On April 26th, 2014 a group of corporate-backed excavators and a horde of journalists gathered in the town of Almogordo, New Mexico to dig up a landfill which reportedly contained thousands of unsold copies of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial for the Atari 2600. After several hours of digging through trash and dirt, Microsoft’s Larry Hyrb announced that E.T. had been found and resurrected from its desert grave. Not long after, the internet was abuzz with news that the “myth” and/or “legend” of E.T. was true.
The discovery of the E.T. cartridges is neither surprising nor remarkable. The game’s burial was well-documented by reputable news sources in 1983, and copies of E.T. remain widely available at flea markets and used game stores across the country. Instead of unearthing a lost treasure, excavators uncovered common trash; the plastic corpses of a game so bad that its company-mandated mass-burial stoked a cultural fire for decades and nestled its way into popular game folklore. Is E.T. really a game so historically awful that it deserved to be destroyed, blamed for an industry-wide crash and labeled the worst video game of all time? As absurd as that may sound, E.T.’s story becomes even more complicated once you realize it’s not a terrible game, but instead simply misguided, misunderstood and doomed to fail.
In the summer of 1982 Atari secured the rights to Steven Spielberg’s hit film E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and tasked Howard Scott Warsaw with creating the video game adaptation. Spielberg was a fan of Warsaw’s prior work, including an adaptation of Raiders of the Lost Ark and the hit arcade-style space shooter Yar’s Revenge. Between the film’s popularity and Warsaw’s penchant for creating hit games, Atari planned to ship five million copies of E.T. for the 2600 during the holiday season. The decision to have E.T. available for Christmas made sense financially, but there was one small problem: Howard Scott Warsaw had less than six weeks to design and program the game at a time when the average game development cycle was between six months and one year. Undaunted by the ridiculous time constraint mandated by Atari, Warsaw pressed forward with an innovative and ambitious design template. Despite foregoing the usual quality assurance and audience testing procedure, the game was released in December of 1982. E.T. eventually sold 3.5 million copies which, at the time, should have qualified the game as a major success. For Atari though the impressive sales figures didn’t generate a profit. The company had invested $125 million into the E.T. project and were left with a massive surplus of unsold cartridges. The fate of E.T. mirrored Atari’s prior financial boondoggle; a quick and dirty port of Namco’s Pac-Man which ultimately sold 7 million copies but failed to reach a ludicrous sales goal of 12 million—a figure so bloated it actually exceeded the number of 2600 console owners at the time.
Atari’s bravado had given way to blind incompetence. By 1983 the video game market had reached its saturation point, and a myriad of slow-burning financial issues and a loss of consumer confidence eventually lead to an industry-wide crash. In order to cut their losses, Atari vacated their Texas warehouse and buried all excess stock in the infamous New Mexico desert landfill. The story of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial for the 2600 should end here: A modest success sullied by corporate ineptitude. And yet here we are, over 30 years later, and the common belief remains that the failure of E.T. is responsible for Atari’s downfall. The legend of the game’s burial is not that it was buried in the first place, but rather that it actually deserved to die slowly in the New Mexico desert.
E.T. is far from perfect, but most of its perceived flaws stem from a staunch refusal to remain in lock-step with the design philosophy of other successful home console titles. The game was ahead of its time, and alienated (no pun intended) audiences with its surprisingly complex structure. Most successful 2600 games at the time relied heavily on simplistic and accessible design which mirrored the popular arcade titles of the era. One of the earliest successful 2600 games, Combat, is an excellent example of this design philosophy. In Combat, the player is placed on a single screen containing two vehicles. When the game begins, the player uses the joystick to move and presses the single button on the controller to fire. Landing a hit on the opposing tank results in a single point. Kill or be killed. Combat is the prototypical pick up and play title, requiring little prior knowledge to understand the game’s goals and systems. E.T. on the other hand shared almost nothing in common with traditional arcade games. It uses many of the same design principals which informed Howard Scott Warsaw’s Raiders of The Lost Ark, which was in turn inspired by Atari’s Adventure —a game which traces its lineage back to text based home computer adventure titles created primarily for adults. While Adventure succeeded by translating a complex text-based experience into a simplified visual one, both E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark remain uncompromising in their expectations for young players. Playing E.T. without any knowledge of the controls and objectives is an exercise in masochistic agony. I can only imagine the frustration experienced by children on Christmas morning as they attempted to play the game for the first time. If the game deserves anything, it’s the distinction of being one of the first 2600 games to absolutely require the player to read the manual. This might not seem like a tall order by contemporary standards, but the video game market’s core audience at the time was so young that it’s likely they couldn’t read at all.
A first time playthrough of E.T. without the aid of the instruction manual results in brow furrowing frustration punctuated by a series of questions which the game itself refuses to acknowledge.
Where am I going? What am I supposed to do? Why the hell do I keep falling into these pits and how do I get out?
A few minutes of aimless wandering is usually followed by a quick death. This is where the player throws up his or her hands and gives in.
I can’t be failing, the game must be failing me, right? If I can’t figure out the game, the game must be flawed. A game this flawed must be the worst game ever. Why didn’t they just make a Pac-Man clone like everyone else?
