Are there really millions of Atari video games buried in New Mexico?

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The exact details are disputed, but yes, this is one of the stranger stories from the world of games and it stands as a subterranean monument to the hubris that caused the great console crash of 1983.

Back in 1982, E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial was a huge box office hit. Released in June of that summer, everyone was talking about E.T., so the following month, Atari’s parent company, Warner Communications, secured the rights to make a game of the film. They paid between $20 and $25 million, which was a huge amount for licensing games in the early 1980s.

Then, partially on the insistence of Steven Spielberg, Howard Warshaw was hired to write the game based on his previous work on the Raiders of the Lost Ark adaptation. The problem was, he would have to make this new E.T. game on his own. And rather than the usual six months it takes to put something like this together, he was given just five weeks to complete it in time for the Christmas market. To give you an idea of how that compares to modern games, in 2011 there were around 500 people, working for roughly six-to-eight months, on the latest Call of Duty title.

Understandably, the quality of the finished product was sub-standard, but Atari hoped that the fact it was E.T.-related would shift copies. And it did at first, with 1.5 million sold, but you have to remember that this was in a time before the Internet. This meant news of just how bad it was spread more slowly, via word-of-mouth reports and in monthly magazine reviews. People were drawn-

in because the film was hugely popular, but soon realised they had been given a horrible Christmas present. Despite those sales, it was nowhere near the numbers Atari had hoped for, and with five million copies of the game having been shipped, the majority were left unsold.

In the American store J.C. Penney, the price was cut five times, ending up at less than one dollar. Even at this level they were struggling to give it away and unsold copies piled up in Atari warehouses. It led Atari to report a $536 million loss in 1983 and was the largest financial failure in the industry to that point. It was also a huge contributing factor to the great crash of 1983 that heralded the end of the second era of console games.

Later that year in Japan, the Nintendo Entertainment System was launched and the console industry would bounce back in style. But Atari was split up and sold by Warner Communications. (It later resurfaced under new ownership in 1985 with the Atari ST computer.)

In September 1983 the millions of unsold games were taken from Atari’s plant in El Paso, New Mexico, out to the deserts of Alamogordo by the truckload – between 14 and 20 depending on your sources – to be buried in a landfill site. Fearing that collectors would dig them up – albeit with a lot of digging to get their hands on the worst game ever
made – they laid the cartridges out and crushed them with a steamroller, perhaps while the driver laughed like Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. Perhaps not. Then they were buried and the whole area was covered in concrete.

Alamogordo is the nearest city to Holloman Air Force Base ( just ten miles away), which has been the site of many UFO sightings, so it seems somehow appropriate that Atari’s Extra Terrestrial found a sub-terrestrial home there. While those UFOs are just experimental military aircraft on test flights, this was a costly experiment in how far a market can be pushed before breaking.

Warshaw left the games-writing business and now works as a psychotherapist specialising in the unique stresses and challenges of Silicon Valley’s hi-tech community. He says he’s not bitter about his experience, but if reports in the L.A. Times that he received $200,000

for five weeks’ work (as well as an all- expenses trip to Hawaii) are true then it’s easy to see why he was able to overcome the experience.

In years to come, the whole fiasco may well make a great episode of Time Team, with Tony Robinson and his archaeologists picking through the crumbled remains of Atari’s early-’80s folly. Now, though, it’s an unmarked grave for the one of the worst video games ever created and a symbolic tomb for the spectacular death of the second generation of console games.

For Esquire magazine. 2012_OCT_games burried in N.Mexico

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