is part of the urban legend and much speculation on internet blog posts and forums.
Kristen Keller, a spokeswoman at Atari, said “nobody here has any idea what that’s about”.
The company has no “corporate knowledge” about the Alamogordo burial.
Atari has changed hands many times over the years, and Keller said, “We’re just watching like everybody else.” Atari currently manages about 200 classic titles such as Centipede and Asteroids. It was sold to a French company by Hasbro in 2001.
A New York Times article from September 28, 1983, says 14 truckloads of discarded game cartridges and computer equipment were dumped on the site. An Atari spokesman quoted in the story said the games came from its plant in El Paso, Texas.
Local news reports from the time said that the landfill employees were throwing cartridges there and running a bulldozer over them before covering them with dirt and rubbish.
The city of Alamogordo agreed to give the documentarians 250 cartridges or 10 per cent of the cartridges found, whichever is greater, according to local media reports.
The “ET” game is among the factors blamed for the decline of Atari and the collapse in the US of a multi-million dollar video game industry that didn’t bounce back for several years.
Tina Amini, deputy editor at gaming website Kotaku, says the game tanked because “it was practically broken”. A recurring flaw, she said, was that the character of the game, the beloved extraterrestrial, would fall into traps that were almost impossible to escape and would appear constantly and unpredictably.
The company produced millions of cartridges, and although sales were not initially bad, the frustrating gameplay prompted an immense amount of returns. “They had produced so many cartridges that were unsold that even if the game was insanely successful I doubt they’d be able to keep up,” Amini says.