The date is April 14, 2014, the location: Alamogordo, New Mexico. A team of excavators have been working for the past month at a local landfill and they’ve just struck what they’ve been looking for. Buried far down in the New Mexican soil, seeing the sunlight for the first time in twenty years, is the cover of one of the biggest commercial and critical failures in the history of video games, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial for the Atari 2600. Along with other games like Star Raiders, Defender, Warlord, and even popular well selling titles like Space Invaders, Asteroids, and Pac-man, E.T. Cartridges make up this Atari burial ground that speaks an odd yet solemn testament to bad business practices and a dark age for video games.
In 1983 the bottom fell out of what had been a somewhat booming video game industry. Facing severe financial problems and game titles that were simply not selling thanks to a string of bad business decisions, Atari decided very literally to bury the problem and in September of ‘83 began secretly dumping unsold inventory from their El Paso, Texas facility into the Alamogordo city landfill. In one report from Alamogordo Times as many as ten to twenty full semi-truckloads were crushed and buried in the landfill. Shortly after dumping commenced grave robbers began looting the site, bringing up copies of Atari cartridges and unused game systems, this led the pouring of a concrete layer over the burial ground to prevent further unsolicited investigation.
The story of the great Atari burial is such an odd one in the history of American business and the video game industry that many people began to believe the story only to be a myth and it may have kept its legendary status if it hadn’t been for Fuel industries, an entertainment company out of Canada, acquiring digging rights to the landfill for six months. It didn’t take the team of Archaeologists, excavators, and retro videogame enthusiasts even half that long though, and they’d hit payload within the first month of digging. 1300 Atari cartridges were recovered from the dig site, proving once and for all that the strange story of the great Atari burial is a true one. A fraction of the found cartridges were split between the New Mexico Space Museum, the producers of the documentary that led to the excavation, Atari: Game Over, as well as one of the copies of the unearthed E.T. cartridges going to the Smithsonian for display. The city of Alamogordo authorized the sale of some 880 cartridges from the excavation in September of 2014 and as of 2015 has made over $100,000 to fund a museum to commemorate the burial on the site.