We’d come here, to a town about 50 miles outside Las Cruces, with the hope of literally digging up some gaming history. Atari, legend holds, buried thousands upon thousands of new videogame cartridges here after the market tanked in 1983. Over time, the facts of the matter had been blurred as people came to believe they were all copies of E.T., the mega-flop Atari 2600 game based on the 1982 hit movie.
When I tweeted that I was headed to Alamogordo to witness an attempt at digging up Atari’s trash, many replied with something along the lines of, “Uh, didn’t they pour concrete over them? How are you planning on getting to them?”
As romantic as the idea of me trudging into a landfill with only a shovel and a dream might sound, I would not be doing any digging. The massive operation was begun by Fuel Entertainment, a documentary film production company that had been researching the story for years. Microsoft picked up the project under its recent initiative to create original video content for Xbox and tapped Zak Penn (The Incredible Hulk) to direct the film. Titled Atari: Game Over, the documentary about Atari’s precipitous crash in 1983 is slated for release via the Xbox 360 and Xbox One game consoles’ video services later this year.
The landfill had not been used since the late 80s and looked like nothing more than a patch of desert behind a McDonald’s. A Caterpillar backhoe was poised over the spot that the team, after painstaking research, believed to be the precise location where Atari had dumped the games. A line of dump trucks stretched away from the site.
Joe Lewandowski led the dig, in no small part because he saw the games being buried all those years ago. How that came to be is a convoluted tale—suffice to say the garbage war of the early 1980s between Alamogordo’s competing waste management companies was scintillating—but when pallets of new videogames were being buried, Lewandowski went to see the spectacle for himself. He grabbed a few games, like everyone else, and left wondering why Atari would throw away brand new merchandise.
“This is the first hole, and the only hole,” he said of the dig. Many governmental agencies had to sign off on the excavation, he said, and he couldn’t “turn the dump into Swiss cheese.” He was reasonably sure this was the place. The games, he said, were 20 feet down, beneath the refuse thrown into the trench on that day in 1983.
With that, the Caterpillar operator lowered his backhoe bucket and scooped up a great heap of red earth.
And so began a carefully choreographed sequence that proceeded far more quickly than I ever would have imagined. Dump trucks pulled up one by one, each quickly filled with 10 tons or more of dirt and debris. They hauled it to another landfill some 20 miles away, because this one is no longer active. Lewandowski’s wife Deb kept close watch to make sure spectators and journalists didn’t wander into the excavation site and get killed.
The plan was to stop digging just short of where Lewandowski figured the games would be, and save the big moment for a public unearthing the next day.
Photo: Joe Williams/CNE/WIRED
Back From the Future
Spectators lined up early Saturday morning within sight of signs proclaiming “NO TRESPASSING – PROPERTY OF THE CITY OF ALAMOGORDO.” Microsoft PR flacks escorted journalists to a spot just downwind from a large pile of freshly excavated garbage. Ephemera of a bygone past blew by. Someone’s 1979 tax returns were plastered by the wind against an orange barrier. A vintage Doritos bag was skewered on sagebrush. If these things had fared well, we reasoned, surely Atari’s plastic cartridges had, too.
Just then a DeLorean pulled up in a cloud of dust. Out climbed Ernie Cline, author of Ready Player One, a novel about a future world improbably obsessed with the detritus of 1980s pop culture. From his DeLorean, outfitted with a mock flux capacitor, he pulled a Mattel Hoverboard and a flyer reading, “Save the Clock Tower!”
Cline had arrived not from 1985 but from George R. R. Martin’s house in Santa Fe; the Game of Thrones author had been borrowing the DeLorean for a private screening of Back to the Future. A noted connoisseur of 80s trivia, Cline was here to gush effusively for the cameras over any artifacts pulled from the ground. He wasted no time popping the trunk of his DeLorean and handing out copies of Ready Player One, inviting fans to a party he was hosting that evening at an arcade with go-karts and mini golf.
Howard Scott Warshaw, the Atari game designer who created E.T., arrived shortly thereafter. He is generally recognized as having been unfairly maligned for the game. Yes, he made E.T., but he also made Yar’s Revenge, considered among the best Atari games ever.
Yar’s Revenge brought him an invitation to translate Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark to Atari. It was a hit, which prompted Spielberg to personally choose him for E.T. Warshaw was given just five weeks to have the game ready for Christmas. It’s a miracle he finished a game at all.
I had last seen Warshaw at a Classic Gaming Expo about a decade ago, before much of the definitive info about the Atari burial had come to light. At the time, Warshaw didn’t believe the burial had even happened.
By that time, the story had become a cautionary fable: Atari, at the height of its popularity, believed it could do no wrong. It thought E.T. would be such a colossal hit movie that everyone would rush out to buy the game. But the game was terrible. It flopped catastrophically. Atari was left with so many copies it couldn’t sell that it secretly buried them to hide its shame.
