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Documentary filmmaker Zak Penn, best known as a writer on Avengers and X-Men 2, discovered what has essentially become the gamer nerd’s answer to the Lost City of Atlantis yesterday: Millions of discarded Atari 2600 E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial cartridges were unearthed from a mass grave in New Mexico–along with, presumably, the tortured souls of thousands of frustrated old school gamers

Urban legend, and several news outlets–including The New York Times–had it that 14 truckloads of copies of Atari’s unspeakably bad 2600 game were buried in an Alamogordo, NM landfill, and then sealed over with concrete after the notorious cartridge bombed apocalyptically back in 1983.

But despite eyewitness testimony from Alamogordo city officials, the story was never truly confirmed. Reportedly, the mass burial was carried out in secret, by the dark of night, with guards stationed to keep the media and passers by at bay.

Over the years many have doubted the tale, including the designer of this crime against electricity: Howard Scott Warshaw.

It should be noted, by the way, that Warshaw cannot be held completely responsible for the game’s uncanny level of suck. Back in 1982, when the game was released, a video game based on a blockbuster film was a completely new idea, and Atari put a LOT of their eggs in the E.T. basket. They bought the rights from Spielberg for the unprecedented sum of $22 million–and rushed it into production so it would be on shelves for Christmas of ’82. Apparently the thinking was the E.T.-crazed public would buy the cartridges by the metric ton so long as a picture of the lovable alien visitor was on the box–regardless of the game’s actual quality.

The result was a disaster of biblical proportions. This iteration of E.T. was as big a failure as the movie was a success. It was universally, and quite rightfully despised (and yes–I had a copy) for it’s monotonous, frustrating, and seemingly pointless game play. 30-plus years later, and gamer media is still writing pieces on how inconceivably awful this game is.

But I digress.

A team of archaeologists and contractors sponsored by film producers set out on Saturday to prove or disprove the myth once and for all. The excavation is to be the subject of a documentary produced by Fuel Entertainment and Xbox Entertainment Studios, and directed by Zak Penn. Also, and indie comedy entitled Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie is using the historic dig as its centerpiece.

Zak Penn

About 200 old-school gaming fans gathered to witness the dig, but by the time the games were discovered, only a few dozen spectators remained–the rest had been driven off by high winds that blew up clouds of dust and garbage. One witness even came prepared with a TV and a working 2600 console in the back of his van, allowing several spectators to actually play one of the recovered cartridges.

I feel pretty relieved and psyched that they actually got to see something.

Said Penn when the games were discovered.

Atari still refuses to acknowlege this secret burial ever took place. To quote corporate spokeswoman Kristin Keller:

nobody here has any idea what that’s about

The E.T. disaster is commonly cited as what destroyed Atari as a serious player in home video gaming, but it was just one of many factors, such as the company’s lackluster port of Pac-Man, and a market flooded with third party games for which there was little, if any, quality control. Still, E.T. did its damage, and the fall of Atari lead many to believe that video game consoles were a dead fad by the mid-80s.

And if a little company from Japan hadn’t rebranded their Famicom console as an “Entertainment System”, and released it to the world, home video gaming might indeed have perished with the Atari.

Anyhoo, the mystery is solved–the great Atari burial ground is not a myth–and Alamogordo officials are hoping the discovery will mean an upswell in tourist traffic.

Source: The Guardian

Category: Film, Nerd Culture, Videogames

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