One of the most disappointing things in life has to be when you tell somebody something cool – or at least what you consider to be the funniest and most interesting thing that’s happened recently – only to find out that they already know about it. This has happened to me recently with the excavation of the Alamogordo landfill site in New Mexico.
This may sound like an unusual event for anyone to get excited about so I’ll begin with some background information. Our story starts in 1982, when the biggest film of the year was E.T The Extra-Terrestrial. The early 80s had also marked the dawn of the home video game console; when computer games first began to develop legs and take their first shaky steps out of the primordial soup of video arcades and onto the dry land of people’s living rooms. The developing market was dominated by Atari, Inc. (who brought us Pong, Asteroids and Centipede) and who, in the early 80s, were only just starting to feel serious pressure from competitors. It was probably because of this sense that the competition was catching up that Atari decided to do something that – at the time – had never been done before and produce a video game adaption of a popular film.
Despite Atari CEO Ray Kasser’s worries that this was “a dumb idea”, the project must have seemed – after the immense success of E.T in cinemas – like a very safe bet. So confident was somebody in Atari of the project’s eventual success that they paid between twenty and twenty five million US dollars for the rights to produce the game. But to recoup Atari’s investment in it, the game had to be hit. This meant getting it produced and on the shelves in time for the 1982 Christmas rush. Unfortunately, by the time they had got to the point of signing the papers and handing over the money, the negotiations had dragged on for several months and chief developer Howard Scott Warshaw found himself with only five and a half weeks to create the game.
Warshaw succeeded (probably with a lot of late nights and hot coffee) but the looming deadline meant he could only produce the most basic of games. In Atari’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial on the Atari 2600 Video Computer System, the player controls E.T as he goes down a hole to fetch a telephone part, collects it, climbs out again and then goes to another hole to collect another telephone part and then goes to another hole and repeats. The game play was slightly less exciting than this makes it sound. Considerable glitches – that could lead to E.T. falling into holes he’s just climbed out of or getting stuck halfway – did not help either.
Due to the success of the movie, the game was a must-have Xmas present in 1982. But as soon as people actually started playing it and word of mouth (which is always the single most powerful marketing tool) kicked in, the tide very quickly turned. The game was panned by critics and has been consistently voted as either the worst or one of the worst games ever. Atari can probably count themselves lucky to have sold 1.5 million copies, but as they had optimistically produced 5 million; they started 1983 staring bankruptcy in the face. It would finally catch up with them in 1984; after E.T had become a major contributing factor the ’84 video game market crash.
This is where the Alamogordo landfill site comes in. At some point in September ’83, Atari selected it as the ideal place to dispose of their 4.5 million unsold E.T game cartridges. Alamogordo’s big selling points were apparently that everything buried there was covered with cement, which would prevent scavengers and souvenir-hunters, and they would be able to do the dumping and burial at night to avoid witnesses. The “Atari Video Game Burial” promptly entered urban legend and became a game fan’s equivalent of the lost city of Atlantis or King Solomon’s Mines (albeit without any treasure).
The next chapter in the story came in April of this year, when Canadian entertainment company Fuel Industries, began excavating the landfill to check if the story was true. The dig was open to the public and – to everyone’s delight – they very quickly established it was; turning up not just E.T, but unsold copies of Yar’s Revenge, Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Warlords, Defender and Star Raiders. The only thing James Heller, an ex-Atari manager, who had been in charge of disposing of this unsold and unsellable merchandise had to say for himself was that idea that millions of cartridges were buried there was a ridiculous urban legend. There were only 728,000. A fitting epitaph for E.T was given by Armando Ortega, an Alamogordo resident, who, as a boy in 1983, sneaked onto the site with some friends and, despite the cement, were delighted to find dozens of working game cartridges which they took home, but later gave away all the copies of E.T because “the game sucked.”
My own very small and disappointed part in this story comes in May of this year, when – having already known about the urban legend, I was delighted to learn about the excavation and that the story was true. I immediately rushed to tell my father (who is not a game player himself, but always enjoys amusing stories from history) only to find that he already knew as it had been reported in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, where I – normally a regular Guardian reader – had completely missed it!
There are only two things to take away from this story. One is that existing popularity cannot make up for low quality (and you should never gamble $20-25 million dollars on it), and that – if you’re going to tell somebody something cool – make sure you haven’t missed it being reported in a major newspaper.
(E.T in (particularly boring) action)
The Rough Guide to Video Games. Rough Guides. 2008 ISBN: 978-1843539957.