The Atari ET Cartridge Burial: From Myth to History

As with the tales of the Madden curse and government experiments conducted through Polybius machines, it was easy to dismiss the tales of thousands of ET Atari 2600 cartridges buried in the desert as another urban myth. In a bizarre twist of fate however, the games were recently dug up in Alamogordo, New Mexico, as part of a documentary titled ‘Atari: Game Over’.

ET The Extraterrestrial has long held the title of world’s worst game. The deal was made in late 1982 for a game based on the blockbuster movie, leaving the programmer only five weeks, instead of the usual six months, to create the title from scratch. The result was a buggy, rushed, and downright dull game that faced critical backlash. Thousands of copies were returned to Atari by disgruntled gamers, leaving them with a huge stockpile of games that they knew they would never be able to sell. The only option, then, was to bury the whole lot in the desert, even pouring concrete into the hole to ensure no one could remove them.

The game was blamed, in part, for the video game crash of 1983. At this time, gaming was still seen as something of a novelty, rather than an actual hobby or interest. The market was flooded with consoles and games, with everybody from Atari to Purina, the pet food company, creating new titles and releasing them into that market. A lack of originality and some high profile failures, such as ET, lead to the demise of Atari and others. It was predicted that this would be the end of gaming as an industry, until the NES was released by Nintendo in 1985 in the US.

With the failure of ET and the video game crash, Atari as it was known ceased to exist after a buyout by Jack Tramiel in 1984. The stockpile was buried in the desert landfill and mostly forgotten about, eventually becoming a popularly shared myth within the gaming community. However, earlier this year Microsoft decided to investigate the story as part of their six part documentary series, ‘Signal to Noise’, designed exclusively for the Xbox One console. The series promises to investigate how technology has impacted upon the modern world.

The documentary makers had been tipped off that the cartridges were indeed languishing in the landfill, thanks to records kept by journalists at the time. Thanks to these records, the location of the landfill could be located and the cartridges could be dug up.

Executive producer Jonathan Chinn explained in an interview that not only did they find many copies of ET, but copies of other games, such as Centipede, Space Invaders and Asteroids. Even Atari hardware was found, with a 2600 joystick being the first item unearthed in the dig. Some copies of ET from the dig, almost inevitable, found their way to eBay, but were quickly unlisted.

Some writers have wondered aloud why the documentary makers are bothering to dig up some really bad games that are arguably better left in the ground. However, others have described the find as ‘historic’ for the gaming industry. The Guardian notes that the industry is still in its infancy, so will be marginalised and trivialised. Gamers in fifty years time will want to know about this event, and with the city possibly placing these games in museums, will actually be able to see the artefacts for themselves. It’s enough to make any gamer wonder what else will be considered important enough to become gaming history in the future.

Posted in Blog & News.