E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial

Despite what you might have read, this is not the worst video game ever made.

ET box

This is definitely a terrible video game, and I do loathe it.  I can find no enjoyment in playing it.  But the story of E.T. is historically important, and it’s interwoven with the story of Atari’s fall from the top of the video game industry.  It’s especially relevant now, with news of the Alamogordo dig all over the Internet.

Atari garbage

I don’t know exactly why so many news article writers call this game the worst ever made.  One would suppose they’ve only ever heard of this game and about a dozen others, I guess.  Surely most of these supposed “journalists” have never played E.T., and are only repeating what they’ve been told.  Sadly, that’s a defining trait that many high profile news article writers share.

There are many, many, many more games that can be called worse than this.  My pick for worst ever made would have to be “Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing“.  Amuse yourself with this delightful review and fake commercial, courtesy of the Angry Video Game Nerd.

What I think can be fairly said about E.T. – and the appropriate superlative that can be awarded – is that it has been the most disappointing video game to ever be released, ever.

Back in 1982, the E.T. movie was a smash hit.  Atari fought hard to get the rights to produce a video game.  By the time they had won and secured those rights, they only had six weeks to create, program, manufacture and distribute that game before the Christmas shopping season.  The total creation process for a game at that time was at least six or seven months.  Atari’s reckless, idiot management was asking an impossible task.

The only programmer they had who would agree to such a crazy time limit was Howard Scott Warshaw.  He’s the genius behind the 2600’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Yar’s Revenge“.  Some consider the latter to be the Atari 2600’s best game.

He came up with the idea for the E.T. game and programmed it all within that time limit.  You can read up on the whole story here, including what Steven Spielberg thought about it.

There was no time for bug testing, and no time to tweak playability.  What Howard coded was put into cartridges and sold.  Oh, about that… Atari manufactured way more E.T. cartridges than they should have – something like 5 million.  The game sold 1.5 million copies, making it one of the best-selling Atari 2600 games released.  But this left Atari with millions and millions of unsold copies of a really bad game that no one would buy.

So that’s where the current story of landfills and cement trucks comes in.

But I decided to really try to play this game today, and see how far I got.  Every time I’ve played this game in the past, I’ve given up after a minute or two in frustration because the game seems so pointless and frustrating.  If you read the game’s manual, as no kid ever did back then, you found out that you were supposed to play as E.T., and you would roam around looking for pieces of a telephone.  You would assemble these and then phone home, and then you would win the game.

The trouble is, well, take a look.

E.T. 00

Since I don’t have a real 2600, I loaded this up on the excellent Z26 emulator.

E.T. 01

And I must say, for an Atari 2600 game, the intro screen is impressive.  The out-of-tune music loops until you press the button.

E.T. 02

Then you come down in your pink spacecraft to some kind of forest area.

E.T. 03

And then what?

E.T. 04

Well, as you wander around, you will see some information in the form of changing icons at the top of the screen.  You need to refer back to the instruction manual to really figure these all out, but the arrows are telling you which direction to go.  The counter at the bottom of the screen tells you how much energy you have left.

E.T. 05

And this here is the biggest problem with the game.  These fucking pits.  They’re also an integral feature of the game as you need to actively search for and enter them in order to find the pieces of that god damned phone.  The worst part about them is that you can fall into them without warning right after leaving the previous screen.  The pixel detection is so precise in this game that your on-screen alien bastard will fall into a pit if any part of his green body intersects with any part of a pit.  Even if a pixel at the very top and back of his head momentarily crosses a pit – BAM.  You’re in.

E.T. 06

You get out of these pits by pressing and holding the button, which extends your neck and levitates you.

E.T. 07

You have to be careful when you exit a pit, because you will more often than not fall right back into the very same pit again when you release the button.

This dude in the yellow trench coat will steal anything your holding, so don’t let him get near.  That dark green block on the ground is supposed to be a Reese’s Piece.  You need to collect those too, and that trench coat dude will steal those too.  He moves as fast as you and he never falls into the pits, and he will be waiting for you when you exit the pits, so FUCK.

E.T. 08

And then there’s this guy.  He’s a government scientist, hence the lab coat.

E.T. 09

When he catches you, he carries you back to the Parthenon.  Or at least something that looks like the Parthenon.

E.T. 10

And right off the screen without warning, another fucking pit.  Literally the very next thing you see after leaving this blue screen.  How the fuck are you supposed to avoid this?

Some of these screens are laid out randomly, by the way.  Often when you go back the way you came, you will see a totally different layout of pits… that is if you don’t just fall directly into one of them.

E.T. 11

And when your timer runs out, it’s not even over.  No, Elliot comes back and revives you so you can do it all over again.

You can see what a huge let-down this is.  Back in 1982, how many E.T. fans would have been old or mature enough to sit down and read the game manual and plan a strategy for working through a severely rushed and flawed game with such an esoteric premise and gameplay requiring patience and nerves of steel?

I don’t even know if a game like this could have been made more palatable to the target audience, though I bet on a sane release schedule Mr. Warshaw could have made a good game out of it.  Mr. Spielberg suggested that he just make something “like Pac-Man”.  That would have gone over a whole lot better.

I said that I can’t stand this game, and I won’t ever bother to play it again.  I’ve only really tried to play it twice – today and when I first found it.  There won’t be a third time.  But I hope you can see my point.  This isn’t the worst game ever made.  It’s flawed, and it’s debatable whether or not it should have even been released, but there are plenty of games that can be called worse than “E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial”.

Just consider what Howard Scott Warshaw had to work with, and what he actually accomplished in just five weeks.  He made a complete original game out of nothing, and it actually stays close to the movie’s story.  Without enough time to properly balance the gameplay, the game’s flaws simply overpower whatever fun could have been had here.  Let’s start considering this the most disappointing video game ever released.