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If history serves one purpose, it’s to learn from our mistakes, to remember our failures and pray we not repeat them. By that regrettably simple definition, E.T. : The Extra Terrestrial will always have its place in the annals of gaming antiquity. Infamously reputed as one of the worst video games ever made, the wallet-sized plastic box that brought an end to the golden age of arcade gaming, the unfortunate product of a corporation’s cash-counting insatiability has been at the receiving end of many a lampoon and laugh over the years, making it into too many Top 10 lists to track.
But was the game really that bad? Better question: Was it as bad thirty years ago as it is so often perceived to be today, or has it simply become the victim of years of hyperbole? What had this literally buried relic done to the video game industry, and what has it done for it since? To answer these questions, we need only look at the history.
Steven Spielberg’s film was a huge hit when it destroyed the box office in 1982. It was a heartwarming tale about alien life that, breaking the archetype of the ‘Cold-War’-era irrational aggressor, turned out to be as vulnerable and afraid as we are. Transcendent themes resonated with kids and older folk alike – most admit to crying at E.T.’s climactic farewell.
Also in 1982, in its early quarters anyway, the video game industry was in its prime. With the coin-op and consumer businesses drowning under the consistent waterfall of quarters, and with dozens of developers itching to get a piece of the action – furthering the flood – the conditions for gaming’s eventual downfall a year later were set, but not yet quite felt.
On July 27 of that year, Howard Scott Warshaw, an established designer at Atari who had enjoyed success with 2600 hits like Yars’ Revenge and Raiders of the Lost Ark, got a call from Ray Kassar, the autocratic chief executive who had replaced Nolan Bushnell after the company’s founder’s unpleasant dismissal in ’78. After already handling another of Spielberg’s licenses with competence (Raiders), Warshaw’s task was this: make a game based on E.T., and have it ready in six weeks to market for the holiday rush.
Yes, games in ’82 were primitive, but they still took a damn lot longer than a sick joke of six weeks to develop (Yars’ and Raiders both took upwards to half a year). The confident Warshaw, however, felt up to Kassar’s challenge, and in six weeks a lamented legend was launched.
E.T. appears to get his head hooked by some invisible noose – and then, upon your ascension out of this darkened ditch, falling right back down.
The premise was simple: phone home. Naturally. The process to do that was something else, a convoluted concept that, despite its admirable attempt at innovating – E.T. could just have easily been designed as an action shooter – frustrated with baffling routine. You moved around a bile-coloured background, running away from federal agents and scientists trying to capture the lost little guy and experiment on him, falling in gray pits coloured just as lifelessly as the puke-green primary screen, proceeding to pull yourself out of these pits – E.T. appears to get his head hooked by some invisible noose – and then, upon your ascension out of this darkened ditch, falling right back down.
Now, I certainly haven’t painted a scenic picture of flowing artistry, but does the picture I have painted bring to mind the spawn of Lucifer? Certainly not. Given that most Atari 2600 games had no storyline that could be completed (although E.T.’s story cycles in arcade tradition, it has a plot nonetheless), and given that most contemporary 4K titles presented one screen and elementary gameplay, usually shooting, scoring, or swerving, E.T.’s structure was ever slightly more ambitious. And again, it cannot be overstated… 6 WEEKS! Even to this day Warshaw holds that he did a pretty good job in that short succession of sleepless, coffee-friendly nights. And I concur. But the devil is in the details.
Theory isn’t enough. In practice, E.T. was, and is, no fun to play. Ah, at last, we come to the crux of this three-decade-long debriefing. The graphics, to begin with, were hit and miss. The characters, E.T. and the government cronies hounding him, were modeled and animated quite well, but the lukewarm grays and greens were as upsetting to the stomach as the eye. The film for which the game was based on had been the product of a visual mastermind, and like so many of Spielberg’s films was evocative of the joy of being a kid; the game was a sour substitute, bland and unattractive.
And as go-getting as the gameplay was, something different from the braindead ‘blow-shit-up’ routine, it was also braindead boring. Not to mention confusing. Why in the holy hell of God-forsaken-havens is this a game about plummeting into earthly basins? When was that in the movie? When I think about the film, I think about its memorable climax in which the titular alien ascends into the starry skies in a spaceship… not dropping to the doldrums of a hole the size of a house that, for whatever reason, E.T., as a farcical facsimile of Mr. Magoo, is unable to see or avoid. Mystifying indeed. And frustrating, my God.
Every time you tediously pulled yourself up, you plunged back down. Not only was this cyclical design a nonsensical nuisance that just wasted your time and made you grip the joystick like death itself, it was again in complete conflict with its cinematic source. The movie was about optimism, the American spirit. Here was an alien flick that, for one of the first and assuredly most successful times, featured the idea that a galactically foreign race might not be brutish cudgels of indifferent volatility or even, on the flip side, practitioners of peace, but in every way, share our physical and emotional strengths and weaknesses… fear, resilience, love, and hope. But then here we have the game, which strikes you down every time you get back up. What a discouraging wretch of a design!
Bearing in mind, then, both the theoretical and practical merits and misgivings of E.T., here’s a thought: maybe the game wasn’t really all that terrible; it was just the absolute epitome of disappointment. As a personal account, I can recall my aroused anticipation as I waited for the release of Halo 2 in ’03 and ’04. At the time, the sequel to Bungie’s FPS vanguard was one of the most hyped of all time, and arguably opened the floodgates for the era of the gaming blockbuster and trilogy in the late ’00’s. (Gears, Mass Effect, Modern Warfare). I couldn’t wait for that damned game!
I remember watching its 2003 E3 demo at least fifty times. I remember calling up my local video store in the late hours of a teenage night, demanding they call me the moment that their Halo 2 stock was legally live. Then I played it, opting out of homework, and I remember the most brutally bad aftertaste by dinner time. I was so disappointed at this failure of my impossible expectations that I missed out on all of what the game was instead of what it was not. Hundreds of hours in a basement with my buddies, and years of wise retrospect, would make me appreciate Halo 2 as a well-rounded follow-up to the shooter that introduced me to the genre.
So maybe E.T. really wasn’t the worst game of all time. Maybe it still isn’t. Maybe it was just the first real case of grueling disappointment, that same anguished aftertaste that left me writhing on the floor, cradling my console in a pleading gesture of understanding a personal betrayal. The game was in every respect so contrary to what fans had adored of the film that, as Atari very well knew, the license sold itself to a million kids who saw their imaginations peak their eagerness beyond some box art. Little did they expect the devastating reality: that a 4K piece of software was hardly able to reproduce the joys of the Extra-Terrestrial in cinematic splendor.
It failed to sell its remaining millions of cartridges, which, folklore has it, were dumped in a landfill somewhere in New Mexico
What can be said of the game is that it is without a doubt one of the most important ever made. It did not bring down the video game industry single-handedly, contrary to popular perception — Kassar was already doing that job quite efficiently — but after its obviously initial success in the late months of ’82, it failed to sell its remaining millions of cartridges, which, folklore has it, were dumped in a landfill somewhere in New Mexico – what an appropriate symbol too, because that’s where gaming was headed.
E.T. : The Extra Terrestrial became a scapegoat, the icon of the great arcade bust, and has ever since served as a reminder of the pitfalls of an ever evolving industry and medium, the dangers of boring what has always generally been a short attention-spanned audience. It might not be the worst, but I think we, consciously or subconsciously, prefer to think of it as the worst, to preserve an antique emblem of what almost destroyed the potentiality of three decades of infinitely untapped discovery, imagination, and fun. A failure remembered, we do naught but pray we not repeat it.
Prefer moving pictures and sound? Then watch our video retro reflection here.