In December of 1982, E.T the Extra-Terrestrial came out for the Atari 2600. Howard Scott Warshaw was given the job of designing it after huge success with Yars' Revenge and Raiders of the Lost Ark. However, he was only given five and a half weeks to do it in. The result was critically panned, with E.T. known as one of the worst games of all time and partly blamed for the North American games industry crash of 1983. Atari printed way too many copies, and it was believed that millions of these cartridges were buried in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico.
It became something of an urban legend in the industry. Last year, Joe Lewandowski led an excavation to see what, if anything, was buried down there. Sure enough, E.T. cartridges were found early on, along with many other Atari games. It turns out that the whole thing wasn't such a myth after all, and that this was just an excess stock dump. E.T. certainly wasn't the sole cause of the destruction of Atari and the video games industry; it was just a small part of a wealth of other problems going on in the early 1980s. Looking back, the game and Warshaw were unfairly treated during the period.
Atari: Game Over is a documentary about the excavation, featuring Warshaw, Lewandowski and interviews with many others from around the industry and the dig. I talked to the director, Zak Penn—who has worked on a number of Hollywood films and has a co-writing credit on The Avengers—about terrible games and toxic pigs.
The trailer for 'Atari: Game Over'
VICE: What is actually the worst game of all time?
Zak Penn: I think Desert Bus has to be up there, certainly in terms of effort. I think it was created by Penn and Teller. It was a real-time driving simulation between Phoenix and Las Vegas. I think it takes eight hours to get from point to point. I think we're in a golden age of terrible games right now. There are so many games that are designed to be simple and suck you in so you have to pay in order to get better.
Do you remember playing E.T. when it came out?
I vaguely remember it, but it was a long time ago. I remember not loving it.
But it wasn't the worst game?
No! So many games don't even work. Less so today, but back then you'd sometimes put a game in and you couldn't even figure out what was going on. E.T. had a lot more playability than that.
If it was so bad, why go and dig it up? Was it just the "worst game ever" and "it killed Atari" myths that made E.T. interesting?
What I would say about the people that organized this, primarily Joe Lewandowski, to them and a lot of people it had grown into this enormous urban legend. I think whenever you've got something with a hint of mystery, and particularly when burial is involved, people want to dig it up. There are all these references to Raiders of the Lost Ark in the movie because that's how we learn about the past: we dig it up. It seems like an absurd excavation, but actual archaeologists showed up and wanted to do it. It was a very unusual situation to have a company bury working product.
Do you think if it were just some run-of-the-mill game, no one would care as much?
I think they definitely would not. It's the confluence of the three different strands. It was a bad game based on a beloved movie, it was credited with destroying Atari and the video game industry, and the third is it was buried. And by the way, they happened out of order, which is interesting. It didn't start being called the worst game ever until long after it was buried. Take any of those elements out, and the whole myth collapses.
Is there a precedent for this kind of excavation? They had a very smart way of doing it—so does this happen a lot?
No, I don't think there is [a precedent]. Normally when you dig up a landfill it's to find a dead body. No one had ever dug up that landfill, and certainly not for this purpose. I didn't realize the level of archaeological and scientific research that Joe Lewandowski did. There's a bunch of extras in the movie about the tremendous amount of very complicated research he did. Years of sifting through records, trying to account for shifts in the landscape, roads that were there that were taken away. Figuring out depth, and the right way to get to that depth, which isn't as easy as it seems. There was a lot of work, and still the probability that we would hit the games was not in our favor. Also, with the wind storm that came in, if we hadn't found it when we did, it would've been over. I thought everyone was just messing around, but no, no: there was very serious discussion about what we were doing there and why it was different. Some of the stuff we found is in the Smithsonian now.
Was there actually a danger of unearthing "toxic pigs," like you mentioned in the documentary, or was it just the guys making the decisions covering for a worst case scenario?
The mercury-laced pigs is actually a true story, but what seemed unlikely were the scenarios that some people were proposing. But there is actually a very horrible story about mercury poisoning that happened in that town involving pigs. But Joe said, "We know where those are buried, and that's not where we're digging."
How confident were you of finding anything, going into the excavation?
I naively trusted what Joe was telling me, and up until I got there for the dig I was fairly confident that people wouldn't spend all this time and money on it if they weren't going to find it. Once I actually got out there I thought that if we didn't find it we would just keep digging. I didn't realize how expensive it was on a day-to-day basis, and the environmental permits only lasted three days. I said to him, "Can we dig the whole place up?" He said, "No, not even close." So I stood out there and asked, "What if we're off by three feet?" "Then we won't find anything."
Were there more cartridges deeper down that you weren't allowed to dig up?
Yeah, definitely. That's another thing I found out: when you do an archaeological dig, you don't take all of it out of the ground. I naively thought, Oh, we'll take a million games out of the ground and I can have 50 of them. But you take a representative sample, and you can extrapolate from there. Because there were photographs of the actual burial, they know there were 750,000 games down there, minus however many were stolen the night of the burial, which is not insignificant—many, many thousands were stolen that night.
Did the people on site share your feelings? Or were they just there for a day out?
I interviewed a lot of them. I was definitely surprised by the number of people who showed up. I was not expecting hundreds of people lined up early in the morning who loved Atari—and loved Howard, particularly… they'd brought stuff for him to sign. I didn't know he had groupies, and I don't think he did either. I don't think any of us expected the actual emotion from the people. They had an attachment; it was like, "We need some place to go to celebrate this thing we love." I think there was a lot of uncertainty. It smelt bad, and the weather really became apocalyptic, and it felt a little too convenient, like something from a Spielberg movie. The winds were 80 miles an hour and the dust storm nearly blew over the excavator. A lot of people were driven out by the weather, and there was a lot of nervousness that people had driven 20 hours to see nothing.
Howard Warshaw was obviously very emotional in the documentary. Do you think that was just down to memories flooding back?
I think it's partly that, but a lot of it is down to what had happened that day. Howard had compartmentalized the whole thing as "this is a thing I did, and people think it's bad, and I know why it's bad so it's not that big a deal." When he got out there and saw there were actually people who liked the game, and loved his other games, I think it went from, "Haha, I'll put my demons to rest," to, "Oh my God, this is actually putting my demons to rest." I think that's what the tears were.
Were any of the cartridges playable?
They actually were—a number of them were playable. They just needed to be cleaned off. The way they were buried, they were kind of protected. Someone said, "People think when you throw something in a dump you're getting rid of it. But the truth is you're preserving it forever and covering it with concrete." Some of those things were in a better condition than if they'd been sitting in someone's garage. Some of them were factory sealed—the Centipedes were in packs of nine, vacuum-sealed.
Did you find anything else cool down there?
There were some weird moments. On the first day, one of the guys who was operating some machinery dug something up. It was a newspaper from 1982, and he was in it. He was on the back cover as the quarterback of the football team. There was some strange stuff down there: a bowling ball, a fully functional toilet, but no dead bodies… that would've made it even more interesting. You don't just get to sift through the garbage. They're pretty careful, and it's pretty disgusting, too.
Thanks for your time, Zak.
Atari: Game Over is available digitally starting February 2.
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