ONE OF THE BIGGEST urban legends in games has finally been proven to be true, as thousands of unsold Atari gaming cartridges were unearthed in a disused landfill in the New Mexico desert last Saturday.
The cartridges had been encased in a concrete tomb for 30 years after Atari wrote off truckloads of unsold stock prior to the video game crash of 1983.
Although the dig, which had been commissioned as part of a documentary for streaming on Microsoft XBox games consoles, was well orchestrated, there was no guarantee that anything would be found.
In the event, although the full extent of the haul is yet to be revealed, the 200-strong crowd that gathered to watch the dig were tantalised with a number of crushed cases including Centipede, still in its cellophane, and most importantly the video game tie-in of ET - The Extra Terrestrial, which had been cited by many - including its author - as one of the worst video games of all time.
Not all the games were crushed, however, and documentary director Zak Penn proudly showed off a copy of ET that seemed more or less completely unscathed from its 30-year slumber. Larry Hyrb of Microsoft's XBox team showed the world in a tweet that contained the picture we've used for this article.
Here it is up close - the very first ET cartridge exhumed after 30 years pic.twitter.com/nb8tv33w8F— Larry Hryb (@majornelson) April 26, 2014
With the stakes high and the cameras rolling there was very little margin for error, and it is understood that the documentary will show the production team interviewing former Atari employees and garbage workers who delivered the haul, said to have been between 14 and 20 lorry loads, depending on which legend you believe.
It is this vagueness of the story that led it to become a legend. There was newspaper evidence that confirmed that some sort of dumping of Atari assets had taken place, probably as a tax write-off, but the quantities involved, the contents and state of the stock was the stuff of idle speculation.
Some versions of the story mentioned unsold Atari 2600 hardware, and some went further and spoke of unmanufactured prototypes of the next generation game consoles which would never see the light of day.
Until we know for certain what the extent of the haul was, its significance, and what the team plans to do with the spoils, this is nothing more than an exciting anecdote that will make great television, but no more than that.
But with demand to own a piece of gaming history seeing the price for one of the cartridges set to skyrocket into the thousands, a decent haul could actually raise enough money that it might have saved Atari from bankruptcy.
As part of that Catch-22, in last week's column we looked at the latest tech bubble and whether or not we've learned from the mistakes that are now being exhumed.
The INQUIRER also wonders if anyone will go digging around for copies of Ashes 2013 in a landfill of 2044. They probably won't smell any worse than they already do. µ
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