Rehabilitating E.T.

E.T. Atari 1982


You know that a new medium has come into its own when its subculture bleeds into pop culture. Old media still defaults to treating video games like some novel fad, even though they’ve been around for half a century now. Yet gaming rivals Hollywood as the most influential force in pop culture, and has for a while. You can tell because not just games, but various attendant phenomena, have gone mainstream.

Consider the rise of Hollywood. What started as an attempt to dodge Edison’s patents soon gave rise to movie star gossip columns, real-life murder mysteries, and studio spook stories. The industry became an institution when society at large found not just the movies, but the personalities involved in and scandals surrounding movies, worth discussing.

A landmark event in vidya lore that’s made its way into the mainstream is the great video game crash of 83. This near-extinction-level event hit an industry riding high on its initial wave and, the story goes, brought it to the brink of collapse overnight.

Of course, the real story is much more complicated. Market analysts had been predicting a correction of the vidya boom for a while. They didn’t need a crystal ball to foresee the bubble bursting. Shortsighted hardware manufacturers had been cramming store shelves with consoles, while greedy publishers flooded the market with overpriced shovelware. ‘Twas an out-of-control corporate IP milking phase that caused the crash.

Not that these facts stopped the masses from pinning the rap on one game that now lives in infamy.

E.T. for Atari has gone down in history as the Plan 9 from Outer Space of video games. Like Ed Wood’s schlock opus, E.T.‘s rep as the worst example of its medium is undeserved.

First off, E.T. didn’t single-handedly kill Atari. Based on the hit Spielberg film and released for Christmas 1982, the game sold 1.5 million copies at launch. Atari’s problem was that they’d succumbed to the avarice racking the industry and ordered 5 million copies, 3.5 million of which were returned. Even that blunder wasn’t a death blow. The fact that they’d taken to doing business that way in general was the poison pill.

The reason why E.T. is held in contempt by the gaming public is the black legend of its dumping in a mass vidya grave somewhere in the New Mexico desert. In truth, copies of several games, of which E.T. was only one, were entombed in the landfill. Atari’s botched port of Pac-Man nine months earlier was a far bigger disaster, resulting in 5 million returned copies compared to E.T.‘s 3.5  million. 

What of E.T.‘s reputation as the worst video game ever made? The first crack in that narrative is legendary Atari programmer Howard Scott Warshaw. For those not in the know, Warshaw designed Atari classics like Yar’s Revenge and the Raiders of the Lost Ark tie-in, one of rare good games based on a movie. Having recently checked out E.T., I’d argue that it deserves a place on the same list.

E.T. Pits

E.T. gets lambasted for its game play, but the mechanics are rather simple once you get the hang of them. You control the title character on a scavenger hunt for phone parts needed to call his alien buddies for a ride home. The parts are found in pits scattered across the game map. One valid criticism the game has drawn is that getting out of the pits can be frustrating. This problem is due to a glitch resulting from the game’s 5-week development time. However, it can be easily surmounted by releasing the joystick upon emerging from a pit.

This and other bugs, including E.T.’s erroneous coloration, have been fixed by fans, so enjoying a glitch-free playthrough of the game is just a web search away.

E.T. fixed

In the final analysis, E.T. for Atari is not a bad game. It’s a rushed, somewhat glitchy, and challenging game, but it’s a far cry from the Breakout clones that saturated the vidya market and precipitated the 83 crash.

The tide of wokeness inundating the video game industry makes one pine for the days of honest failures like E.T. Luckily, there’s never been a better time to go back and relive classic games from better times. And it doesn’t involve giving money to people who hate you!

Don't Give Money to People Who Hate You - Brian Niemeier

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