Playing (and enjoying) E.T. requires the player to throw out his or her assumptions, and accept that a game based on a movie for children can incorporate multiple complex systems into gameplay. Instead of using a traditional grid-based map, the game is setup as a 2D representation of a cube consisting of four horizontally linked screens and two vertical screens in the center. The goal is to find the pieces of a telephone so that E.T. can phone home to his mothership and leave earth. The phone pieces are scattered throughout the world in pits, which the player must fall into and navigate out of by using the action button to levitate. Most pits are empty, however if the player presses the action button on the map screen when a question mark appears, the pit which contains a phone piece will be indicated. The player needs to move E.T. to an area of the map where the “phone home” icon appears and press the action button when enough phone pieces are collected. Finally, a timer will appear and the player must guide E.T. safely to the landing zone (indicated by another icon) in order to leave earth and win. Adding to the complexity (because lord knows there aren’t enough things to keep track of here) you are pursued by an FBI agent and a Scientist who can capture your long-necked alien sprite. If you’re feeling brave, you can also collect bits of candy which can later be redeemed for bonus points.
E.T.’s ambitious design lands the gameplay experience squarely between modern complexity and old-school frustration. Once you understand the goal of E.T. and the function of the icons the game still remains a bit rough around the edges. The act of levitating out of a pit can be particularly frustrating for new players. Hold down the action button for too long or tap up on the joystick and E.T. will plunge back down into the world’s pixelated depths. The controls and your character sprite’s hitbox are unforgiving, requiring pixel-perfect maneuvering. The slightest miscalculation will result in failure, even for the most seasoned player. It seems that players hate E.T. because the game is wholly indifferent to them and rejects the gradual learning curve they desire. Learn to swim in the deep end or drown. E.T. doesn’t care either way.
We play games to pursue success but the only guarantee games offer us is the looming threat of inevitable failure. Most games give players a breadcrumb trail of small victories—checkpoints, high scores, bits of story, enemies to destroy and a pleasing sound effect when a coin is collected. These small victories drive player motivation. When the player is rewarded with moments of positive reinforcement, the ultimate goal of winning starts to come into focus. Instead of rewarding players for progressing, E.T. inverts this common design principal and punishes every player action. You begin the game with the maximum 9999 points. Every movement and action rapidly depletes your point total, creating an anxiety inducing sense of immediacy. If your point total reaches zero, you’re dead. Play the game too methodically and one of the enemies will hunt you down. A reckless, directionless playthrough will result in death by a thousand paper cuts. Everything you do in E.T. will have a profound impact on your final score and a chance at victory. This is what makes the game so compelling. You won’t find any pats on the back here. Beating E.T. results in a sense of accomplishment that only be gained from overcoming insurmountable odds and conquering a game which, like a force of nature, is wholly uninterested in what happens to you.
If you’re looking for an exceptionally bad 2600 game, there’s more than handful of standout titles which easily trump E.T. Why not experience the banal anguish of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Marvel at the programmer’s decision to dress Leatherface in a blue turtleneck sweater. Spend a few moments wondering why Leatherface’s chainsaw is the same shade of blue. Clearly the lumpy arm/chainsaw/penis design is highbrow commentary on violence as an extension of the perpetrator. Or not. Violence has never been this dull. Don’t forget about those awe inspiring sound effects. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre uses the classic high pitched beep usually reserved for grade school hearing tests. Who needs music when you can just pretend like you have tinnitus?
If you’ve got some time to kill, you can always fire up a copy of 3D Tic-Tac-Toe. The game faithfully recreates, and then puzzlingly complicates, the thrilling experience of the pen and paper classic. As a bonus, the computer A.I. can take up to 20 minutes to make a move. Tic-Tac-Toe is fun for days. Literally. After you awake from your mind-numbing Tic-Tac-Toe coma, inject a little excitement into your life with Karate —my pick for the title of worst 2600 game. At its core, Karate is a simple one on one fighting game between two members of the Seattle Seahawks suffering from a degenerative bone disease—the sort of kill or be kill concept which made Combat a classic. The difference between Combat and Karate is hit detection and controls. In the case of Karate, both are irreconcilably broken. The game interprets player input as more of a suggestion than a command. Maybe you’ll kick your opponent. Maybe the kick will score points. Who knows! Experience the thrilling chaos of the greatest futile button mashing simulator ever conceived.
Spend five minutes with any of these games and you’ll be begging for E.T.
As cold and unforgiving as E.T. may be, the fact that a functional and, believe it or not, enjoyable game was born out of a month and a half of planning and programming is a triumph. The little touches in E.T.’s world are absolutely remarkable. E.T. contains an impressively detailed title screen complete with an accurate representation of the movie’s iconic theme, as well as a player inventory system—both rarities for home console games at the time. Atari’s goal was a quick corporate cash-in, but Warsaw’s passion and commitment to pushing the boundaries of what a game should be still shines through. Even with the technical limitations of the 2600, the game manages to remain faithful to the source material (pits notwithstanding) and captures the essence of the film’s story. E.T. isn’t the grotesque corporate swill that toppled an industry giant. E.T. isn’t the worst video game of all time. E.T. isn’t even the worst game on the Atari 2600—it’s merely unapologetic of its lofty expectations for the player.
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial for the 2600 should be remembered not as an unceremoniously buried embarrassment, but rather as an underrated, ambitiously designed game that took an ill-advised swan dive into the rapidly draining game industry pool.