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28 April 2014updated 09 Jun 2021 9:04am

Thousands of copies of the worst game of all time have been found in the New Mexico desert

The game that killed off the American video games industry was buried in the desert, and forgotten... until now.

By Ian Steadman

In 1982, ET: The Extra-Terrestrial came out, and was a smash (as you are well aware). Tie-in game adaptations of major motion pictures were a thing, even 30 years ago, so there was a bidding war to get the rights for ET: The Game of the Film. Atari – then the biggest American video games console manufacturer, and genuine titan of the industry – won.

But they only had five weeks to make the game if they wanted it to come out in time for Christmas. This was less than ideal.

Atari put trusted developer Howard Scott Warshaw in charge, who came up with the idea of having ET look for three pieces of the telephone he could use to “phone home”. The pieces were hidden in pits, which ET would fall into and then have to very slowly levitate out of. Scientists or FBI agents would try to chase ET down (when they weren’t bugged-out and stuck against bits of scenery) and then lock him up in a cage, but the cage didn’t have a door so ET would just walk out again to fall down some more pits, again and again and again.

The game was so bad – the anger from consumers, who returned copies of the game en masse, so widespread – that it destroyed Atari:

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Atari paid somewhere in the region of $20 million for the rights to the film alone, with total production costs coming to something like $125 million. Critics panned it, gamers hated it, and Atari was left with more than two million unsold ET cartridges. The company’s revenue forecasts for 1983 were cut dramatically by December, resulting in a chain of stock sell-offs across the US gaming sector, leading to the crash of 1983 that effectively destroyed the North American video gaming industry. It wasn’t until the success of Japanese companies like Nintendo and Sega towards the end of the decade that video games began to look like a major entertainment industry again.

And legend had it that Atari – which was soon picked apart and sold off (and which now exists mostly in the form of a trademark and logo, owned by other publishers) – buried a million unsold ET cartridges in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

For years and years, nobody could really confirm whether this actually happened. Nobody who had been at Atari at the time could really remember if it was cartridges, dumped into a pit in the ground, or whether some cartridges were just mashed up with a bunch of other boring Atari waste, leading to a rumour which got out of hand. Nobody knew. But it was such a symbolic event for the video games industry, fitting into the broader narrative as the Flood does to the Bible, it demanded to be investigated. So Zak Penn, a documentary filmmaker, went digging – and found them:

That’s a video (courtesy of IGN) of Penn announcing that his team has managed to find intact ET cartridges. Here’s NPR reporting the discovery:

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.

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.

People were able to take the cartridges and play them on some Atari 2600 consoles brought along for the occasion, which turned into something of an ET-festival. There were other games there, too – according to Kotaku, lots of genuinely good Atari games from the same era, like Defender and Missile Command, were found in the landfill too. And perhaps there’s also an irony here in that the film Penn is making about Atari and the video game crash has been commissioned by Xbox Entertainment Studios, the original content division of Microsoft that’s making TV shows and films especially for todays Xbox One console.

Somewhere up there, ET’s probably smiling down at us, happy that his never-ending pitfalls were not in vain.