The E.T. Landfill Story: Fact, Fiction, Argle Bargle, Or Foofaraw?
Even the most disengaged human on the planet by now associates the great state of New Mexico with alien activity. In 1947, the tiny town of Roswell allegedly received a few otherworldly visitors, simultaneously kickstarting America’s UFO frenzy and a thousand paranoid conspiracy theories about the U.S. government. Did a saucer full of grays crash land in Demi Moore’s hometown only to be covered up for decades and eventually explained away as weather balloons? Hey, if you think a straight answer from Uncle Sam on all of this will arrive any time prior to nine seconds before the apocalypse, I’ve got a bridge to show you.
Oddly enough, New Mexico has another lesser known but nearly as fascinating alien legend, one inexplicably tied to Otero County seat Alamogordo. Nestled between the White Sands Missile Range and the Lincoln National Forest (and a scant 117 miles southwest of Roswell), sleepy little Alamogordo is supposedly the final resting place for several thousand discarded E.T.s. Specifically, several thousand copies of Atari’s abysmal 1982 E.T. video game adaptation, which are said to be buried in a now-closed town landfill.
Based on the same year’s blockbuster Steven Spielberg film, Atari’s E.T. has long been scorned as one of the worst video games ever created in the history of the medium. The dubious cartridge spelled certain doom for a young company already on shaky financial ground. According to legend, Atari was so ashamed and embarrassed by E.T.’s complete commercial failure that in September of 1983, they drove every unsold copy sitting in their El Paso, Texas, plant about an hour north to the barren wasteland of rural New Mexico and deposited them in Mother Earth, never to be seen again.
Depending on what you read, somewhere between 18 and 23 tractor trailers dumped E.T. cartridges into Alamogordo’s landfill during that fateful Autumn stretch. Security was lax, allowing hoards of teenagers to swoop in and steal games by the armload before they could be crushed. To this day, your average Alamogordo resident is said to possess at least one healthy stack of pristine E.T. games somewhere in their home, collecting dust and acting as a fantastic conversation piece. In hardcore classic video game circles, Alamogordo and its landfill is like some sort of twisted Mecca, a potential but largely unproven fountain of vintage circuitry and plastic casing.
Emphasis, of course, on “largely unproven.” Not one single concrete report exists of any obsessed nerd trekking out to this forgotten patch of New Mexico desert after the fact and returning with a bounty of black squares rendered with the proud visage of child star Henry Thomas. Some say this is because the games dumped in Alamogordo were all crushed into finite and unretrievable dust; others claim the amount of Atari surplus junked was far below the average quoted figures, suggesting the whole area is just a dusty repeat of Al Capone’s vault. The most interesting of all the theories, though, is the one posited by a handful of former Atari employees: The legendary E.T. landfill dump never happened. It’s a complete fabrication based in no kind of reality, much like the movie that spawned it.
Howard Scott Warshaw is one of the few video game designers in the world with true name recognition. This is because the perpetually-bearded Warshaw, who bears passing resemblance to Francis Ford Coppola, experienced immediate success after joining Atari’s programming stable with the 1981 game Yars’ Revenge for the company’s 2600 home console. A simple, colorful, and infinitely replayable game featuring warring space entities, Yars’ Revenge hit big commercially, eventually becoming Atari’s best-selling original title for the 2600. This success allowed Warshaw, who had been previously employed by Hewlett Packard, the opportunity to program a game based on Steven Spielberg’s 1981 adventure film Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Released in November of 1982, Warshaw’s Raiders game (the result of a rumored $20 million contract between Atari and the lightening-hot Spielberg) proved to be another hit. Satisfied with his record thus far, Atari granted Warshaw the job of adapting Spielberg’s next theatrical blockbuster, E.T., for the small gaming screen.
Today, a child can throw together a first person shooter on their parents’ laptop in just a couple of hours that is vastly superior in all aspects to every classic gaming title Atari ever released. At the dawn of the 1980s, though, it took programmers like Howard Warshaw upwards of six months to properly develop a game like Yar’s Revenge. Unfortunately, this kind of scheduling went out the window for E.T.
