Article: 'ET - The Video Game' Retrospective
Updated: Jun 5, 2022
Is it the Worst Game Ever or Simply Misunderstood?
In 1982 Atari obtained the license to Hollywood's hottest property, ET. With just 4 weeks available for design and programming, Howard Scott Warshaw was tasked in bringing the cinematic phenomenon to home consoles in time for Christmas 1982. I have decided to revisit this infamous release to see if it is worthy of the title of "Worst Game of All Time".
The objective of the game is to guide ET through various screens and environments to collect three pieces of an interplanetary telephone that will allow him to contact his home planet. While exploring the various environments and pits/caves, you must avoid the various humans out to stop you.
The game is a simple and basic adventure game whereby the player has to guide the titular character round a series of screens, including wells/caves that you have to explore, in an attempt to find the 3 pieces of a phone that will enable ET to 'phone home'. All of the phone pieces are hidden in various caves that are scattered around the game world but you do not know which ones contain the pieces until ET falls/enters one. After exploring the cave ET can only escape by levitating up to the surface. Once all 3 pieces are collected, ET is able to contact his home planet and then you must reach the forest to board the spaceship. If this is completed in the allotted time limit then the game restarts with the phone pieces being in new locations and your score it retained. The player has an energy counter at the bottom of the screen that is depleted every time ET does anything - run, walk, and levitate. When the energy bar reaches zero ET collapses and you have to wait for Elliot to revive you. You can be revived 3 times before the game is over.
Like most games of the time the music was never going to win any awards as the title music is rather poor. The opening section of said tune is recognisable as the John Williams classic of the same name but after that is becomes a bit of a mess. The gameplay is accompanied by the usual menagerie of beeps and noises... nothing new or different here and really pretty poor.
Like many home games of the era, while not mentally taxing, it does get a tad repetitive and can be frustrating - especially the seemingly random nature at which you fall back into the wells/pits (more on this in a moment).
Is it the worst game of all time?
Much has been said over the years about this game; its over production, poor quality and its effect on the wider gaming industry as a whole. As a simple internet search will guide you to a plethora of information regarding the aforementioned critical and commercial failure of the game, I have decided to avoid retreading old ground and will attempt to retrospectively and objectively assess this question.
Many reviewers have commented on the lack of any graphical fidelity. Indeed the graphics are very primitive but to be brutally honest if you had been weaned on 2600 games when you were younger this really shouldn't come as a surprise. At the end of the day Adventure is seen as one of the best games available on the 2600 and the graphics couldn't be anymore rudimentary if they tried. Therefore, while the graphics are quite poor, I think this would have been partially forgiven if the game had been more positively received by critics and players. At least in this game the main sprite looks like ET and the human characters are easily recognisable. Unfortunately the same can't be said for a game like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre where Leatherface looks like a lumbering mutant with a deformed, shaking penis (it is suppose to be the titular chainsaw!)
In addition to the graphics another well discussed element is the gameplay. While it does become repetitive, I don’t think it’s too far removed from many other, less maligned home games of the time. In its defence at least it wasn’t a poor, Donkey Kong, Pac-Man or Space Invaders clone. Another 'nail in the coffin' of the game is the unintuitive nature of some of the gameplay. It can be really confusing as to what you are suppose to be doing and initially most players will walk around endlessly attempting to assess what the goal is – for example it doesn’t have the obvious ‘Snakes and Ladders’ vibe of Donkey Kong or the ‘destroy everything in sight’ style of Space Invaders. Even now I am not sure as to what the various symbols at the top of the screen mean. For me one of the most annoying and infuriating elements I found was that you regularly fall back into the pits when you attempt to escape and there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to why and when you may fall back in – this became tiresome very quickly.
Its worth noting that while the game never recouped its production and marketing costs it did sell relatively good numbers and made Atari some cash (It sold 1.5 million copies and was one of the 2600’s highest selling titles. However, apparently 2.5 – 3.5 copies went unsold and Atari netted a loss in the approximate region of $100 Million). However I think it would be silly to suggest that the failure of this game singlehandedly destroyed Atari. While, it did affect their bottom line and Atari posted a huge loss the following year, I am pretty confident that due to their size at the time, the procurement of other large game licences, hardware and arcade output, they should have survived such misfire in isolation. (I imagine its equivalent to suggesting Nintendo going bust after Super Mario 3D World only selling 1 million units!). While this could be seen as a contributing factor in the much publicised US video game crash of 1983, due to the market share Atari was experiencing at the time, it could be seen as reckless to lay all the blame at ET’s feet.
Furthermore, you may only have a passing interest in video games but you probably have heard about the rumours regarding the alleged disposal of millions of unsold and return carts in a huge land fill in New Mexico. However, many people have suggested that this maybe an urban myth and the story has been fabricated over the years to add to the mystic and ethos of the game - the truth behind this is apparently the subject of an up and coming documentary that is being co-funded by Microsoft. I think due to the relative high cost of the production of cartridges back in the early 80's, I am convinced that Atari would have tried and 'recycled' many of these cartridges in an attempt to offset the financial loss they would have suffered? It seems crazy, almost petulant, to think that they would throw all the games away in an attempt to erase the memory of their financial mistake/loss! Therefore, while this maybe an interesting titbit that just adds fuel to the fire that the game was such a horrendous Atari destroying failure I would be surprised if it was completely true.
Due to high profile licence, the perceived effect the game's failure had on Atari as a company and the various stories and myths that have grown around the game it easy to see why there is so much hatred is targeted at the game. I think many people assume the game is dire, broken beyond repair and generally the scum of the earth. However, I equate the hate for this game the same as the hate for the movie Titanic. I’ve seen people suggest that the 1997 James Cameron über hit is the worse film of all time....OF ALL TIME??! That's insane nonsense and to me just says to me that those people simply haven't seen enough films or are trying to be ‘cool’ by slating something that is popular and mainstream (NB - I am not comparing the quality of Titanic to ET just the fact that popular opinion does not always correlate to what is true).
Ultimately, I think the hype, anticipation (especially considering Howard Scott Warshaw's earlier success with Yar's Revenge) and the license on which it was based (as well as being one of the first games based on a major film) amplified the negative press it received. Over the years interest in licensed games has dwindled drastically - certainly since the heydays of the 80's and early 90's - and nowadays I cannot imagine a similar game attracting such attention and would more than likely disappear without a trace, with no or little impact, unless it was particularly good.
Regardless of the above I personally think it was one hell of an achievement to design and code a game in little of over 4 weeks especially with the weight of expectation that would have been hanging over Warshaw.
Furthermore, while it is poor in places and has very noticeable issues, I think it is playable and not completely broken. Therefore, factoring this all in and for some of the reasons stated above I don’t think it is the worst game ever. In some respects it is hard to objectively review this game today seeing how far games have evolved since the heady, exciting, bedroom programmer days of the early 80's. This is compounded by the dawn of a new console generation gamers are presently experiencing that promises story rich gaming with full HD visuals.
Therefore in conclusion while ET was a rushed project and far from perfect it does not deserve the tag of ‘worse game of all time’ but perhaps ‘the highest profile missed opportunity of all time’ would be more accurate and appropriate.