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Diggers find Atari's E.T. games in landfill

ALAMOGORDO, N.M. (AP) -- A documentary film production company has found buried in a New Mexico landfill hundreds of the Atari "E.T." game cartridges that some call the worst video game ever made.

Film director Zak Penn showed one "E.T." cartridge retrieved from the site and said that hundreds more were found in the mounds of trash and dirt scooped by a backhoe.

About 200 residents and game enthusiasts gathered early Saturday in southeastern New Mexico to watch backhoes and bulldozers dig through the concrete-covered landfill in search of up to a million discarded copies of "E.T. The Extraterrestrial" that the game's maker wanted to hide forever.

"I feel pretty relieved and psyched that they actually got to see something," said Penn as members of the production team sifted through the mounds of trash, pulling out boxes, games and other Atari products.

Most of the crowd left the landfill before the discovery, turned away by strong winds that kicked up massive clouds of dust mingled with garbage. By the time the games were found, only a few dozen people remained. Some were playing the infamous game in a make-shift gaming den with a T.V. and an 1980's game console in the back of a van, while others took selfies beside a life-size E.T. doll inside a DeLorean car like the one that was turned into a time machine in the "Back To The Future" movies.

Among the watchers was Armando Ortega, a city official who back in 1983 got a tip from a landfill employee about the massive dump of games.

"It was pitch dark here that night, but we came with our flashlights and found dozens of games," he said. They braved the darkness, coyotes and snakes of the desert landfill and had to sneak past the security guard. But it paid off.

He says they found dozens of crushed cartridges that they took home and were still playable in their game consoles.

The game and its contribution to the demise of Atari have been the source of fascination for video game enthusiasts for 30 years. The search for the cartridges will be featured in an upcoming documentary about the biggest video game company of the early `80s.

Xbox Entertainment Studios is one of the companies developing the film, which is expected to be released later this year on Microsoft's Xbox game consoles.

Whether - and most importantly, why - Atari decided to bury thousands or millions of copies of the failed game is part of the urban legend and much speculation on Internet blog posts and forums.

Kristen Keller, a spokeswoman at Atari, said "nobody here has any idea what that's about." The company has no "corporate knowledge" about the Alamogordo burial. Atari has changed hands many times over the years, and Keller said, "We're just watching like everybody else."

Atari currently manages about 200 classic titles such as Centipede and Asteroids. It was sold to a French company by Hasbro in 2001.

A New York Times article from Sept. 28, 1983, says 14 truckloads of discarded game cartridges and computer equipment were dumped on the site. An Atari spokesman quoted in the story said the games came from its plant in El Paso, Texas, some 80 miles south of Alamogordo.

Local news reports from the time said that the landfill employees were throwing cartridges there and running a bulldozer over them before covering them with dirt and trash.

The city of Alamogordo agreed to give the documentarians 250 cartridges or 10 percent of the cartridges found, whichever is greater,.

Alamogordo Mayor Susie Galea said finding something in the landfill might bring more tourists to this city in southeastern New Mexico that is home to an Air Force base and White Sands National Monument. "Lots of people just pass through, unfortunately," she said.

The "E.T." game is among the factors blamed for the decline of Atari and the collapse in the U.S. of a multi-million dollar video game industry that didn't bounce back for several years.

Tina Amini, deputy editor at gaming website Kotaku, said the game tanked because "it was practically broken." A recurring flaw, she said, was that the character of the game, the beloved extraterrestrial, would fall into traps that were almost impossible to escape and would appear constantly and unpredictably.

The company produced millions of cartridges, and although sales were not initially bad, the frustrating gameplay prompted an immense amount of returns. "They had produced so many cartridges that were unsold that even if the game was insanely successful I doubt they'd be able to keep up," Amini says.

Joe Lewandowski, who became manager of the 300-acre landfill a few months after the cartridge dump and has been a consultant for the documentarians, told The Associated Press that they used old photographs and dug exploratory wells to find the actual burial site.

The incidents following the burial remained a part of Alamogordo's local folklore, he said. For him, the only memories of "E.T." the game were of an awful game he once bought for his kid.

"I was busy merging two garbage companies together," he said. "I didn't have time for that."

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Tutu April 27 2014 at 10:30 AM

I really had to laugh to myself yesterday when I drove past the site...we were having high winds 50-60 mph gusts and the desert sands were blowing into town. There were a handful of people standing around, I figure most of them were the paid employees that were there for the taping. We also had earth day going on in town at the park...seems to me that mother nature and the earth did not agree with any of yesterday activities...

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G.A. Whitehead April 26 2014 at 9:15 PM

I remember playing this game at a friends house. I was so excited to play it, and it was soooo stupid.

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English April 26 2014 at 9:24 PM

This was NOT what brought Atari down ... a combination of bad marketing and other factors brought them down. At a number of points early in home computing, Atari was actually ahead of its' competitors in a number of technical points, among them being the first PC company to offer a built in MIDI connector. Atari was often derided by some as a 'game machine' (ironically by people who would then turn around and brag about how good their games were). That didn't help matters.

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dannyv0813 April 26 2014 at 9:39 PM

atari is a living legend until e.t have to ruin it

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Hello Marvin April 26 2014 at 10:44 PM

Didn't Nolan Bushnell and Atari invent the video game? Does any one remember Pong?

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1 reply
tx383 Hello Marvin April 27 2014 at 12:20 AM

I remember pong before it was played on a console. Cassette player.

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2 replies
theholly tx383 April 27 2014 at 3:58 AM

I remember Wampit, the three line game before pong...

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M tx383 April 27 2014 at 8:11 AM

Gotcha beat... punched paper tape, like from the old teletype machines (33 BPS data rate!)

