Geek Trivia

Which Game Company Buried Over 5 Million Games In The Desert?

In 1957 The BBC Pranked Millions Of Britons By Reporting On A Tree That Grew?
Cover art of the 1982 E.T. Atari Game

Answer: Atari

A long-standing 1980s urban legend states that Atari hauled millions of games out to a remote location in New Mexico and offloaded them in the desert to be forgotten beneath the sands. While a bit hyperbolic in the retelling, the urban legend is solidly based on truth.

In the early 1980s, Atari was on the ropes. Once the king of the console castle, the company’s earnings were down, its new console—the Atari 5200—was a commercial failure, and a series of dubious releases left them with returns of unsold cartridges numbering in the hundreds of thousands. One of their worst lineup choices was releasing a poorly implemented title based on the popular movie E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The game was so poorly received that tens of thousands of cartridges were returned to Atari.

Rather than lose money storing the panned title (and its other failed siblings), they contracted their disposal out to a small landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Why that particular landfill? It was remote, the landfill didn’t allow scavenging, and the new trash was crushed and buried every night.

In September of 1983, between 10 and 20 semi-trailer truckloads of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and other failed titles, along with Atari boxes and systems, were hauled out to the remote location, dumped, run over with a steam roller, and then—in a rather curious move outside the normal routine of the disposal facility—capped with a concrete slab.

The buried Atari loot would still be there to this day if not for the efforts of Fuel Industries (a Canadian marketing and entertainment company), Microsoft, and others. In 2013, they received permission from the Alamogordo City Commission to conduct an archaeological excavation (April 2014) in the landfill to film a documentary called Atari: Game Over. The city auctioned off many of the excavated titles as a fundraising effort and several of them ended up in museums across the country such as the Smithsonian and the Henry Ford Museum.