E.T. dig hits Atari 2600 cartridge gold

April 28, 2014 | 10:27

Tags: #atari-2600 #atari-vcs #et #fuel-entertainment #new-mexico

Companies: #atari #microsoft

An excavation of a New Mexico landfill has finally put the urban legends surrounding the 80s video game crash and Atari's part in it to rest, uncovering unarguable evidence that the company did indeed dump excess copies of E.T. for the Atari 2600 at the height of its troubles.

The Atari 2600 game E.T. is infamous in the video games industry. Part of a multi-million dollar licensing agreement with film-maker Steven Spielberg, the game was authorised in late July to be ready for a Christmas launch. Howard Scott Warshaw, who had worked with Spielberg on the hit tie-in game Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark was personally picked for the project. The deal cost Atari $21 million, and while Warshaw was able to complete the game in just five and a half weeks - compared to the nine months that Raiders of the Lost Ark had taken - it proved a terrible curse for Atari.

The company was already struggling, but its decision to mass-produce the E.T. cartridges in volumes that exceeded the number of Atari 2600 consoles in the market in the hopes that the game would sell hardware proved fatal. The video games crash hit hard, leading to job losses and the near-closure of the company's plant in El Paso, Texas. The facility ceased production of games cartridges, and existing unsold stock was sent to a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

It's here that the legend begins. Officially, the material was merely faulty hardware from the plant's repair work, dumped at a fee of between $300 and $500 per truck-load. Locals began to report that the loads included games cartridges, however - including thousands of unsold copies of E.T. These, it was claimed, were crushed, covered in either dirt or concrete, and buried under layers of garbage from elsewhere in the dump.

'This innocent dumping, a minuscule amount when compared to the entire size of Atari’s actual overstock across the country, was done as an afterthought,' claimed Marty Goldberg and Curt Vendel in their record of the company's rise and fall, Atari: Business is Fun. 'However, thanks to article titles like UPI’s “City dump gobbles Pacman,” the dumping was fast becoming a symbol of the industry’s problems.'

In the years since, the myth exploded. Thousands of cartridges representing a range of titles became 3.5 million cartridges of E.T. alone; something Goldberg and Vendel claimed was untrue in their book. 'Most of the overstock of game cartridges languishing in warehouses around the U.S., comprised of a wide breadth of Atari’s home titles, were indeed disposed of - that’s where myth meets reality. But this occurred in a dump in Sunnyvale. And no, we’re not telling where - we made a promise and the last thing local businesses now there need is an onslaught of fans looking to dig things up!'

That promise proved prescient when Microsoft teamed up with film company Fuel to excavate the Alamogordo landfill in an attempt to prove or disprove the myth. The dig took place this weekend, with the public invited to attend - and has turned up gold, with barely-aged E.T. cartridges being unearthed after their 30-year dirt-nap. Despite claims to the contrary by historians, it would appear that the rumours surrounding the Alamogordo tip were indeed mostly true - although the full details are being reserved for the companies' planned documentary on the dig.
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