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Not so fast: Environmental concerns halt Atari E.T. cartridge dig

Filmmakers planned to excavate millions of the cartridges, buried as part of Atari's 'corporate shame,' but New Mexico regulators say an environmental report is required first.

An original E.T. game cartridge, signed by the lead designer. Millions were made, and most of them were buried in a New Mexico landfill after the game was deemed one of the worst ever. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

New Mexico environmental regulators have put the kibosh on the excavation of millions of Atari E.T. game cartridges from a garbage dump there.

According to The Guardian, the New Mexico Environment Department has said that filmmakers planning a documentary about the burial of the cartridges in 1983 due to catastrophic sales must first acquire a waste excavation plan.

At South by Southwest earlier this month, filmmakers from Lightbox and Fuel Entertainment said they were almost ready to start digging into the garbage dump in Alamogordo, N.M. to look for the cartridges. Their research had led them there, they said, and they were planning on a long dig, since they didn't know precisely where in the dump the millions of games might be found.

Atari's E.T. game is universally considered one of the worst in history, brought to market in just weeks following the monumental success of Steven Spielberg's 1983 film, "E.T." It was thought to be boring, aesthetically ugly, and shallow. Though it immediately sold 1.5 million copies thanks to its ties to the movie, sales quickly stalled, and the result was a $500 million loss for Atari, a financial disaster that drove the once high-flying company into ruin.

The episode has been referred to as Atari's "corporate shame."

Last June, the Guardian reported, city officials in Alamogordo approved the excavation. But New Mexico Environment Department spokesperson Jim Winchester told the publication that state environmental officials, who have the final say on the approval of a waste excavation plan, rejected it last month. He added that the filmmakers have yet to submit a new one.

Requests for comment by CNET to the New Mexico Environment Department and Fuel Entertainment were not immediately returned.

Update (Friday, 2:03 p.m. PT): The Associated Press reported today that Lightbox said that despite the state of New Mexico's concerns, the digging will likely still happen.