A pervasive mystery of video game history has finally been solved. Did Atari bury a hoard of unsold video game cartridges in a mass grave in the New Mexico desert in 1983? The answer is a resounding yes. Yes they did. Last Saturday a Canadian entertainment company, Fuel industries, and a Microsoft documentary film crew broke ground outside the city of Alamogado, New Mexico and verified what had been rumored for over three decades. Atari took out the trash.
It was a little over 30 years ago that Atari had the world by the tail. Atari games ruled the arcade and at home the Atari 2600 video game console dominated our living rooms. At that time Atari accounted for 80% of the video game market. Unfortunately, Atari’s fairytale was not to last and every king must eventually lose his crown. What no one expected was that the ones to commit Atari’s regicide would be a harmless looking yellow circle and a lost alien trying to phone home.
In 1982, Atari released a home version of the arcade hit Pac Man. Over-anticipating demand, Atari produced over 12 million copies. It was a bold move, considering that at that time Atari had only sold about 7 million consoles in the United States. 7 million turned out to be an unlucky number, because that’s roughly how many copies Atari sold of Pac Man. Despite being the best-selling home video game at that time, Atari’s over-production of Pac Man and the poor quality of the game shook America’s confidence in Atari and the staying power of the video game industry.
Later in 1982, Atari doubled down on an even hotter license than Pac Man in an effort to turn the tide of their failing sales. The gamble was a game based on Steven Spielberg’s hit film E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, and it proved to be the kiss of death for Atari. The game was ridden with glitches and simply didn’t work. It was a complete failure. Left with warehouses full of unsold cartridges and deep in the red, Atari buried what was left of its unsold inventory in a mass grave. It symbolized the end of an era and became synonymous with the Video Game Crash of 1983.
Atari’s time at the top was short-lived, but rumors of the fate of the landfill endured. It became a pervasive topic of speculation and fascination amongst gamers for years. In May of 2013 that fascination was given a kick into overdrive when the city of Alamogordo, New Mexico gave permission for the alleged burial site to be excavated. The lucky party was a Canadian entertainment company, Fuel Industries. Followed by a documentary film crew sponsored by Microsoft, their team broke ground at the site last week on April 26th.
For the first time in over 30 years the contents of the trove saw the light of day. Excavators uncovered the expected copies of E.T., but also plenty of video game hardware and even popular titles such as Centipede, Defender, and Missile Command. The excavation, which was open to the public, drew great attention from gamers of all stripes and included celebrities as well. Ernest Cline, avowed geek and popular author of the novel Ready Player One ,made the trip to New Mexico in his DeLorean to witness gaming history.
This excavation is certainly not the last we will be hearing of the Atari landfill. Microsoft’s documentary film of the excavation tentatively titled Atari: Game Over will be released exclusively on the Xbox 360 and Xbox One later this year. Furthermore, the landfill will feature prominently in Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie, an independent film also to be released later this year. Directed by and starring diehard gamer and YouTube sensation James Rolfe, the film tells the story of a gamer who makes a pilgrimage to visit the Atari landfill.
It’s odd to think that a thirty year old dump of smashed vintage game cartridges in the desert would be capable of capturing so many gamers’ imaginations. It certainly seems to hold a special place in the hearts of those present at the excavation. To most, it’s a large hole in the ground where a financially troubled company wrote off its losses and blunders. On the other hand, it’s possible that for gamers who grew up on classic Atari games the site is a resting place for their childhood memories of the era of classic gaming. For younger generations maybe it stands as a memorial of the roots of a pastime that has grown and flourished into the titanic industry it is today. Whichever or whatever the case, it’s clear digging up the past is the thing to do on the outskirts of Alamogado, New Mexico this month.