4/06/2011

The funny thing about today's post is that it's a combination of highs and lows. We have what is generally regarded as the greatest sci-fi movie ever made, but it spawned what is generally regarded as the worst videogame ever made. We speak, of course, of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600. It's hard to overstate how bad E.T. was. It's not an exaggeration to say that its failure lead to the dissolving of Atari as a company, as well as the crash of the videogame industry in general. E.T. is frequently ranked as the worst videogame ever made. How did it happen? Where did the game go wrong? Let's find out.

The Rush to Market

The year was 1982, and the videogame industry was rapidly becoming a powerhouse. At the same time, the movie E.T. the Extraterrestrial was released in June and became a smash hit, grossing over four hundred million in its initial theatrical run alone. E.T. would go on to be nominated for nine Academy Awards, and was screened at the White House and the United Nations. E.T.'s legacy would end up ranked as the greatest sci-fi film ever made.

In all of this, Atari decided to get a slice of the piece. Atari paid $25 million for the rights to license the movie, and the movie's director Steven Spielberg requested that Howard Scott Warshaw create the game. Warshaw was the famed programmer of the hit game Yar's Revenge, and was enthusiastic about the opportunity. But Atari had spent a lot of movie on their license, and needed the game out by the 1982 Christmas season, so they gave Warshaw only six weeks of development time. To put that in perspective, Warshaw spent seven months writing Yar's Revenge. Warshaw plodded along and produced the game, and the cartridge was rushed into stores.

It's the Pits
So what did we get for those six weeks? Well, you play E.T., and you have to find three pieces of an interplanetary cellphone so you can "phone home." Once you assemble the phone, you call your spaceship, and have to make it to the landing pad in order to finish the level. Sounds easy enough, and maybe if the design had been left there, it could have been at least slightly fun to play. The problem seems to be that Warshaw decided to create a more complex and ambitious design, when Spielberg just wanted something like Pac-Man.

E.T. needs to jump into open pits scattered throughout the levels to see if any of the phone pieces are in them. Most of the pits turn out to be empty, so E.T. has to climb out of the pit, jump into another pit, and repeat. This reminds of that classic scene from the movie where E.T. and Elliott spent hours climbing in and out of various open-pit coal mines, looking for E.T.'s phone...oh, wait, that wasn't in the movie. Now the player is getting worried.

But as if that weren't bad enough, the only way for E.T. to get out of the empty pit he finds himself in is a tricky method of holding down a single button that makes him levitate until he reaches the top, then letting go at the exact right place and time. Otherwise, he falls back in, and you start all over again. This is, by far, the most frustrating part of the game, and directly led to the frustration and criticism towards the game. There's some more stuff about eating Reese's Pieces to keep your energy level up, and avoiding a scientist and an FBI agent, but the pits are where you spend the majority of your time.

E.T. Kills the Industry
For some strange reason, jumping in and out of holes didn't seem to capture what fans of the movie were hoping for, and the game didn't sell well. I'm sorry, that was a misstatement. The game sold abominably. 1 million to 1.5 million E.T. cartridges were sold. That would have been pretty good, except that Atari produced five million cartridges of E.T. Legend has it that the other four million or so carts ended up in a landfill in El Paso, but there's some doubts about it. Suffice to say, they didn't end up selling for fifty bucks a piece, which means Atari lost a fortune on the games.


If E.T. had been the only bad game being published for the Atari 2600 at the time, the industry might have survived. Yet at the time, there was a glut of crappy games flooding the market like Lost Luggage and Purina's Chase the Chuck Wagon. E.T. became the straw that broke the camel's back, such a high-profile failure that it became a powerful symbol for the poor quality of console games. This symbol led to consumers shifting their attention and dollars to games for the home PC, and the videogame industry crashed in 1983.

Unfortunately, E.T. also set the pattern for movie-licensed games that are rushed out to capitalize on the movie's success. Recent ports like Charlie's Angels and Iron Man have just gone to show that we're all still suffering from the legacy of E.T. the Extraterrestrial.

References:
Flying Omlette's Review
Gamespy's Review
Wikipedia's entry on E.T. the Extraterrestrial

This post is "E is for E.T.," part of the "A-Z Blogging Challenge." We'll be posting something on our blog every day in April except for Sundays. The challenge is hosted by Arlee BirdJeffrey Beesler, Alex J. CavanaughJen Daiker, Candace Ganger, Karen J Gowen, Talli Roland and Stephen Tremp. Visit them today and everyday for the next month!
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4 comments:

Nate Wilson said...

If those cartridges did end up in an El Paso landfill, I doubt they were there long. Surely some intrepid creature would have come along, jumped down into the landfill to collect them one by one, and then hovered out.

Misha Gericke said...

That's what tends to happen when someone tries to capitalize fast without looking at quality.

Hmmm... sounds a lot like the 2007 Financial Market crisis, now that I think about it...

April Dunno said...

I had an Atari when I was a kid, but I never had the E.T. game (Space Invaders and Frogs & Flies addict). good thing, I guess..lol. nice post!

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