Found! Atari's E.T. games dug up from New Mexico landfill

After 31 years hidden in the wake of one of the worst video game failures in history, thousands of E.T. and other Atari games were uncovered Saturday. The find ended the mystique of a great industry legend.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read

A bucket of Atari games recovered from an Alamogordo, N.M. landfill where they'd been buried since 1983. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

ALAMOGORDO, N.M.--The challenge was clear: Even if thousands, or perhaps millions, of Atari E.T. games were buried in the old landfill here, that meant Joe Lewandowski would have to dig the right 400-square-foot hole in a 300-acre dump to find them. There would be no second chance.

But this was the "Garbage Guru." The challenge was no match for him.

Buried no more! Atari E.T. games dug up (pictures)

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That's why, at 12:45 p.m. local time Saturday, film director Zak Penn walked up to a microphone on the other side of an orange trash fence from more than a hundred video game fans, reporters, and others, and announced that "We found something."

After 31 years, the mystery of what happened to the hidden E.T. games was over.

'Hard to see your baby abused'

The legend of the E.T. games is one of the most famous in the annals of video games. In 1983, trying to leverage the incredible success of Steven Spielberg's hit film, Atari acquired the license to the franchise and rushed a product to market. Development was on a hyper-speed schedule, just six weeks from contract signing to store shelves. Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, who had left the company by then, told CNET recently that normal production for an Atari 2600 title took five months.

No wonder then that Atari's E.T. is considered by many the worst video game ever. If not the worst, then a serious contender. Sales were said to be good at first, on the strength of the E.T. tie-in, and then they plummeted. Atari had to eat millions of copies of the game, and took a half-billion dollar loss. That failure is often cited as the beginning of the end for the company as an industry leader.

Perhaps hoping to remove all evidence of its " corporate shame," as Johnathan Chinn, the co-president and producer at Lightbox, one of the companies behind a documentary being made about the legacy of the E.T. game put it, Atari made them disappear.

For Atari's fans -- and its founder -- the episode was an embarrassment. What was once an innovator in the video game industry had been reduced to a punch line, and many were pointing the finger at Warner Bros., which had bought the company. It was, Bushnell recalled, "hard to see your baby abused."

In recent years, there had been increased chatter about Alamogordo, a city of 31,000 about 90 miles northeast of El Paso, being the final resting place of the games. And that's where Lightbox and its co-production company, Fuel Entertainment, and its financial backer, Xbox Entertainment Studios, entered the picture.

To Bushnell, the reason for that crash and burning was simple: Warner's thought process. "It was so antithetical to the way I thought the business should be run as as a creative business," he said. "They just didn't understand the technology. They ran Atari like a record company."

The smell of garbage in the morning

By 9 a.m. Saturday, dozens of people were already on sight at the old landfill -- Alamogordo closed the dump in 1986 and opened a new one nearby. The production crew had made an initial dig Friday, in part to deal with any hazardous gasses that could endanger the public.

Some of the remnants of that hole were flat against the trash fence, held there by heavy winds battering the region: a 1979 IRS Form 5695, and a customer registration form from the Townsman motel dated July 3, 1978. The stench of decades-old garbage was overpowering.

An IRS form from 1979 is held against the trash fence at the Alamogordo landfill by heavy winds. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

It's actually surprising that people spent decades trying to figure out where Atari hid the cartridges. As Fuel's Daniel Schechter put it, a lot of signs were pointing toward New Mexico, perhaps none more than a September, 1983, article in The New York Times about Atari burying "14 truckloads of discarded game cartridges and other computer equipment at the city landfill in Alamogordo, N.M."

Then Schechter ran across Lewandowski, a longtime garbage company owner from Alamogordo. "When I met Joe was when we knew we were onto something," Schechter.

On Saturday, with the success of their excavation only barely outdueling his exhaustion, Lewandowski hinted at how much pressure he'd been under, especially when the giant Caterpillar excavator had already dug to its limit of 30 feet, and no games had been found.

The problem, he said, was that time was short -- and the games had been buried in a hole just 100 feet by 40 feet. In the 300-acre landfill.

A giant pile of garbage at the Alamogordo landfill prior to the discovery of the Atari games. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Luckily, when Lewandowski wants something he does what it takes to get it. In this case, once he'd been hired by the production companies, he began calling everyone he could, talking to former truck drivers from the dump, and even listening to stories from people who'd been kids in 1983 and said they'd snuck into the landfill and made off with some of the Atari booty.

After all that research, he was pretty sure he knew where to look. But even then, it was risky. "I could have been ten feet off and missed the whole thing," he said.

Live-action role-play Dig-Dug

As the dig progressed, some on hand were wrestling with how they felt about excavating the games at all. After all, having thousands or millions of E.T. cartridges simply be missing adds a lot of mystique to a legend. If the games were found, that could kill the mystique. "There's certainly that risk," said Elan Lee, chief design officer at Xbox Entertainment Studios. "It's 50/50 between people who really want to find something" and those who don't. Lee was in the pro-discovery camp.

All that emotional muddling went out the window at 12:45 p.m., when Penn stood in front of the crowd and held up an E.T. cartridge and the tattered box it came in. "For anybody who doubted," Penn said, "there's a whole heck of a lot of games down there."

One who was no doubt ecstatic to find the games was Andrew Reinhard, the archaeologist hired by the production companies to lead the excavation.

Archaeologists working to find the E.T. games sift through the garbage by hand on Saturday. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Reinhard said the job had been weird -- "excavation in a fishbowl, like golf at the Master's." But he said he and his team of volunteers had treated the job like any other, taking notes, photography, video, and audio as they worked.

Things began to go well for them as they went deeper. They found newspapers from 1983, just above where the games were finally discovered. "You couldn't ask for a better context," he said. "To get a date right above what you're digging is kind of a holy grail for archaeologists."

Reinhard said he and his team had joked that the job should be called "Live-action role-play Dig-Dug." "Isn't it great? We're digging in the dirt for an Atari game," he said, "and there was an Atari game about digging in the dirt."