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Microsoft Ready to Excavate Atari’s Alleged E.T. Landfill on April 26th

Posted by Jim Tanous on April 10, 2014
Landfill Bulldozer

A persistent legend in the gaming community is that, in 1983, Atari buried millions of unsold copies of Atari 2600 games E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Pac-Man in a New Mexico landfill following their colossal retail and critical failures. Now, after years of speculation and negotiations, a documentary crew from Fuel Entertainment, with funding from Microsoft’s Xbox Entertainment Studios, is about to excavate Atari’s rumored dumping site for a film titled Dumping the Alien:

In 1983, Atari allegedly buried millions of unsold game copies of E.T.: The Extraterrestial for the 2600. Thirty years later, Fuel Entertainment is going to find out if they’re really there, and document their journey.

The Atari landfill rumor is widely considered to be an urban legend, but the events that surround it are unfortunately real. Atari and its popular 2600 console dominated the home video game market in the early 1980s, reaching over 80 percent market share by 1982. But when growth began to slow by the end of the year, the company chose to bet big on key franchises in the hope that it would spur a new wave of customer adoption. These bets included a home port of the smash arcade hit Pac-Man, a move which Atari was so confident in that the company manufactured 12 million copies of the game at a time when only 10 million 2600 consoles had been sold.

Around the same time, Atari’s parent company Warner Communications negotiated the largest video game content licensing deal to date, securing the rights to Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial for a reported $20 to $25 million. However, the resulting game, rushed to hit the market in time for the 1982 holiday shopping season, was an unmitigated disaster. Its buggy and incomplete gameplay and rudimentary graphics and sound (even for the time), led it to be panned as the worst video game of all time. The power of the game’s branding still led to about 1.5 million sales, but as word of the game’s poor quality spread, sales dropped off and left Atari with millions of unsold copies. Although many factors contributed to the “Great Video Game Crash of 1983,” E.T. for the Atari 2600 is widely considered the most prominent symbol of the event.

With millions of unsold cartridges and mounting financial problems, Atari is rumored to have simply dumped the spare products. A series of September 1983 reports from the Alamogordo Daily News state that as many as 20 truckloads of Atari boxes were crushed and buried at a landfill in Alamogordo, a small town about 90 miles north of El Paso. Atari officials claimed that the company was simply dumping broken and returned products, “by-and-large inoperable stuff,” but subsequent looting of the site by the town’s youth reportedly revealed otherwise working Atari game cartridges and consoles. Once the dumping was complete, a layer of concrete was poured over the site, further fueling speculation about the contents and purpose of the dump.

To answer these questions, Fuel Entertainment sought and obtained permission from the Alamogordo City Commission in May 2013 to access the landfill site and film a documentary on its findings. These plans were put on hold earlier this year due to concerns from New Mexico’s Environmental Protection Division, but a deal was struck this month to allow the project to proceed.

Atari’s eventual downfall was the result of far more than dumped E.T. cartridges, but the event has become synonymous with the company’s failures. The discovery of what truly lies beneath the concrete in Alamogordo, New Mexico is therefore an important historical event in the history of the gaming industry.

Fuel Entertainment’s crew will begin the excavation later this month. Microsoft has invited the public to attend the event, which will take place from 9:30 a.m to 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 26. Whether Geraldo Rivera will be on site for the big reveal remains to be seen.

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