The film opened in June of 1982 and was an instant smash; the following month, Atari’s parent company Warner Communications acquired the licensing for America’s latest cuddly alien obsession from Spielberg and Universal, once again paying in the neighborhood of $20 mil for the rights. On July 27, 1982, Atari CEO Ray Kassar called Warshaw, who Spielberg had asked for specifically to create the E.T. game, and informed the designer of his latest assignment. In order to have the game out for the lucrative Christmas shopping season, E.T. would have to be completed no later than September 1. That allowed a little over one month to adapt the hottest cinematic property for home gaming. Warshaw felt the pressure, but remained optimistic.
“For me it was more about the challenge of getting it done,” Warshaw (pictured, right, with Spielberg) told interviewer Charles F. Gray in 2004. “No one else would touch it. And believe me, I asked them all…I was the only one brave [or] stupid enough to attempt it.”
Anyone who has played Warshaw’s final product can attest to its frustrating, repetitive nature. E.T. is a game in which the player is constantly falling into deep and almost inescapable gorges while on an ill-defined search for scattered phone parts. Outside the maddening gorges, E.T. putters around a largely empty and quiet number of game screens—a player could sit for hours and hear nothing aside from the digital clomping of the extra-terrestrial’s little gray feet. Nowhere in the game do you meet Drew Barrymore or heal anyone’s wounds or fly on a bicycle across a giant full moon. It’s basically just E.T. walking around picking up junk and falling into holes.
The failure of E.T. crystalizes when you put it side by side with the Raiders of the Lost Ark cartridge. Although Raiders was more or less the same gaming experience, it works in far more color, music, and creative landscaping than its successor. The difference between half a year and five weeks in development time was congruent, apparently, with delicious victory and embarrassing defeat.
Despite strong sales through that holiday season of 1982, E.T. did not meet the financial expectations Atari was banking on. A great deal of that had to do with the cartridge’s inherent lousiness; equally at blame, though, were Atari’s strained relations with its distributors. Last minute changes and amendments to contracts lead retailers to cancel orders and angrily return significant amounts of E.T. games. The E.T.s begrudgingly kept by stores were eventually discounted to single dollar amounts. Atari would recoup the film’s licensing fee in initial sales, but the company’s net loss when the dust settled was a staggering $100 million. It was a devastating blow from which the company (already losing ground to a handful of savvy competitors such as Coleco and Intellivision) never recovered.
As writer Sean Reiley succinctly noted when he placed E.T. atop Electronic Gaming Monthly’s list of the twenty worst video games of all time, “Atari…had [Custer’s Revenge], a game where General Custer raped Indians tied to cactuses, and that couldn’t kill the system…[but E.T.] did it…”
“It’s interesting that you’ve contacted me,” Joe Lewandowski remarked during our brief conversation last year. “Other people have been asking about it lately. It definitely happened, though.”
Joe Lewandowski is currently an Operational Consultant for the city of Alamogordo, but back in the Fall of ’83 he was running his own garbage disposal company within the confines of the town. That’s how Lewandowski has first-hand knowledge, he says, of Atari’s E.T. dump—the only waste management company in Alamogordo rivaling his at the time was Browning Ferris Industries (BFI for short), and they’re the company that owned the hallowed landfill in question.
“We had finally beat [BFI], and we were in negotiations for the final buyout,” Lewandowski told me matter-of-factly. “We would have taken over [that] landfill when they transferred their assets to us. Then they were contracted by Atari to make this dump.”
BFI originally had a deal with Atari to dump 26 truckloads of defective games and consoles over a period of several non-consecutive days in their vast landfill. Miscommunication regarding the hiring of security guards for this mighty deposit would ultimately sour the deal, however; BFI thought Atari was providing muscle to keep curious locals out, and Atari was certain BFI was handling such detail. With no one to police this transaction, young video game freaks were free to ransack. On the Saturday that followed the initial September 22 dumping (which was partially photographed, left, for the Alamogordo Daily News), reports began filtering in to Alamogordo’s Department of Public Safety that teenagers were digging through the open landfill and attempting to resell the Atari merch they could salvage to nearby discount stores.
