Success! Atari E.T. games found in New Mexico dump

Despite doubters, the first of what could be thousands or millions of buried E.T. game cartridges were discovered in the Alamogordo landfill where Atari buried them 31 years ago.

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
4 min read

After 31 years, an Atari E.T. game was pulled out of the muck of the old Alamogordo, N.M. landfill. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

ALAMOGORDO, N.M. -- "We found something," said Zak Penn, and the crowd cheered.

Penn, the director of films like "X Men 2," is making a film about the hunt for thousands, or even millions, of Atari E.T. game cartridges that the company disappeared 31 years ago. No one has known for sure where they went. Until now. Now we know.

"For anybody who doubted," Penn continued, "there's a whole heck of a lot of games down there. We just saw them."

It was 12:45 p.m. local time today, and hundreds of people were gathered at the old landfill in Alamogordo. There'd been lots of clues that the games -- along with unknown other titles and hardware Atari didn't want anymore -- had been dumped here. And yesterday, the crew making the movie had done an initial dig. As a result, garbage buried here for decades had blown up against an orange trash fence: A 1979 IRS form 5695 ("Energy Credit") and an IRS Optional State Tax Table; A customer register from the Townsman Motel dated July 3, 1978. Even an old plastic Bounty paper towel package.

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

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But the crowd was here for the games. And until they were actually spotted, no one was really sure they were here.

Holding up his prize find, Penn put those doubts to rest. The game cartridge was in nearly perfect shape, though its packaging was ripped almost to shreds.

In the background, a set of Atari 2600s with the E.T. game actually playing -- not cartridges from the dump -- were spitting out the distinctive 8-bit music from the game. It was perfect.

'Corporate shame'

The story of the financial and critical disaster of Atari's E.T. game is well known. Rushed to market in just six weeks to try to leverage the incredible success of Steven Spielberg's hit 1983 movie, the game was a monumental disaster.

Though it quickly sold more than a million copies on the strength of the E.T. tie-in, the game's sales stalled just as quickly as would-be players discovered it was paper thin, with terrible graphics and no depth. And no wonder: As Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, who had left the company by 1983, told CNET, a more reasonable amount of time for making a game would have been five months.

For years, Atari's " corporate shame" -- as Johnathan Chinn, the Lightbox co-president and producer of a documentary film being made about the legacy of the E.T. game put it -- remained a secret. Everyone knew the company had disappeared the millions of cartridges, but the very small number of people who knew their location kept their mouths shut.

Recently, though, Lightbox and Fuel Entertainment, with the financial support of Microsoft's Xbox division, figured out where the games had been buried, and set out to recover them. And after months of preparing, and tons of publicity about their hunt, the wait is over: The games, still playable despite their ignominious fate, are hidden no more.

Not everyone doubted

While there was no certainty that the games were here, not everyone was unsure. In fact, three men in their 40s were telling anyone who would listen that they had actually salvaged hundreds of the Atari titles from the dump back in 1983, when they were kids.

"We all heard what was going on," said Armando Ortega, 43. "We came out one night in the complete darkness. They had just put a complete layer of concrete on it. It was still fresh....You could tell people had already been scavenging."

Ortega said that many of the games' cases had been crushed by bulldozers that had run over them. But the game chips were in fine shape, and he and his friends were able to play E.T., Atari Baseball, Pac-Man, and other titles on the Atari 2600 console they had. "Of course," he said, "that E.T. game sucked. We gave them away, because you couldn't finish it."

Ortega and his friends, brothers Fabian Esquero and Mark Esquero, recalled going out as a group of six that night in 1983. "Our plan [to grab the games] worked perfect," Ortega said, "except for Fabian getting sprayed" by a skunk.

Now, he laughed, "We're going to be known for our garbage."

Old dump

Alamogordo closed this landfill in 1986. And now the city is happy that the film crew has come along, because someone else is paying to excavate the dump, at least this area of it, and rebury it elsewhere according to code.

Regardless, the landfill, which is found on the west side of town, not far from a McDonald's that's a good marker for trying to find it, is basically a large, flat area covered in dirt. Now that a bunch of it has been dug up, the smell of garbage left underground for nearly 30 years is palpable.

Crews investigate their find at the Alamogordo dump. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

The pit the crew dug looks, though, like you'd expect a dump to look. Large piles of garbage, and holes that disappear below the surface.

But today there's something notable in the midst of all those old sacks of kitchen trash and paper towel packaging: An as yet unknown number of video games that have been lost for so long.

Does that kill the mystique which has brought so many people here to the Alamogordo dump to witness the dig? It's hard to say. Some think so.

"This is one of those stories I've been told since I was 5 years old," said Elan Lee, head of Microsoft's Xbox Entertainment Studios. "Everybody's heard the rumors. All my geek friends and gamer friends have been raised on this story. [And it's] 50/50 between people who really want to find something and people who don't. It's almost cooler if the legend took us here and we tried as hard as we could and were still unable to unearth E.T."