Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The infamous "Atari Dump" - got my piece of it!

Yeah, today I want to show you some garbage. Historical and infamous garbage.

The first game console I ever played was the Atari VCS at my cousin's house in 1976. I grew up with Atari and I remember the video game crash of 1983 well. I personally remember the news reports of Atari dumping E.T. and other games in a giant landfill in New Mexico.

Over the years, this somehow became probably the biggest urban legend in all of video gaming. It was like the moon landing - many people swore that it never happened, and endless debates would take place all over the internet. Some of the claims did blow up into ridiculousness - that they buried "millions" of E.T. cartridges, for example. But most of the exaggerations actually seem to have been invented by those trying to prove that the landfill didn't exist. (It'd be kinda like saying the moon landings had to be faked because NASA said they got there at the speed of light.) And those exaggerations then became part of the debate.

But those of us who knew the dump existed never claimed Atari did anything but throw away a bunch of junk they couldn't sell. And not coincidentally, that included a lot of E.T. cartridges.

Finally, last year somebody set out to definitively prove that the Atari Dump is real:

You can watch that documentary in full on Netflix and various other places.

Spoiler: they did it. They found the dump. It's no legend anymore; it's fact, as it always really was. The first game they pulled out was E.T., just as the "rumors" suggested they would. Whole unopened cases of E.T. were found. Many other games were found as well - basically anything that didn't sell by the time of the industry crash.

The city of Alamagordo is still selling the spoils on Ebay (as they suggest in the documentary that they will!). The E.T.'s all seem to have been burned through, but they went for unreasonable amounts anyway - $300+ when I last checked. I picked up this copy of Defender for a much more reasonable $31, although at this point, it looks like prices are skyrocketing because there might not be much left.

My game came sealed up in a plastic bag with that metal City of Alamagordo property tag taped to it, with a separate manila folder containing a Certificate of Authenticity and photocopies of both some original 1983 news articles about the dump as well as a short written history of the dump and the dig. (I love the headline "Dump here utilized" - so straightforward, yet vague.)

I'm not going to show the Certificate of Authenticity (at least not until I heavily redact it) but it's signed by various city officials as well as Howard Warshaw, the designer of E.T., Yar's Revenge and many of Atari's most popular VCS/2600 games (and one of the guys featured in the video above).

I have not tried to play the game. I doubt it'd work; it seems pretty smashed up. But the box is unopened, and I can feel that everything's in there that should be. I find it interesting that there's a price tag on it - most likely, this game was returned from a store to Atari.

One thing I will say is that I was not prepared for the smell of this thing. The zip-lock bag does a good job of containing it, but man - when I took this game out to take the picture, I physically recoiled. It's not a smell I'm even familiar with. It's not like garbage, it's like what I imagine a compost heap smells like. It's like rotting organic matter. I quickly put it back in the baggie and opened all my windows. I doubt I'll ever take it out again. But I wonder if it's just going to continue to rot in there. I guess it's a fitting end if so.

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About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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