The Geraldo and Al Capone’s vault moment for gaming fans took place in the high desert of New Mexico this weekend. But unlike the legendary letdown of that empty vault, the Alamogordo landfill believed to be the final resting place of a multitude of old Atari cartridges delivered the goods.
As the urban legend goes, Atari rushed out an “E.T.” video game based on the hit movie back in the early 1980s, but the fatally flawed game was such a colossal flop that it’s often credited as the beginning of the end for Atari as a company and helping to send the entire video game industry into a slump. In 1983, it was reported by a number of newspapers at the time that 14 truck loads of unsold Atari games and other equipment were transported from an El Paso factory to the Alamogordo city landfill and dumped.
I was among the young owners of an Atari 2600 system and this particular E.T. game back in the 1980s and I can confirm that it was definitely a bad game, although perhaps not the worst game ever made, as is often reported. I mean, it’s no Flappy Bird.
After attempting to literally bury the past in the desert, Atari added to the mystique of the whole tale with various denials over the years that the dumping had ever occurred; along with word that the exact resting place of all those cartridges had been entombed under a layer of cement.
It was only when Hollywood came calling over three decades later that this time capsule of a terrible time in gaming has been recovered.
Writer and producer Zak Penn, whose credits include “The Avengers” and “X-Men 2,” and his team working on a documentary about the unceremonious burial jumped through all the necessary bureaucratic hoops to excavate the portion of the landfill believed to house thousands or perhaps even millions of old-school Atari cartridges.
Hundreds of fans and press showed up for the public excavation on April 26 in Alamogordo, and after just a few hours Penn proudly showed off an intact, if somewhat battered, copy of an Atari E.T. game, complete with box, cartridge and instructions.
“There’s a whole hell of a lot more games down there… E.T. is definitely here,” Penn told the crowd.
In addition to numerous copies of E.T., other titles from the 1980s like “Missile Command” and “Centipede” were also unearthed.
Among those present was E.T.’s game designer, Howard Scott Warshaw, who took the whole spectacle in stride.
“It may be a horrible game, but 32 years after, you are here, talking to me about it. It’s a tremendous honor,” he told USA Today.