by Mike Smith
It was 1982 in America, a time and place steeped in fear of nuclear war, burdened by the worst economic recession since the Great Depression and made occasionally bearable by escaping into pop culture.
That year, Rubik's Cubes became popular enough to receive their own world championship, Michael Jackson released his bestselling album Thriller, the nascent video game industry sold nearly 8 million Atari 2600 consoles and "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" became the highest grossing film in history.
"E.T." told the touching story of a rubbery little alien's friendship with a boy named Elliott. It sold more than $400 million worth of tickets, won four Academy Awards and was soon singled out by Atari to be adapted into a video game. Steven Spielberg, the movie's director, received more than $20 million for the rights, and Atari ordered the game be written and designed in only six weeks - as opposed to six or seven months - to be ready in time to sell for Christmas.
Confident the game would be an enormous hit due to the success of the movie, Atari made 4 million copies of the black-plastic game cartridges, and quickly sold almost half of them. Buyers took the game home, put it in their machines and quickly discovered the game sucked.
According to an article on Snopes.com, "The result was a virtually unplayable game with a dull plot and crummy graphics in which frustrated players spent most of their time leading the E.T. character around in circles to prevent him from falling into pits."
Even 25 years later, the game remains a popular target for the gaming world's most intense loathing. Comprehensive lists in Electronic Gaming Monthly, FHM magazine and PC World have all declared E.T. to be the worst video game of all time. The game was nothing short of a disaster and, according to then-CEO of Atari, Ray Kassar, "Nearly all of them came back."
At the time, Atari owned a manufacturing plant in El Paso, Texas, where most of the unsold and returned copies of E.T. were stored, and in September of 1983, those games were loaded into 14 industrial dump trucks, driven north into the south-central New Mexico town of Alamogordo and unceremoniously dumped into a tiny desert landfill. Also buried with E.T. were unpopular prototypes for the Atari Mindlink game controller - designed for players to wear on their heads and control with their eyebrows - and copies of Atari's first adaptation of Pac-Man, which it had rashly produced 2 million more copies of than there were consoles to play them on.
The Sept. 25, 1983, Alamogordo Daily News reported that the little dump had been selected because scavenging was forbidden there, and the dump's garbage was crushed and covered every night. Nevertheless, one entire truckload of games was stolen and allegedly driven down to Mexico to be copied. Alamogordo teenagers snuck into the landfill to dig out free games, and area stores were suddenly besieged by people trying to sell them Atari's crappiest games. To stop the site from being looted further, many of the games were crushed by D9 Caterpillars, and a layer of concrete was poured over what was left.
Atari told the dump that the games were being destroyed because it was about to introduce an upgraded console, but the inescapable truth was that Atari was losing money rapidly and that E.T. had become a major embarrassment for them - one it literally wanted buried.
The Sept. 28, 1983, New York Times reported that Atari had lost more than $310 million in only three months, and that Atari's El Paso plant was being converted into a recycling center. Atari faded rapidly from popularity, and E.T.'s desert burial became a symbol to America's media, investors and consumers that the video game boom was, at least temporarily, over.
E.T.'s life beneath the desert, however, will continue on - perhaps for centuries - beneath concrete, beneath dirt and beneath a strange history that could only have happened in New Mexico.
Mike Smith is a UNM history major and the author of Towns of the Sandia Mountains. Suggest unusual topics for his future columns at AntarcticSuburbs@yahoo.com.