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Unearthing E.T.: Exploring the secrets of the Atari graveyard

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The story of the New Mexico landfill into which Atari supposedly emptied the remains of thousands of unsold copies of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial more than 30 years ago is full of at least as much mystery as fact.

Fuel Industries founder and CEO Mike Burns is a longtime fan of Atari folklore, and in May 2013, the company received permission from the Alamogordo, New Mexico City Commission to explore the fabled dumping grounds. Polygon spoke with Fuel's Nick Iannitti to find out what, exactly, the "youth engagement company" aims to achieve during the six months in which it has permission to excavate the myth and how it plans to share its discoveries with the world.

The legend goes like this: Atari sought and received the licensing rights to make a video game adaptation of Stephen Spielberg's massively popular family film E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial in 1982. The combination of an exclusive game based on popular property on a popular home video game console seemed like a slam dunk. It turned out to be anything but.

Negotiations ran long and wrapped up in late July 1982. Atari gave designer Howard Scott Warshaw, who'd developed Yars' Revenge and Raiders Of The Lost Ark for the company, a scant five weeks to create the game. According to Warshaw, Atari hoped to have the cartridges in production by Sept. 1 so that E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial could hit store shelves in December of that year.

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Warshaw since said that Atari made sure he could pull it off before closing the deal. He was excited about the challenge.

"I tried to design a game that could be done in five or six weeks," Warshaw told the A.V. Club in 2005. "It wasn't like I borrowed a lot of stuff or rehashed a lot of other things; it was all original code and graphics that I put together. I just worked my ass off for five weeks and made a game."

In the game, players control the titular hero, who moves from screen to screen collecting parts of an interplanetary telephone he could use to phone home, eating Reese's Pieces, avoiding enemies and environmental hazards.

The game's reception and performance were disastrous. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is consistently rated one of the worst video games of all time.

Atari was already ailing, owing to the video game crash that lasted roughly from 1983 - 1985, and the game's lackluster sales added insult to the injured company. In mid-1983, Atari CEO Ray Kassar left the company amid allegations of insider trading. Atari was in turmoil.

As legend has it, in Sept. 1983, less than a year after E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial's release, with literal piles of unsold, unwanted game cartridges on its hands and untenable storage costs, Atari crushed the cartridges, shipped them to a New Mexico landfill, dumped them in by the truckload and paved over the remains to prevent anyone — particularly children — from sifting through the remains.

The fabled Atari dumping grounds are the stuff of legend, in large part because nobody seems to know what happened in New Mexico in Sept. 1983. The New York Times reported that month that Atari dumped "14 truckloads of discarded game cartridges and other computer equipment in Alamogordo, N.M." What was in those trucks, nobody seems to know.

Discovering the inner workings of Atari in the fall of 1983 is apparently not as easy as simply checking records. Atari, as it exists today, bears little resemblance to its early-80s incarnation, having been passed between owners and trading on brand recognition for decades. Early this year, the remnants of Atari US filed for bankruptcy protection.

"What if we actually tried to get permission to do a dig there?"

Fuel Industries was founded in 1999 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. It's a "digital agency," Iannitti told Polygon, that's worked to create "brand experiences" with companies like Mattel, McDonald's and Nokia and has even branched out with an office in Los Angeles and created some of its own IP in the last few years under the Fuel Entertainment moniker.

Not long ago, Iannitti told us, Fuel CEO Burns had an idea.

"He came up with this idea of 'What if we actually tried to get permission to do a dig there?,'" Iannitti said. "It lead to a process where our team over there on the L.A. side got in touch, eventually, with the town of Alamogordo, N.M. and went through a process of actually getting approval to do it."

Fuel Entertainment has a six-month window in which to plan and execute the dig. From the beginning, the plan was to document the process and what Fuel found. But when news of the dig broke, the plan began to grow in scope as people reached out to the company. Fuel is planning on doing several things in conjunction with the dig, which it'll begin discussing in the near future.

One of Fuel Entertainment's goals, Iannitti said, is to help set the record straight by telling the entire story.

"It's an opportunity to put it in the context of what was going on 30 years ago in the gaming industry, and what Atari represented at that time," he said. "A lot of people were wondering why we're doing this or why is this interesting — maybe people who read about it on the BBC [website] and didn't quite understand what the relevance was. It's been interesting to have a chance to solidify that in our brain and what Atari was.

"It was the first mass home console. They brought gaming into the house. It was huge, it was a behemoth, and everyone thought it couldn't be destroyed at the time — when you read some of the articles coming out at the time about Atari. And at the same time, what [E.T.] represented as one of the first licensed games based on a movie, and how it was sort of a precursor we have today that, you know, it's almost a rule that movie-based games are generally not as good as original IPs, because of the tight timelines, etc. There are so many interesting parallels to the industry today."

On the other hand, it's an opportunity to get Fuel's hands dirty, and have fun with a fun story the CEO has known and loved for years.

"Really, it comes down to: It's like a modern archeological dig," Iannitti said. "It's just such a weird story that pop culture items were buried. And they're out there to be uncovered, and there's mystery about what happened to retail products from the shelf. That's just such a unique little twist."