In 1983, the gaming company Atari decided to capitalize on the recent success of the hit movie, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Grossing a total of $359 million in North America alone by the end of its theatrical run, the exciting, kid-friendly adventure seemed like it’d lend itself well to a video game version … in theory.
Unlike its movie inspiration, however, Atari’s E.T. was a massive flop. In the single player game, you wander around collecting the three pieces of an interplanetary telephone—picking up Reese's Pieces along the way for energy—so that E.T. can “phone home” and return to his home planet. It was like Super Mario Bros, except you collect phone equipment instead of coins, it was incredibly buggy, and if you win, your best friend leaves forever. Fun! (?)
E.T. became one of the biggest commercial failures in video gaming history, and Atari was left with millions of unsold game cartridges. Their solution? Allegedly, to dump 3.5 million E.T. cartridges into a New Mexico landfill in the small town of Alamogordo. And so was born one of the greatest urban legends to ever hit the gaming world.
While a 1983 New York Times report confirmed that Atari did indeed dump truckloads of unsold game cartridges and other equipment into a landfill in the area, there’s no confirmation as to how much was dumped, or if it even included the E.T. game at all. That’s why a Canadian-based media company called Fuel Industries plans to excavate the legendary site and film a documentary about the process. The crew has reached an agreement with the town of Alamogordo that will give them access to the 100-acre area that’s said to have housed the landfill. Luckily, they’ll also have a guide in Joe Lewandowski, who ran a garbage company at the time of the dumping and claims to know the location of the buried games.
Like any good urban legend, the story has its share of skeptics. Marty Goldberg, co-author of Atari Inc.: Business is Fun, said that claims of such a landfill are highly exaggerated at best. “There were never thousands of E.T. games buried in Alamogordo, that’s a myth that sprung up later and was also never once mentioned by the actual press articles of the time,” he told PC Mag recently. “The dump there was simply a clearing out of Atari’s Texas manufacturing plant as it transitioned to automated production methods and a focus on personal computer manufacturing.” Goldberg went on to call the Fuel Industries’ excavation a “non-issue publicity stunt” for the town of Alamogordo.
He has a point; most Alamogordo citizens interviewed about the documentary seem happier about the upcoming exposure and economy boost to the town than the prospect of uncovering a hidden vault of E.T. cartridges. The town’s mayor, Susie Galea, commented saying, “I hope more people find out about Alamogordo through this opportunity that we have to unearth the Atari games in the landfill.” City Commissioner Josh Rardin said, “Maybe it’ll get us a little bit of publicity, bring us some business to our town.”
Since the excavation is an undertaking that will take several months, there’s no word yet on a release date for the documentary. But whether it turns out to be a Capone’s vault-style bust or home to a plethora of bad video games, the hunt for the Atari landfill is on.