Alamogordo’s Atari Landfill

It was 1982, in America—a time and a place steeped in the fear of nuclear war, burdened by the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, and occasionally made bearable by escaping into popular culture.  

That year, Rubik’s Cubes became popular enough to receive their own world championship, Michael Jackson released his bestselling album Thrillerthe nascent video game industry sold nearly 8 million Atari 2600 consoles, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial became the highest grossing film in movie history. 

E.T. told the touching story of a rubbery little alien’s friendship with a boy named Elliott.  It sold more than $400 million worth of tickets, won four Academy Awards, and was soon singled out by Atari, Inc. to be adapted into a video game.  Steven Spielberg, the movie’s director, received over $20 million dollars for the rights, and Atari ordered the entire game written and designed in only six weeks—as opposed to six or seven months—to be ready to sell in time for Christmas.  

Confident that the game would be an enormous hit due to the success of the movie, Atari made 4 million copies of the black plastic game cartridges and quickly sold almost half of them.  Buyers took the game home, put it in their machines, and quickly discovered that E.T.…sucked.  

It was terrible.  

According to one article on Snopes.com, “The result was a virtually unplayable game with a dull plot and crummy graphics in which frustrated players spent most of their time leading the E.T. character around in circles to prevent him from falling into pits.”  

Even twenty-five years later, the game remains a popular target for the gaming world’s most intense loathing.  Comprehensive lists in Electronic Gaming MonthlyFHM magazine, and PC Worldhave all declared E.T. to be the worst video game of all time.  The game was a disaster, and according to then-CEO of Atari, Ray Kasser, “Nearly all of them came back.” 

At the time, Atari owned a manufacturing plant in El Paso, Texas, where most of the literally millions of unsold and returned copies of E.T. were stored, and in September of 1983 those games were loaded into fourteen industrial dumptrucks, driven north into New Mexico, into the south-central New Mexico town of Alamogordo, and unceremoniously dumped into a tiny, desert landfill.  Also buried with E.T. were unpopular prototypes of the Atari Mindlink game controller—designed for players to wear on their heads and control with their eyebrows—and copies of Atari’s first adaptation of Pac-Mana game Atari had rashly produced two million more copies of than there were consoles to play them on. 

The September 25, 1983 Alamogordo Daily News reported that the little dump had been selected because scavenging was forbidden there and because the dump’s garbage was crushed and covered every night.  Nevertheless, one entire truckload of games was hijacked and allegedly driven down to Mexico to be copied, Alamogordo teenagers snuck into the landfill to dig out free games, and area stores were suddenly besieged by people trying to sell them Atari’s shoddiest products.  To stop the site from being looted further, many of the games were crushed by D9 Caterpillars, and a layer of concrete was poured over what was left. 

Atari told the dump that the games were being destroyed because the company was about to introduce an upgraded console, but the inescapable truth was that Atari was losing money rapidly and E.T. had become a major embarrassment for them—one they literally wanted buried. 

The September 28, 1983 New York Times reported that Atari had lost over $310 million dollars in only three months, and that Atari’s El Paso plant was being converted into a recycling center.  Atari faded rapidly from popularity, and E.T.’s desert burial became a symbol to America’s media, investors, and consumers that the video game boom was, at least temporarily, over. 

E.T.’s bizarre life and death, however, would continue on, growing and evolving as a modern legend.  It would be written about in books—from Zap!  The Rise and Fall of Atari to The First Quarter: A 25-Year History of Video Games.  It would be analyzed and dissected on hundreds of websites, including on one almost book length study, The Atari Landfill Revealed.  And it would even be reinvented as a music video, in which the members of Wintergreen, a Los Angeles pop-punk band, venture into the Alamogordo desert to uncover the long-buried digital treasures. 

The games have not been dug up, though.  They’re still there—beneath the desert, dirt, and time.   

The landfill is now a sort of recreation area, and anyone willing to drive to Alamogordo, head down White Sands Boulevard, and do a little digging, might just find something strange. 

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