Alamogordo’s city council quickly grew concerned, especially after learning BFI was contracted to allow Atari to dump at least three truckloads of waste a week. Fearing an unmanageable situation wherein hundreds of eager citizens would be swarming the landfill like horseflies on a regular basis, the city council convened at a meeting the Tuesday night following the inaugural dump and voted to officially cut off Atari’s Alamogordo landfill access. An ordinance was quickly passed to prevent BFI from securing out-of-town business for their dump and, funnily enough, an “Emergency Management Task Force” was also created to enforce the ordinance. In the end, Lewandowski says only nine trucks were unloaded before the BFI/Atari contract was terminated sans payment at the behest of Alamogordo’s panicked city officials.
Most curious to Lewandowski, though, was what he saw on September 22, the first day of the dump. The condition of Atari’s so-called “defective” merchandise seemed anything but.
“All the stuff was still in the original packaging,” he remembered. “How would they know if the stuff was defective if they hadn’t even opened it yet?”
“Basically, I do still believe it is more rumor than fact,” Howard Scott Warshaw wrote me in an e-mail last year. “I’ve seen lots of evidence by hearsay and print but I’ve never really heard from any first hand participants and no one has ever produced a single cartridge from the burial site in over a quarter century.”
This has been Howard’s official line on the E.T. landfill legend for years. It probably didn’t happen because he would have heard something about it and he didn’t hear anything about it and no one’s shown him conclusive proof. Perhaps Warshaw, who insists Atari would have simply recycled any unsold or returned materials, missed the story in the September 27, 1983, issue of the Alamogordo Daily News headlined “City To Atari: ‘E.T.’ Trash Go Home.” Atari’s VP of Public Relations Bruce Entin confirmed in that write-up that his company had sent “by-and-large inoperable stuff [and] defective merchandise from across the country” to the town’s dump. The story, written by M.E. McQuiddy, also contains the following cryptic quote from Entin:
“I won’t tell you there may not be some of that stuff that’s good in the items sent to Alamogordo, but most is not…the majority of the stuff is cartridges.”
Today, Bruce Entin claims to know nothing of the Alamogordo dump.
“I just don’t know, I don’t have any direct knowledge,” Entin told me over the phone in a short, somewhat exasperated tone. “I mean, I’ve read the reports, but I just don’t know, uh, if that happened.” When pressed, he repeated himself, leaving the conversation at a dead end.
Entin’s statement here is intriguing and, to some extent, Watergatey. It’s one thing for Howard Warshaw, a game developer in some windowless cubicle slaving away for months on end, to have no idea what went on after the fact, but how could Entin claim ignorance when he was Atari’s literal mouthpiece for the Alamogordo dump at the time? He’s quoted in that ’83 Alamogordo Daily story, right there on the smudgy newsprint page.
The fishiness of Entin’s current denial, coupled with Joe Lewandowski’s remembrance that most of what he saw going into the dump was brand spanking new and the unwillingness of any other former Atari employee to speak on record for this story, suggests that most contentious of words: Conspiracy. The immediate logic jump is to tax fraud—Atari dumped equipment that was by no means defective so they could simply write it off to Uncle Sam. Also jibing with this theory is the thick layer of cement that was poured over the Atari dumping area less than a week after the deposit. At the time, an anonymous worker was quoted as saying the concrete was a protective measure to keep kids in search of Atari junk from hurting themselves (“There are dead animals down there,” was the money quote).
Yet, what if Howard Scott Warshaw is right? What if Atari didn’t dump thousands of perfectly usable but unwanted E.T. games (the blandness of which can be seen in a screencap at right) in the Alamogordo landfill? What if, inexplicably, this legend was some sort of weird smear campaign cooked up by Atari’s PR department when it was clear everyone in the company would be out of a job by the next quarter? After all, Atari had lost a king’s ransom. Surely every employee felt that burn. Maybe a few decided to strike back via this odd fabricated story…and somehow convinced an entire town in New Mexico to play along.
Implausible, certainly, but there was a rumor for a while on the Internet that leant the slightest amount of credence to this bizarre theory: The M.E. McQuiddy who penned the two most famous news articles about the dump for the Alamogordo Daily News (and who was quoted in a Philadelphia Inquirer story from the same time regarding Atari cartridges “popping up all over” Alamogordo), was said to have “disappeared” for a number of years following the landfill fracas. No record of her seemed to exist anywhere. Was McQuiddy a false face, a fictional by-product of this entire dumping ruse?
As it turns out, no. Sure, in online terms, Marian E. McQuiddy is a non-entity—her existence on the digital plane fails to stretch beyond the two Atari landfill articles and a handful of sports articles dating back to the early 1990s—but McQuiddy is vetted by current staff members of her former employer.
“I have no reason to doubt her existence,” Alamogordo Daily News Staff Photographer J.R. Oppenheim said through what sounded like a bemused smirk when we spoke on the phone a few months ago. “I’ve never met this person…but as far as I know she’s real. She moved down to Los Cruces to be a sports writer after the E.T. thing.”
This is confirmed by the obituary the El Paso Times ran in January of 2006 for Marian Elizabeth McQuiddy, a very real person who graduated Cum Laude from Purdue and won three E.F. Schaeffer Awards for her Daily News reporting from the New Mexico Press Association. McQuiddy was felled at the age of 53 by extended pulmonary complications. In a strange twist of coincidence (probably too strange for conspiracy die-hards), Marian’s father, Arthur R. McQuiddy, was the editor at the Roswell Morning Dispatch who personally received the Air Force’s virgin press release regarding the recovery of that crashed flying saucer in July of 1947.
Back to Oppenheim: I was referred to him by another Alamogordo Daily News staffer who told me the shutterbug (five years in with the paper) is their resident E.T. dump historian. So what has he found after a few years of metaphorical digging so close to the source?
“Something was dumped back then. To my knowledge, they weren’t cartridges. The cartridges were shredded before they were dumped so they wouldn’t be usable if found. It was probably just consoles and ‘extra-terrestrial’ garbage.”
When I suggested the notion of tax fraud, Oppenheim laughed.
“Well, I’ll say this—Atari lost a lot of money. If I were one of their executives, I’d be ashamed.”
Today, Browning Ferris Industries is a subsidiary of Allied Waste, a Texas-based waste management company. Their Alamogordo landfill, located at 500 South White Sands Boulevard on the southwest edge of town, closed in 1989. It’s now the property of Otero County, who as of last year were supposedly considering converting the space into a park. The entrance to the landfill remains shuttered, according to amateur reports, with an abundance of foreboding signage. Those who have ignored the warnings and entered anyway with shovels in hand have all been popped by law enforcement before any unearthing of Reagan Era electronics could occur. FYI: Unauthorized digging in Otero County apparently carries a fine of $25.
No one involved with Atari at the time of the E.T. dump is still with the company—in fact, Atari isn’t even a company anymore. It’s just a brand name other businesses have been licensing since the end of the 1990s. Infogrames Entertainment, the French braintrust behind Rollercoaster Tycoon and Civilization III, obtained the name in 2009 and legally converted to Atari, SA. So far, they have yet to regain the stature they experienced at the dawn of the 1980s.
The world may never know exactly what was deposited by Atari in the Alamogordo landfill (pictured above via satellite) or why it was placed there. Tourists in Alamogordo may find more fulfillment visiting the grave of Ham, the first monkey shot into space by America, at their New Mexico Museum of Space History. In that sense, the E.T. landfill is just like the Roswell flying saucer crash—an enduring and uniquely American mystery that raises more questions than answers as the years go by. Yet there are no major intergalactic and/or theological implications if the dump area is eventually excavated and zillions of pristine E.T. cartridges are discovered. We’ll probably just let out a collective, “Huh, ain’t that something?” and move on to the next head-scratching unsolvable.