The Atari Dig of 2014 / by a zugunruhe

This is the full article I wrote for Regional Identity which appeared online in May of 2014:

    I don't always hang out next to a desert landfill while being bombarded by a sandstorm but, when I do, I watch a documentary crew prove a thirty year old urban legend true by unearthing millions of dollars worth (1983 value) of E.T. Atari games.

(Me with the first cartridge out of the heap)

   The legend, as it was always told to me, was that the E.T. video game that was released by Atari in the early 80's was so bad, the decision was made to bury all unsold copies in the desert in order to forget it ever existed.

  The E.T. Game for the Atari 2600 is often referred to as being the worst video game ever made. This distinction is due to its lack of continuity with the movie, ambiguity on what to do, and the tedious task of figuring out HOW THE HELL TO STOP FALLING INTO THE HOLES. This title was one of the fastest games ever produced, spending only a few weeks in production before shipping for the Christmas rush. It is also commonly credited with being one of the main factors that eventually sunk the American video game industry in 1983 (when revenues dropped nearly 97% due to consumer backlash over faulty hyped titles and non-backwards compatible new consoles).

  As the story goes, during the industry crash in late 1983 Atari loaded between nine and twenty trucks with loads of games, consoles, accessories, and prototypes from an old Atari plant in El Paso, drove them to a landfill outside of Alamogordo, and buried it all under a slab of cement. The figure usually associated with this story was that the cargo contained 3.5 million copies of the E.T. game.

   On Saturday, a documentary crew from Fuel Entertainment and Microsoft that included Zak Penn (writer: X-Men 2, The Incredible Hulk, The Avengers) finally started the dig after numerous attempts of filing for approval to the City of Alamogordo. This was a one shot deal. If the crew missed, they missed and that would be the end of the story. Luckily these guys put in the work necessary to pinpoint where the landfill was operational during the assumed time of the dumping. Also in attendance was Howard Scott Warshaw, the man who created the game in five weeks all of those years ago.

    I arrived around 11:30am as the dig had already been underway a few hours. The crowd had been thinning at this point but there were plenty of things to do. Selfies in a DeLorean that had a life sized E.T. doll in it, playing the E.T. game in the back of someone's car, or the main event: staring at a bunch of trash.

   The crowd in attendance by the time I showed up was a few dozen strong and roughly half bloggers/news media and half fans of the myth/curious locals. This ratio lead to nearly everyone in attendance being interviewed multiple times. This includes yours truly being filmed and asked about the game (for two separate sites) while I played it for the first time. There was a good sign early on when a newspaper from November 1983 was found being blown around.

    Around 12:45pm MST, crew were seen dusting off multiple boxes and what seemed to be cartridges. A few minutes later the announcement was made that they had indeed found multiple copies of the fabled ET game. Warshaw, someone who had never believed the myth of this burial, was called over to check out the find. It's safe to say he's a believer now.

"We didn't come out here for nothing!”

    There was a frantic, yet very polite, rush to the scene where the found objects were displayed. Everyone was overjoyed that the legend was true and numerous high-fives were exchanged. All of the tripods were set up while networks rounded up anyone who seemed to know what they were talking about to be interviewed on camera. All of this while people not from the region where given first-hand knowledge of what sporadic sandstorms feel like. After the initial rush, things died down a bit and people mostly stood around talking shop. 

    The digging continued and eventually various popular titles from the era could be seen in the piles of rubbish being unearthed. Included were Centipede, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Asteroids, and Defender. All could be seen from the viewing area roughly twenty feet from the dig where the public were allowed to stand. After the initial cache of games, crew could be seen lifting handfuls of cords that eventually lead to numerous joysticks and other accessories. Unfortunately we weren't allowed to walk off with anything. 

    This was the only day the crew was permitted to dig on this property as, per request of the city, the pit had to be filled up on Sunday. With this short of a time frame, very little of the treasure found could be excavated. The deal struck between the Fuel crew and the city allowed Fuel to keep 250 cartridges or ten percent of what was found, which ever is greater. A portion of the remainder kept by the city will be sold while some may eventually go towards a small museum covering the legend and its place in Alamogordo.

    It was a fun end to a decades-old urban legend that will solidify Alamogordo and the El Paso region in pop culture history. It was kind of fitting that the end to this story comes when everything is dug out of a pit that was carefully calculated when the objective, and a major complaint, of game was to continuously drop into random pits. No word on NSA agents dressed like Dick Tracy hauling people off to jail and stealing their Reece's Pieces.


If you're some sort of sadist, you can play the game online here:

Here's a link to a NY Times article from 1983: