Expedition unearths thousands of video games buried 30 years ago

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DENVER — It was true all along.

Digging in Alamogordo, New Mexico, on Saturday, excavators discovered thousands of cartridges for the Atari video game E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, along with others. For decades, legend had it that a financially struggling Atari buried millions of the games in 1983 as part of a desperate effort to get back in the black.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is widely considered to be one of the worst games ever made. Its commercial failure came just as Atari was battling crippling debt and a decreasing consumer base. The original Atari Inc. was split up in 1984 and totally sold off by 1998.

Last year, Alamogordo officials finally approved an excavation of the infamous landfill, and plans kicked into motion two weeks ago, with Microsoft partnering with a documentary team to film what they discovered.

One of those on hand was Howard Scott Warshaw, the game’s designer. When excavators started to retrieve the first of what may be hundreds of thousands of copies of his misbegotten baby, “Everybody went nuts,” Warshaw said.

“I’ve been carrying this thing, the theoretically worst video game of all time, for 30 years now,” he said. “It was a game that was done in five weeks. It was a very brief development. I did the best that I could, and that’s OK.”

But seeing the cartridges emerge from the desert dust was a rush for Warshaw, who’s now a Silicon Valley psychotherapist.

“Something that I did 32 years ago is still creating joy and excitement for people,” he said. “That’s a tremendously satisfying thing for me now.”

None of the cartridges unearthed over the weekend was playable, Warshaw said. But he said there may be as many as 750,000 of them in the landfill, with many successful titles mixed in with the “E.T.” games.

“It was the end of the first product life cycle, and nobody really knew what they were doing,” Warshaw said. Now, manufacturers are designing their next systems even as their new ones start shipping to stores.

“It was a very wacky company, but that’s one of the things that made it amazing place to work,” said Warshaw, who’s come to embrace the game’s infamy.

“I don’t really believe it’s one of the worst games ever, but I really like it when people identify it that way,” Warshaw said. And because he also designed of one of Atari’s best-rated games, “Yars’ Revenge,” he said, “I have the greatest range of any game designer in history.”

CNN contributed to this story.

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