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More scenes from the excavation of Atari's E.T. landfill

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

It was true all along.

When the filmmakers at Fuel Entertainment declared their intentions to dig up the landfill where thousands of the 1982 flop E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial have long been said to be buried, many imagined — if not secretly hoped for — an outcome like Al Capone's vault: Shovels full of dirt and debris and nothing connected to the first giant of home console gaming.

In hindsight, the odds were pretty good that yesterday's dig in Alamogordo would find exactly what it was looking for: a copy of E.T. The real dispute over the years was how many of the infamous cartridges — blamed for the mid 1980s console gaming collapse — were actually buried there. The Atari manager responsible for the dumping told the Associated Press that more than 700,000 cartridges were buried on Sept. 26, 1983. Yet while yesterday's excavation did turn up copies of E.T., it does not appear to be a mass burial of the mistake that sealed Atari's doom.

As the story goes, Atari had a lot of unsellable stock in a facility in El Paso. The publisher decided to write off the failure — some $20 million in licensing fees were said to be paid for the rights to adapt E.T. to a video game —and dump it in a landfill 90 miles north in Alamogordo, N.M.

E.T. didn't appear to be the only unsold stock put in the dump, later said to be covered with a concrete layer to discourage scavengers. Indeed, yesterday turned up copies of Atari 2600 adaptations for Centipede, and Phoenix, and another licensed adaptation that bombed, Raiders of the Lost Ark, complete with their old packaging and inserts.

Xbox Entertainment will deliver the documentary of this excavation later this year to Xbox One and Xbox 360. It's provisionally titled "Atari: Game Over" and it is produced by Simon and Jonathan Chinn, and directed by Zak Penn, who has a writing credit in 2012's The Avengers.

So, myth busted? Or finally confirmed? The truth probably is somewhere in between. Yes, Atari's gamble on E.T. — an expensive license for a crummy game rushed to market for the 1982 holidays — doomed the company. And Atari's fall carried with it the home console era of the Intellivision and ColecoVision, too. And the hubris of those days was interred under several feet of New Mexico soil.

In the dark times to come, video gamers turned to arcade games like Gauntlet (made by an Atari division spun off after the crisis) and to home computers, for things like Jumpman and Beach Head and Hardball! Then, in 1986, the Nintendo Entertainment System arrived, ushering in an even greater age of console gaming.

It reads like the canon preceding a fantasy novel — golden ages, proud rulers, a downfall, a restoration, a mystery buried in the desert. Yet there really was some truth to it all, all along.

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