Actually, I tried the casettes with very little success until I started using the CHEAP Radio Shack casette tapes instead of the expensive audio tapes (cheap tapes were actually split 1/2-inch computer tapes).

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M April 27 2014 at 7:16 AM

I have a brother that is a CPA, and there are tax consequences of having "finished goods" in inventory more than 6 months. They WILL BE taxed at the much higher value than their components. Having "finished goods" in inventory also hurts the company value in financial reports. Since there were SO many unsold and returned cartrides, I strongly suspect TAX issues were behind the dumping; after all, garbage has a $0.00 value.

Or then again, does it?

The "documentarians" get a percentage of the take... which does have some historic/sentimental value... but...
Can anyone spell G-O-L-D (O-R-E)? Depending on the exact technology used, the internal integrated circuit connections may have been made with gold wires. Yes, I said GOLD. And there are the edge connectors.

Even back in the 1960's, IBM was cutting the gold edge connector tabs off their scrap, rejected, and old circuit boards to recycle the gold in making new circuit boards. And if these cartriges still play in the old consoles, the gold plated connector tabs are still there.
And inside, the ROMs (Read Only Memory) or EPROMs (Electrically PROgrammable Memory) that contains the game program, the internal connections between the silicon "chip" and the external connections (chip carriers), were very likely made with gold wire. The cost of recovering that gold back when the cartridges were dumped exceeded the value, so it didn't matter. Now? Gold prices are as much as 60 times what they were then. (gold ore... and millions of cartridges means tons of "ore"!)

Think I don't know what I am talking about? Just TRY to find any of the old INTEL CPU chips that powered the PC-AT and their clones. Those were scooped up en masse well over a decade ago for salvage/recovering the gold.
(BTW, I worked for a company that built the machines that wired the internal connections from the silicon "chips" to their "chip carriers". The wires were very thin gold (alloy)).
And, the connections in OLD electronic diodes were made with similar platinum wires.
(We are talking about wires about as thick as a human hair...)

Before anyone runs out to the antique stores to grab up all of that "gold ore", the amount in even dozens of devices is VERY SMALL, and not worth the effort. Gold plating can be as little as three ATOMS thick, and gold leaf is so thin, (so little gold), that a light can shine through it!
MILLIONS of cartridges on the other hand is, as one might say, a "horse of a different color".

(A ton of old cell phones is also valuable salvage for the recovery of various metals now too. And the old CRT (analog) televisions have about FOUR POUNDS of lead in the CRT tube, (lead glass to shield the viewers from the X-RAYS it produced!!) plus the copper in the wiring and circuit boards.)

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2 replies
jorwmu M April 27 2014 at 9:02 AM

No one throws GOLD way! I worked for a few companies in the 80 and 90's that recovered gold connectors before tossing the rest of the "garbage" metal

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Tutu M April 27 2014 at 10:32 AM

Unless the games were well sealed, the years buried with the trash and garbage and the local soil would have taken their toll and I do doubt that they will be of much good at all...

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tx383 April 27 2014 at 12:18 AM

A buddy of mine worked for Atari in El Paso at the time, he told me about this and also toward the end of the plant there they dumped thousands of game consoles as well. I think he said these went to the El Paso landfill at the time, not sure on that though....

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2 replies
M tx383 April 27 2014 at 7:47 AM

Texas Instruments had several warehouses filled with full retail packages of their 99-4 Home Consoles/Computers, and their revised 99-4A versions and couldn't sell them. The 99-4 had a non-coputer/touch typist keyboard so it didn't look as much like a computer and "scare away" the non-tech types. That keyboard was the difference in the 99-4As with its standard QWERTY keyboard, but the reputation was badly hurt by the original keyboards.

They put the stock out on "fire sale" ($29.99) prices with the entire retail package sold for less than the wholesale cost of the CPU chip alone...

I suppose its real problem back then was how the thing didn't have "IBM" on it... after all, who had heard of Texas Instruments if they were not heavily in electronics?

It turns out "Perception IS reality!"

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Tutu tx383 April 27 2014 at 10:40 AM

Story has been around here for years that they trucked them in in the dark of night and smashed, dumped and covered with the local desert sands with dozers. No real proof, but a lot of laughs from the old timers..

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froggyanearl April 27 2014 at 5:17 AM

So horrible video game versions of movies isnt a new thing. 30 years and they still can't get it right.

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2 replies
M froggyanearl April 27 2014 at 7:27 AM

Those game cartridges only had 64 kilobytes of memory, which matched the CPU chips inside the consoles.
There is a reason new games come on CD/DVDs. The programs are MUCH larger.

Jamming the graphics and the game program into only 65,536 bytes of memory was a HUGE challenge back in the day those were programmed and built.

Now the problem is getting all the graphics, features, and interactions right in these ENORMOUS programs that make modern games. Different problem, same time crunch to meet the very tight new release schedules...

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Tutu froggyanearl April 27 2014 at 10:36 AM

Just as there are some awful movies made from games...

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mrcoolguy160 April 27 2014 at 1:32 AM

I used to have that game when I was a kid. I actually liked it. It was so frustrating that it taught me patience. The funny thing about it is that I actually beat the game several times. Finding his ship to take ET home would always change locations. It will always be the game I used to play when I was little. Rest in peace ET Atari Game.

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oujoou April 27 2014 at 4:05 AM

I never had the pleasure of playing ET on the Atari. I knew it was an awful game. I had no idea it was the worst game ever. I remember the movie. It was great. If Atari people were loving Atari 'Adventure' . . . I can't imagine a game being worse than THAT one. :( So many great innovators in the video game world . . . even with the horrible graphics of the 80's . . . maybe they hated the movie. :(

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