The Great Atari Video Game Burial?

In late 1983, 14 semi-trailers drove from El Paso, Texas to Alamogordo, New Mexico. They proceeded to dump their mysterious contents into a landfill. The contents were then crushed and buried under a layer of concrete. What was the Great Atari Video Game Burial?

The Rise & Fall of Atari?

By 1983, Atari was the king of the exploding $3.2 billion video game market with an astonishing 80% market share. Within two years, the video game industry had shrank 97% to just $100 million and Atari was all but dead. There are several reasons for the contraction with an oversaturation of weak games being especially important.

“Atari collapsed because they gave too much freedom to third-party developers and the market was swamped with rubbish games.” ~ Hiroshi Yamauchi, Nintendo President

Indeed, Atari was its own worst enemy. In March 1982, it released Pac-Man, manufacturing a whopping 12 million cartridges in the process. It sold well, but not well enough. Atari ended up with 5 million unsold games as well as massive returns.

E.T. the Extra Terrestrial

And then there was E.T.

E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial deserves its reputation as one of the worst games of all time. Good lord, who doesn’t remember constantly falling into pits and then slowly levitating back to the surface? Well, Atari shelled out $22 million for the rights to E.T. and manufactured 5 million cartridges. The game was an epic bust, with just 30% sell-through.

The Great Atari Video Game Burial?

Imagine you’re an Atari executive. Between Pac-Man and E.T., you’ve got 8.5 million unsold video game cartridges. The video game industry is going over a cliff. Retailers hate you because you’ve spent years forcing them to stock old games in order to get access to new ones. What do you do? Head to the dump, of course!

According to a series of newspaper articles written in the Alamgordo Daily News, Atari sent 10-20 truckloads of Atari products 100 miles to New Mexico. They dumped everything into a landfill. The landfill crushed the products and covered them with concrete, supposedly to keep kids from scavenging them.

Still, the exact contents of the landfill remain a mystery. Most people assume its filled with Pac-Man and E.T. cartridges. However, that may not be the case. One executive claimed only “inoperable” material was being dumped (although E.T. sort of fits that description). The truck drivers claimed they were dumping old Atari 2600 products, as part of a corporate decision to focus on the relatively new Atari 5200 system. Another executive contradicted this story. And Howard Scott Warshaw, the programmer behind E.T., seems to doubt eveything.

“O: Is the landfill story true or false?

HSW: I say false.

O: You don’t know definitively, though?

HSW: I don’t know if anybody knows definitively, because I doubt that it happened, so nobody can really know.” ~ Interview between Keith Phipps & Howard Scott Warshaw

At this point, its impossible to know for certain what’s buried in the Alamgordo landfill (although there is a legend that prototypes for the famous Atari Mindlink controller may have been included in the dumping). Fortunately, there is one way to end this mystery. An archaeological dig. We get a team together, head to Alamgordo, and excavate the landfill as a garbology project. Anyone interested?