That’s how the story went, anyway. Over time, though, newspaper articles from the time were rediscovered and passed around online. It began to seem that E.T. had little to do with the burial. Atari discarded lots of its excess merchandise, for whatever reason.
The Hardest Five Weeks
The press and public, a couple hundred people in all, were moved upwind of the stench. A hipster food truck served bacon sliders and garlic fries. As the dig progressed, Penn jumped onto the bed of a production truck to announce they’d unearthed a newspaper from 1986. This was not surprising, as Lewandowski’s team had taken core samples and used newspaper dates to pinpoint where the games might be.
One spectator, while making the long walk to the portable toilets on the other side of the dig site, found the unmistakable rubberized grip of an Atari 2600 joystick. He brought it to Penn, who invited him onto the truck for the announcement. It was probably a coincidence, a bit of trash blown from the mounting pile: Lots of people were throwing out their videogames and consoles in 1983. Before long, though, word spread that the crew had found something more decisive.
As the crowd gathered around a plastic table that had been placed at the perimeter of the excavation zone to display any artifacts, Penn trudged over with an orange Home Depot bucket from which he produced, with as much ceremony as the occasion could possibly allow, a complete boxed copy of E.T.The crowd erupted in applause. Warshaw was quickly escorted to the table. A local news crew captured his reaction.
“It’s an immensely personal thing,” he said softly, tearing up. “It was the hardest five weeks of my life.”
There were more games. Centipede, still in the shrinkwrap. Copies of Missile Command that looked like they might still work. The games did look like they had been run over by a machine, as had been foretold in the legends. But otherwise, they were mostly intact: The colorful artwork on the boxes hadn’t faded a bit, the paper had only begun to disintegrate at the edges. The hot, dry climate had preserved everything rather well.
Penn had the shot he needed; the crowd had the E.T. they’d come to see. But no one seemed happier than Lewandowski. The excavator was approaching the limits of its reach when it hit paydirt. When Lewandowski saw a scoop come out of the trench with a copy of Space Invaders, he finally knew for sure he’d picked the right spot. He made a beeline to his wife. They embraced tightly for a long while, then he kissed her, and kissed her, and kissed her again. He was the happiest man in the whole dump.
Photo: Joseph Williams/CNE/WIRED
As the crowd began to disperse, I approached Jim Heller. Some of the old-school gamers in the crowd had told me I had to talk to him, but I wasn’t sure why.
“So, what’s your connection to this project?” I asked him.
“I’m the reason you’re here,” Heller deadpanned. “I buried E.T.”
Heller, it turns out, ran the El Paso, Texas warehouse where Atari stored a good deal of inventory. When the game industry crashed and demand for the games cratered, Atari told him to get rid of it. He tried dumping it in El Paso, but scavengers immediately set upon the games. So he made a deal to truck them 100 miles north to Alamogordo, which had stricter measures against scavenging.
Scavenging still occurred, of course, until Atari decided to pour concrete over the games to make them more difficult to retrieve. (It must not have done a complete job of it, since the excavators didn’t find any concrete in the hole they dug.)
Heller wasn’t sure why Atari decided to dump a dozen truckloads of new games. The reasoning seems lost to history. Heller was just doing his job, which he lost shortly after the last games were discarded.
After talking to Heller, I made my way to the perimeter of the dig site. What started with a bucket of games was now a giant pile. At first glance, it appeared to be a mound of dirt dotted with games, but a closer look revealed it was simply a pile of games, at least a thousand, many of them in their original packaging and shipping boxes. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Yes, there were more than a few copies ofE.T., but there were more copies of Defender.
It occurred to me that Penn should have flown out Eugene Jarvis instead.
The Hat Looks Photoshopped
I later found Cline’s DeLorean outside Active Fun, Alamogordo’s finest and possibly only miniature golf go-kart arcade. He’d rented the place and bought stacks of Papa John’s pizza. Finally free of the wind and dirt that had been assaulting me all day, I pulled out my phone to see what the world was saying about the Atari dig.
Most people seemed awed that the legend turned out to be true. They probably were casual observers who might have heard about the burial but never seen Atari enthusiast forums with the newspaper clippings that proved it really happened.
Some folks didn’t like that Microsoft, having financed the documentary, put its imprimatur on things by having Xbox Live personality Larry “Major Nelson” Hyrb front and center at the shoot. So many members of the NeoGAF gaming forum suggested Microsoft fill the hole with Xbox Ones that forum moderators banned them all.
There was a third group, one I did not expect: Atari truthers. Microsoft, they believed, faked the dig. There’s no way the games could have survived so long, some argued. Others said there had to be more games than that in the hole. A few actually claimed the hard hat atop Major Nelson’s head had been Photoshopped.
Maybe there’s a Law of Conservation of Myths at play here. Now that the story of the buried cartridges has been fully told, and found to be true, another myth must be born to replace it.
Let the truthers have their myth, whatever it may be. The rest of us can be content to have finally seen the most legendary garbage of all finally unearthed.