The legend is real: Hundreds of lost Atari cartridges unearthed in N.M.

Film Director Zak Penn shows a box of a decades-old Atari 'E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial' game cartridges found in a landfill in Alamogordo, N.M.
(Juan Carlos Llorca / AP)

As one online commentator put it, “This is like discovering a UFO for gaming.”

The writer was referring to the dusty scene captured in a YouTube video shot in the New Mexico desert, where makers of a film documentary began digging in a landfill in search of “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” a failed Atari video game made more than a generation ago.

“E.T.” was a great film, but the game was a bomb, flop, fiasco. On the bright side, its complete failure did produce a video game urban legend on a par with more mainstream legends like Bigfoot and the Jersey Devil.


For decades, conspiracy theorists wondered: Was it true that hundreds, if not thousands, of “E.T.” cartridges (remember those?) had been secretly buried in the desert near Alamogordo, N.M.?

On Saturday, gamers got their answer: Yes.

The YouTube video of the excavation effort shows a man in a hard hat from the team announcing, “We found something,” to a few scattered “whoos!”

He let the drama unfold and then added, “We found an intact ‘E.T.,’ the video game.” The crowd erupted in hoots, cheers and screams. Not that anyone needed to be told, but he added, “You didn’t come out here for nothing.” Who would suggest such a thing?

Just why and how the games ended up in the desert is a matter of dispute.

But as The Times’ Hero Complex blog once noted, “E.T” was played on the Atari 2600 game system, which “sold more than 30 million units and paved the way for the Nintendo Entertainment System and countless other consoles.”

“E.T.” sold 1.5 million copies. Still, it was a disappointment.

As Hero Complex wrote: “Despite its place on the list of Atari’s all-time top-selling titles, this release is one of the most notorious games in 2600 history. Rushed into production after Steven Spielberg’s movie became a box office sensation, the game was expected to sell many millions of copies, but sold just a fraction of that. The unsold cartridges were famously buried in a New Mexico landfill; the game’s failure was the beginning of a long decline in Atari’s fortunes.”


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