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The Landfill Dig for the World's Worst Video Game

We spoke to the filmmakers who are going digging for dumped copies of the notoriously terrible ET Atari game.

by Victoria Turk
Apr 23 2014, 10:20am
Image: Xbox

It’s one of the most absurd stories in gaming history: back in 1983, Atari reportedly buried millions of unsold copies of the notoriously terrible game ET the Extra-Terrestrial in a landfill. 

Based on the Spielberg film (it was in fact one of the first games to have been adapted from a movie), the ET game was largely panned and is generally considered one of the worst video games ever made. You know it's not good when your game appears on a Wikipedia page titled "List of video games notable for negative reception." And that's not just hindsight talking; even at the time, people weren't impressed.

The ET game on an Atari console. Image: Flickr/Digital Game Museum

The legend goes that, of the five million ET cartridges produced in 1982, only 1.5 million were sold—and the rest dumped. According to a New York Times story from 1983, 14 trucks of cartridges and other gaming equipment were dumped in Alamogordo, New Mexico. But quite how much of that story is genuine history and how much is urban legend is up for debate, as Atari kept rather quiet about the episode and never confirmed any details. What exactly was in the trucks destined for the dump? How much did the game's failure contribute to the broader 1983 game industry crash? Was the game really that bad? 

This Saturday, April 26, a group of filmmakers plans to set the record straight and to make gaming history, one way or the other. Entertainment company Fuel Entertainment is going to dig up part of the New Mexico landfill in search of the lost ET cartridges’ rumoured burial site. They’ll record their findings in a documentary, which is being developed with Xbox Entertainment Studios and Lightbox.

Ahead of the dig, I hopped on the phone with Fuel Entertainment’s CEO, Mike Burns, and vice president of development, Gerhard Runken, to find out more about why they were going to the trouble of excavating the site 30 years after the event, and what they hoped to find.

Mike Burns (left) and Gerhard Runken (right). Image: Fuel Entertainment

Motherboard: So you’re going to dig for the lost Atari ET cartridges. Why?
Mike Burns: As a young kid who had an Atari 2600 and played the horrible ET game when it first came out, I think it’s just something that held an interest through most of my life. There’s a lot of urban myths out and about in the video game world, and this is one that I’d always heard about. I think there's some speculation as to why they did it and where they were, which was never really formally released. When you start peeling back the layers of the onion a little bit, you find little bits of information that make the story more and more intriguing. 

When you hear how many transport trucks went out into the middle of the desert to the dump location and buried cartridges under layers of concrete in the middle of the night, it’s a bit cloak and dagger, and it was a really pivotal moment in Atari’s business. It almost wiped them out, and that was also a very pivotal moment in the gaming world. That could have really just turned things upside down and changed how gaming was looked at… So I think when you look at all the components, it’s a really fascinating subculture story.

Gerhard Runken: It’s just a fantastic story. 

So what made the game so bad?
Burns: You know what, there was a lot of potential in it. I played it as a kid, and we played it recently again of course—it’s just the game design was rather rushed. It was very frustrating, there were a lot of moments where you feel like you’re just continuously banging your head against the wall, and it didn't flow well.

The game only took the designers about six weeks to make; it was very rushed to get to market, and it had all this fanfare with the launch of the movie and the success of the movie behind it, Steven Spielberg touting that it was just a phenomenal game—you know, you almost feel like he never played it himself, he just kind of slapped his name on it—but when you actually play the game, you really realise what a horrible, frustrating experience it is.

And how confident are you that you’re going to find the buried cache, or that it even exists?
Burns: I hope the last year and a half, two years of searching wasn’t in vain. We’re pretty confident there is something there; we’re not sure what it willll be until Saturday. Our partners Lightbox and Microsoft have many people already on their way there; they’re handling and managing the production of the documentary and organising the dig. 

We’ll get there on Friday just in time for a Microsoft party on Friday night at the local GameStop, so that’ll be a fun kick-off party for a lot of fans travelling to go to the dig, and then we’ll find out on Saturday what’s really buried there—whether there’s anything worth mentioning or if it’s all been chewed up and shredded, or if maybe there's something in there that we’re not expecting.

So how’s the dig going to go down, and what sort of equipment are you going to use? I’ve heard the landfill contents might be covered in concrete, or crushedWhat are you expecting to deal with?
Runken: The landfill is such an enormous area. Luckily, we’ve tried to pinpoint the location down with some existing material from back when the cartridges were apparently buried, because we can’t dig up the whole dump. I think we’re looking at a 100-yard area where we think we’ve pinpointed it down to. As far as the equipment being used, it’s large scale machinery that’s going to be used to uncover it and try to get through the concrete. From what we’ve heard, they were crushed by steamrollers and then the concrete trucks were pouring concrete on top of them. We don’t know if it’s 50 feet down or 12 feet down but it’s definitely going to take some work to get through.

Image: Flickr/John Kelly

What will you do if you find them?
Runken: What will we do if we find them? That’s kind of to be determined. Ideally, we’d love to take some out and be able to share them with the people who came down with us and do some stuff when the film comes out. We’d definitely like to reward the fans with some kind of memento of the event and have some fun with them. It’d be great to be able to pull some out, stick them in a console and be able to play with them, and prove to everybody that they were there and we proved the myth.

If you don’t find them, will you try again?
Runken: The amount of research we’ve done, if they’re not here… It’s something to discuss, but I think based on everything we’ve done and all the research, if they’re not in this location where we’re digging, I don’t know if they really are in another place. And if they are, that’s a really big secret, because everyone we’ve talked to who’s been associated with the whole process has kind of narrowed it down to where we’re going. We haven’t really had any other indicators that we should be searching other places, or that this is the top choice but there’s other options: From our perspective, it’s kind of here or it’s not.

It’s all good fun for gaming enthusiasts and it’s a pretty wacky story, but how are you getting a whole documentary out of this?
Runken: We can’t give away too many details of the whole film, but I think from the beginning this was the initial licensed video game, or the number two licensed video game—but it’s also the reversal of how entertainment and video games have switched places. It used to be video games licensing entertainment, and now it’s entertainment licensing video games. It’s showing what happened back then and how the whole history has transformed. And we’ll also be talking to the people who were involved in the building of the game.

It’s like Mike said earlier, every time you do something, you have to peel a different layer off and find something more unique about the story than just the cartridges potentially being buried. Once we get to the end, it will have evolved again into what comes out in the film.