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


  1. This was AVGN's most request game. The he played it and just said, "It's fine." lol

    The reason this urban legend blew up is because these were the days before ROMs spread. Most Gen Y and Millennial kids had either never played an Atari game, or hadn't played them since they were too young to remember. This was a 20 year gap between the end of the Atari and the rise of ROMs, so most just believed the stories.

    I did too, until I had a little project where I looked it up. It was the Atari version of Pac-Man that did the most damage to the industry. It had far more returns, and for a good reason: it was a weak port.

    But if you think the early '80s crash was bad, just you wait! We're in the middle of bigger belly flop right this second. At least, in this case, there are plenty of smaller devs willing to make great games without the AAA albatross around their neck. People will be talking about DUSK and Cave Story for decades. No one will remember that crap Avengers game.

    1. If we're in the midst of the Second Crash, I only have one vital question:

      Will Nintendo hold on long enough to get us the Breath of the Wild sequel? :)

      (Final Fantasy mutated into a direction I don't care about some two decades back, Castlevania is long dead and if revived will bear the unholy taint of the Netflix series, and Dragon Quest … I'd be saddened by the series' ending, but XI was a solid capstone and was showing signs of Western cultural rot.)

    2. This was AVGN's most request game. The he played it and just said, "It's fine." lol

      His movie should have put paid to the zombie meme. Not only is E.T. fine to play, it pioneered some innovations that are now standard, like an inventory management system.

      Not bad for 5 weeks' work by one guy.

    3. Will Nintendo hold on long enough to get us the Breath of the Wild sequel? :)

      Nintendo is like that hyper-conscientious kid from grade school who still has his First Communion money. Their video game business model from day one was to do the exact opposite of everything Atari did--including banking their earnings when they were making money hand over fist in the 80s. Microsoft wishes they had that kind of war chest. Never bet against the Big N!

    4. Nintendo consolidating their consoles and handhelds into the Switch gives them a groove no one else is going to bother tackling. There's a reason they've outlived every other hardware maker in the industry.

  2. As far as I can tell, ET was the first game with context sensitive controls. The one button essentially activated ET's magic powers which, depending on the location and the icon at the top of the screen, could call the spaceship, scan the pits for parts, eat a Reese's Pieces for health, send the FBI Agent or Scientist back home, etc. Not the most elegant implementation, but pretty good for something new and cranked out in 5 weeks.

    I beat this game on the original hardware when I was in grade school, so I never really understood the hate. (Gen Y, but my parents never saw the point in buying new consoles when you could get old ones at garage sales for cheap). Certainly it was not as good as many other Atari games, but there were tons of games that were worse.

    Raiders of the Lost Ark actually caused me far more frustration because I had a manual for ET but not for Raiders, and that was really a game you did not want to play without a manual.

    1. Yeah, I'm also Gen Y and played this as a kid - we had an old Atari and a Commodore. I also never had much of an issue with ET, certainly was far from the most frustrating game I attempted at that time. I never did care for the movie it was based on though- in fact I think I liked the game better...

    2. My aunt (the baby of the family, and thus only 13 years older than me) had an Atari 2600 and numerous games, and I'd often play it when visiting my grandfather. Never played ET, but she did have Raiders … and you're right, that game is not to be played without a manual.

      (The game my sister and I played the most on that machine? Combat.)

    3. Great points about the game's innovation and superiority to the film. I've never liked that movie, though I had to learn a lot about film making to realize why. There's a lot that's weird and disturbing about it, and you know it's deliberate since most of it is on the craft level.

    4. Brian- any chance you'll do a future post about the film? Honestly I haven't seen it in ages but I'd be interested to see if the weird and disturbing things you mentioned might explain why I didn't like it, even if I can't remember why.

    5. Second!

      Even as a kid who swam in these sorts of movies I never clicked with this movie. It'd be nice to see why that might be the case.

    6. You guys should understand that I deeply hate watching E.T. It's the visual equivalent of nails on a blackboard. I'll lay out the main reasons for you real quick:

      1) Most of the movie is photographed from a disconcertingly low angle. Spielberg shot it that way on purpose to give the camera a child's-eye view. This sometimes results in adult characters' heads getting cut off by the top of the frame. That cinematography always made me feel claustrophobic, and now it freaks me out in light of the Epstein-style rumors I've heard about Spielberg.

      2) The plot is what you get when a secular Jew tries to reconcile his alienation at living in a Christian nation by recasting Christ as an alien and therefore "safe".

    7. A child's eye view... ugh, now if I ever watch that again it'll give me the impression of being a child with Steven Spielberg watching me from the director's chair..... no thanks

  3. Ah yes, the Art Bell like urban legend of the landfill full of ET. One of those things one would read about on conspiracy BBS's. It's only kind of true, but still. While having ONLY 3 1/2 million returned isn't as bad as having 5 million returned, it isn't exactly bonus time either. No it didn't sink Atari all by its lonesome, but it didn't help.

    As to the game itself, it doesn't look any worse than any other game of that era. It just came out at a time when consumers had had enough of substandard product. Had it come out earlier in the video game boon, it might just have become a classic.

