Fuel/LightBox/Microsoft excavated that infamous landfill out in New Mexico today, and guess what they found? A lion’s share of entombed Atari relics, including the E.T. cartridges the dump was long accused of holding. And so the J. Hoffa of video game lore skids into conclusion. What happens now? Long time believers gloat? Deniers backpedal? Will this hurt Alamogordo’s tourism dollar or help it?
All I know for sure is writer Ernie Cline showed up to the dig in a DeLorean, because Ronald Reagan Rubik’s Cube ALF.
All photos by Chris Kohler.
This explains why my 2011 feature on the E.T. landfill is suddenly lousy with traffic: last week officials in Alamogordo granted Fuel Industries of Canada a six month window in which to excavate the city’s famed Atari dump site for a documentary Fuel is putting together about the entire legendary shebang. Half a year strikes me as a long time to spend digging up an old landfill, but that particular tract of land is pretty big and who the heck knows how long your average archeological situation lasts. They didn’t really get into that at the beginning of Jurassic Park (which is my only reference point right now for fossil-based activities).
The impression I got while researching my piece about Alamogordo’s E.T. graveyard was that the city wasn’t overly eager to revisit this odd moment in its history. Everyone I communicated with was pleasant and courteous, but there was a general air of restraint, and I think history shows the powers that be in this New Mexican hamlet haven’t been very accepting of previous excavation attempts (be they professional or amateur). As a fan I’m glad Fuel somehow managed to sway Alamogordo’s attitude—even if it was by means of a massive check. Disclaimer: I have no idea what actually swayed Alamogordo’s attitude. Maybe the city officials simply decided these were the right people to let in for the searchin’ and a-rootin’.
Which reminds me: about a year ago a producer from some trashy cable television show (like “Real Life: When Howler Monkeys Attack!”) contacted me because he was planning to create a show about the landfill with the hope some weirdo channel would pick it up. He wanted to excavate the landfill himself, which prompted a terror I was about to get trapped in a twenty-two minute Cliff’s Notes version of my article where I’d be a talking head sandwiched between clumsy dump reenactments and/or “exclusive” new dig footage. Relieved that all faded into the ether.
Even the most disengaged human on the planet by now associates the great state of New Mexico with alien activity. In 1947, the tiny town of Roswell allegedly received a few otherworldly visitors, simultaneously kickstarting America’s UFO frenzy and a thousand paranoid conspiracy theories about the U.S. government. Did a saucer full of grays crash land in Demi Moore’s hometown only to be covered up for decades and eventually explained away as weather balloons? Hey, if you think a straight answer from Uncle Sam on all of this will arrive any time prior to nine seconds before the apocalypse, I’ve got a bridge to show you.
Oddly enough, New Mexico has another lesser known but nearly as fascinating alien legend, one inexplicably tied to Otero County seat Alamogordo. Nestled between the White Sands Missile Range and the Lincoln National Forest (and a scant 117 miles southwest of Roswell), sleepy little Alamogordo is supposedly the final resting place for several thousand discarded E.T.s. Specifically, several thousand copies of Atari’s abysmal 1982 E.T. video game adaptation, which are said to be buried in a now-closed town landfill.
Based on the same year’s blockbuster Steven Spielberg film, Atari’s E.T. has long been scorned as one of the worst video games ever created in the history of the medium. The dubious cartridge spelled certain doom for a young company already on shaky financial ground. According to legend, Atari was so ashamed and embarrassed by E.T.’s complete commercial failure that in September of 1983, they drove every unsold copy sitting in their El Paso, Texas, plant about an hour north to the barren wasteland of rural New Mexico and deposited them in Mother Earth, never to be seen again.
Depending on what you read, somewhere between 18 and 23 tractor trailers dumped E.T. cartridges into Alamogordo’s landfill during that fateful Autumn stretch. Security was lax, allowing hoards of teenagers to swoop in and steal games by the armload before they could be crushed. To this day, your average Alamogordo resident is said to possess at least one healthy stack of pristine E.T. games somewhere in their home, collecting dust and acting as a fantastic conversation piece. In hardcore classic video game circles, Alamogordo and its landfill is like some sort of twisted Mecca, a potential but largely unproven fountain of vintage circuitry and plastic casing.
Emphasis, of course, on “largely unproven.” Not one single concrete report exists of any obsessed nerd trekking out to this forgotten patch of New Mexico desert after the fact and returning with a bounty of black squares rendered with the proud visage of child star Henry Thomas. Some say this is because the games dumped in Alamogordo were all crushed into finite and unretrievable dust; others claim the amount of Atari surplus junked was far below the average quoted figures, suggesting the whole area is just a dusty repeat of Al Capone’s vault. The most interesting of all the theories, though, is the one posited by a handful of former Atari employees: The legendary E.T. landfill dump never happened. It’s a complete fabrication based in no kind of reality, much like the movie that spawned it.
Howard Scott Warshaw is one of the few video game designers in the world with true name recognition. This is because the perpetually-bearded Warshaw, who bears passing resemblance to Francis Ford Coppola, experienced immediate success after joining Atari’s programming stable with the 1981 game Yars’ Revenge for the company’s 2600 home console. A simple, colorful, and infinitely replayable game featuring warring space entities, Yars’ Revenge hit big commercially, eventually becoming Atari’s best-selling original title for the 2600. This success allowed Warshaw, who had been previously employed by Hewlett Packard, the opportunity to program a game based on Steven Spielberg’s 1981 adventure film Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Released in November of 1982, Warshaw’s Raiders game (the result of a rumored $20 million contract between Atari and the lightening-hot Spielberg) proved to be another hit. Satisfied with his record thus far, Atari granted Warshaw the job of adapting Spielberg’s next theatrical blockbuster, E.T., for the small gaming screen.
Today, a child can throw together a first person shooter on their parents’ laptop in just a couple of hours that is vastly superior in all aspects to every classic gaming title Atari ever released. At the dawn of the 1980s, though, it took programmers like Howard Warshaw upwards of six months to properly develop a game like Yar’s Revenge. Unfortunately, this kind of scheduling went out the window for E.T.
The film opened in June of 1982 and was an instant smash; the following month, Atari’s parent company Warner Communications acquired the licensing for America’s latest cuddly alien obsession from Spielberg and Universal, once again paying in the neighborhood of $20 mil for the rights. On July 27, 1982, Atari CEO Ray Kassar called Warshaw, who Spielberg had asked for specifically to create the E.T. game, and informed the designer of his latest assignment. In order to have the game out for the lucrative Christmas shopping season, E.T. would have to be completed no later than September 1. That allowed a little over one month to adapt the hottest cinematic property for home gaming. Warshaw felt the pressure, but remained optimistic.
“For me it was more about the challenge of getting it done,” Warshaw (pictured, right, with Spielberg) told interviewer Charles F. Gray in 2004. “No one else would touch it. And believe me, I asked them all…I was the only one brave [or] stupid enough to attempt it.”
Anyone who has played Warshaw’s final product can attest to its frustrating, repetitive nature. E.T. is a game in which the player is constantly falling into deep and almost inescapable gorges while on an ill-defined search for scattered phone parts. Outside the maddening gorges, E.T. putters around a largely empty and quiet number of game screens—a player could sit for hours and hear nothing aside from the digital clomping of the extra-terrestrial’s little gray feet. Nowhere in the game do you meet Drew Barrymore or heal anyone’s wounds or fly on a bicycle across a giant full moon. It’s basically just E.T. walking around picking up junk and falling into holes.