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Searching for E.T.

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Crews begin digging at the old Alamogordo landfill on Friday, searching for copies of Atari's failed "E.T. The Extraterrestrial" video game, supposedly buried there in the 1980s. (John Bear/Alamogordo Daily News/AP)

Crews begin digging at the old Alamogordo landfill on Friday, searching for copies of Atari’s failed “E.T. The Extraterrestrial” video game, supposedly buried there in the 1980s. (John Bear/Alamogordo Daily News/AP)

ALAMOGORDO – This southern New Mexico town is hosting a scavenger hunt for buried “treasure” that video game pioneer Atari trashed more than three decades ago, and it’s attracting international attention in the process.

In 1983, Atari is believed to have dumped its “E.T. The Extraterrestrial” video game, which was a spectacular flop, in a landfill in Alamogordo and to have sealed over the cartridges with concrete to prevent looting. Now, a documentary film series is being made about the Atari “tomb” and the video game market crash its failure is said to have ignited.

Film crews, media and Atari fanatics will descend on the dump today when documentarians and archaeologists are expected to excavate in search of the games to a good deal of fanfare. News of the dig has made headlines in British, Spanish, Mexican, French and other media.

“We’re excited,” said Mayor Susie Galea. “We’ve been hidden in this beautiful basin, and a lot of people drive on by to get to Ruidoso or Las Cruces. We’re grateful the world is finding out about us.”

Despite the popularity of the Steven Spielberg movie, “E.T. The Extraterrestrial” the video game failed miserably with gamers, accustomed in the early days of video games to playing Atari versions of arcade games. The “E.T.” game is among the factors blamed for the decline of Atari and the collapse in the U.S. of a multi-million dollar video game industry that didn’t bounce back for several years.

Whether – and most importantly, why – Atari decided to bury thousands or millions of copies of the failed game is part of the urban legend and much speculation on Internet blog posts and forums.

An Atari video game system. (AP Photo/Strong National Museum of Play)

An Atari video game system. (AP Photo/Strong National Museum of Play)

Kristen Keller, a spokeswoman at Atari, said “nobody here has any idea what that’s about.” The company has no “corporate knowledge” about the Alamogordo burial.

Atari has changed hands many times over the years, and, Keller said, “We’re just watching like everybody else.” Atari currently manages about 200 classic titles such as “Centipede” and “Asteroids.” It was sold to a French company by Hasbro in 2001.

A New York Times article from Sept. 28, 1983, says 14 truckloads of discarded game cartridges and computer equipment were dumped on the site. An Atari spokesman quoted in the story said the games came from its plant in El Paso, about 80 miles south of Alamogordo.

Local news reports from the time said landfill employees were throwing cartridges there and running a bulldozer over them before covering them with dirt and trash.

The city of Alamogordo agreed to give the documentarians 250 cartridges or 10 percent of the cartridges found, whichever is greater, according to local media reports.

The E.T. game was just “flat-out God-awful,” said Sean Connolly, senior game adviser at Alamogordo’s Game Stop store, which hosted a party Friday in honor of the dig.

“It was so obtuse,” Connolly said. “It had four screens. You would randomly fall into pits and couldn’t get out. It was a legitimately poor game, because it was rushed.”

The game’s programmer, Howard Scott Warshaw, had little more than a month to create the game. He is expected to attend the Alamogordo dig.

The documentary tentatively titled “Atari: Game Over” will be directed by Zak Penn, who has directed Hollywood blockbusters including “X-Men 2″ and “Avengers.”

At age 28, A.J. Olsen, Game Stop assistant manager, is just old enough to have played Atari as a kid. But the dig is enough of a draw that he says friends from Arizona and Arkansas are driving into town for the event.

“I’m curious what they are going to dig up,” he said.

Material from The Associated Press was incorporated into this report.

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