  4. E.T. was a symptom, not a cause. As a programmer, I always thought Pac-Man was the bigger atrocity. Compare:

    Similar: Cranked out on a shoestring budget and aggressive timeline meant to cash in on the name alone, with overly optimistic projections leading to Atari ordering more cartridges than the number of consoles there were to play them on (no, seriously). Both were in the top 5 games on the console in terms of sales, but the aforementioned sales anticipation made them lose money.

    E.T.: New game with new gameplay and graphics set to match the hardware. Too little time for playtesting to catch all the bugs. Decent gameplay compared to the obvious comparison: other games on the same system.

    Pac-Man: Port of a game to far inferior hardware. Sprites were too low resolution to match the charm of the arcade. Storage space limitations mean there is only one map. The Atari couldn't even animate five sprites simultaneously (Pac-Man and 4 ghosts), so if you watch gameplay footage, the four ghosts flash, as in any one frame of animation, only 3 ghosts are visible, limiting the number of animated sprites to four (creative workaround, though I'm sure somebody pitched only having 3 ghosts and got shot down). The obvious comparison would be to the vastly superior arcade version, and $35 worth of quarters would get you far more enjoyment than owning the port.

    Two things killed the demand side of the market: parents buying shovelware instead of good games and a loss of quality confidence in the higher end market. Pac-Man, having come first, double dipped. Its low quality hitting the latter in the first round of sales and then hitting the former when it hit bargain bins. E.T. contributed a little to quality confidence, but not to the same degree. It only contributed to the supply side crash, which Pac-Man contributed to more.

    1. Thank you for the edifying and knowledgeable exposition on today's topic. When I read that Atari ordered 12 million E.T. cartridges despite only having an install base of 10 million consoles, I had to wonder how much coke they were on.

      Follow up question: If you'd been the lead designer on an Atari port of Pac-Man, how would you have dealt with the technical limitations?

    2. I think they did the best they could. The problems were baked into the cake. There was no way to have Pac-Man and four ghosts on screen at once, nor was there enough processing power to handle the game at the speed of the arcade game. It's worth noting that Space Invaders wasn't originally programmed to have the aliens speed up. The processor moved the aliens as fast as it could. Fewer aliens meant it took less time.

      With full creative control, I would probably suggest making it a two player game with a Pac-Man vs. one ghost and go from there.

    3. Fascinating--particularly the Space Invaders bit. Thanks.

    4. Some madman actually did it:

  5. I thought E.T. was much easier than Raiders; there was something I disliked about having to do all of that mesa grappling, but the buggy pit crawling-out-of was much more manageable. At the time I didn't know the E.T. gameplay was buggy, really. I was too young to know how it all worked. I just thought I kinda sucked at gaming.

  6. I played ET, PacMan, Space Invaders, and Raiders of the Lost Ark on the Atari console (back before it was called the "2600").
    I remember having a sore thumb from playing Space Invaders for a few hours, turning the score over from maximum to zero at least once. It was all in learning the pattern to clear off the bottom row of invaders in the "maximum" speed levels.
    ET... was a nothing burger. It was simply a movie tie-in which didn't hold any re-play value. I don't remember any glitchy gameplay, but that was a long time ago, after all.
    The PacMan port was a stretch for the hardware, for sure. It was an attempt that just didn't work, since (as other posters pointed out) the hardware just couldn't handle it.
    I'm curious to know how, if the hardware couldn't handle the four ghost sprites in PacMan, how they managed to handle all the space invading aliens. Were they not using the sprites for those?
    And Raiders of the Lost Ark was indeed a difficult game. We didn't have it, but a friend did (that and the famous Adventure), and it was quite a satisfying feeling to actually complete the game. Good replay value, too.

  7. E.T. really does get an unfair rap. Many call it the "worst game ever" and blame the crash on it, but I recall a lot of folks had E.T. in their collections in the 80s, and even enjoyed playing it. This hatred toward E.T. is a relatively new thing that seemed to start popping up around 2008 or so (early days of video game YouTubers).

    Unlike most Atari 2600 games of the time, E.T. had:
    -An actual storyline.
    -An inventory system.
    -Multi-screen non-linear gameplay.
    -An actual ending.

    Even under the constraint of five weeks, and given the limitations of the Atari 2600 itself, Howard Scott Warshaw went the extra mile and his work proved innovative.

    It's too bad he got out of the video game industry. He was a programmer of mythical proportions, so who knows what kind of games he would have magicked up in the 8-bit era and beyond? I would love to see that alternate timeline.

    1. *looks longingly across the barrier b/w us & the Berenstein Universe*

    2. It's hard to say how Warshaw would have ended up if he'd kept at it. I always think it's interesting to look up some of the great video game pioneers only to find that many of them just sort of drifted along through the tech industry. Guy who created Classic Game X all by himself in 1984 now does nameless R&D on the latest smart phone designs or something and he's apparently totally fine with it, it's only ever been a job to him.

      Warshaw really does deserve more credit, though. He made a high profile movie tie-in game that effectively was tailored to its hardware in five weeks when most games back then were on something like a six month development cycle. Crazy.

    3. Note too that ET came out nearly 2 full years before Pitfall II, the 2600 game most remembered for having a complete plot.