E.T. moth­er­lode un­earthed

‘Atari-killing’ games were dumped in New Mex­ico land­fill

SundayXtra - - NEWS CANADA I WORLD - By Juan Car­los Llorca

ALAM­OGORDO, N.M. — A decades-old ur­ban leg­end was put to rest Satur­day when work­ers for a doc­u­men­tary film pro­duc­tion com­pany re­cov­ered “E.T.” Atari game car­tridges from a heap of garbage buried deep in the New Mex­ico desert.

The “Atari grave” was, un­til that mo­ment, a highly de­bated tale among gam­ing en­thu­si­asts and other self-de­scribed geeks for 30 years. The story claimed that in its death throes, the video game com­pany sent about a dozen truck­loads of car­tridges of what many call the worst video game ever to be for­ever hid­den in a con­crete­cov­ered land­fill in south­east­ern New Mex­ico.

The search for the car­tridges of a game that con­trib­uted to the demise of Atari will be fea­tured in an up­com­ing doc­u­men­tary about the big­gest video game com­pany of the early ’80s.

As a backhoe scat­tered a huge scoop of 30-year- old trash and dirt over the sand, the film crew spotted boxes and book­lets car­ry­ing the Atari logo. Soon af­ter, a game car­tridge turned up, then an­other and an­other.

Film di­rec­tor Zak Penn showed as­sem­bled gam­ing fans one car­tridge re­trieved from the site and said that hun­dreds more were in the sur­round­ing mounds of garbage.

About 200 res­i­dents and game en­thu­si­asts gath­ered early Satur­day at the old land­fill in Alam­ogordo to watch crews search for up to a mil­lion dis­carded copies of “E.T. The Ex­trater­res­trial” that the game’s maker wanted to hide for­ever.

“I feel pretty re­lieved and psyched that they ac­tu­ally got to see some­thing,” Penn said as mem­bers of the pro­duc­tion team sifted through the mounds of trash, pulling out boxes, games and other Atari prod­ucts.

Most of the crowd left the land­fill be­fore the dis­cov­ery, turned away by strong winds that kicked up mas­sive clouds of dust min­gled with garbage.

By the time the games were found, only a few dozen people re­mained. Some were play­ing the in­fa­mous game in a makeshift gam­ing den with a TV and an 1980s game con­sole in the back of a van, while oth­ers took self­ies be­side a life-size E.T. doll in­side a DeLorean car like the one that was turned into a time ma­chine in the Back To The Fu­ture movies.

Among the watch­ers was Ar­mando Ortega, a city of­fi­cial who as a teenager back in 1983 got a tip from a land­fill em­ployee about the mas­sive dump of games.

“It was pitch dark here that night, but we came with our flash­lights and found dozens of games,” he said. They braved the dark­ness, coy­otes and snakes of the desert land­fill and had to sneak past the se­cu­rity guard. But it paid off as they found dozens of crushed but still playable car­tridges.

The game’s find­ing came as no sur­prise to James Heller, a for­mer Atari man­ager who was in­vited by the pro­duc­tion to the dig site. He says in 1983 the com­pany tasked him with find­ing an in­ex­pen­sive way to dis­pose of 728,000 car­tridges they had in a ware­house in El Paso, Texas. Af­ter a few lo­cal kids ran into trou­ble for scav­eng­ing and the me­dia started call­ing him about it, he de­cided to pour a layer of con­crete over the games.

“I never heard about again it un­til June 2013, when I read an ar­ti­cle about E.T. be­ing ex­ca­vated,” he re­mem­bers. He was not aware of the con­tro­versy and never spoke out “be­cause no­body asked.”

The doc­u­men­tary about the search is be­ing de­vel­oped by com­pa­nies in­clud­ing Xbox En­ter­tain­ment Stu­dios, and the film is ex­pected to be re­leased later this year on Mi­crosoft’s Xbox game con­soles.

The city of Alam­ogordo agreed to give the doc­u­men­tar­i­ans 250 car­tridges, or 10 per cent of the car­tridges found, whichever is greater.

Mayor Susie Galea hopes this brings more tourists to this south­east­ern New Mex­ico town that is home to an Air Force base and White Sands Na­tional Mon­u­ment.

“Lots of people just pass through, un­for­tu­nately,” she said.

The “E.T.” game is among the fac­tors blamed for the de­cline of Atari and the col­lapse in the U.S. of a multi-mil­lion-dol­lar video game in­dus­try that didn’t bounce back for sev­eral years.

With the whether- or-not E.T. was buried in Alam­ogordo con­tro­versy solved, the other, sub­tler de­bate re­mains. Was it the worst game ever un­leashed on gamers?

Tina Amini, deputy edi­tor at gam­ing web­site Ko­taku, says the game tanked be­cause “it was prac­ti­cally bro­ken” with the E.T. fall­ing into traps that were al­most im­pos­si­ble to es­cape and would ap­pear con­stantly and un­pre­dictably.

— The As­so­ci­ated Press

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