Lo! This year of 2012 marks 30 years since the release of what many video game critics/fans/industry folk consider to be the Worst Game Of All Time. Whether you like video games or not it makes for weird and interesting reading (honest, guv). Some might say… extra-terrestrial reading!!!! To mark this anniversary we thought we’d tell you the sad tale of E.T. the video game.
Now, we all know Steven Spielberg’s film from the same year; “E.T. phone hoooome!”, that bit where he’s splat out as pale as anything by the stream, the flying bicycle bit, E.T’s Mother Teresa impression, and the red glowing finger at the end that can make even a hardened chav break down in tears. Moving stuff, and a cinema classic. The film was also a big hit, so the cash hungry brains of the world’s capitalists decided something like this; “We must cash in on this pronto, guy!”
E.T: Why Did This Happen?
The burgeoning games industry, whose market leader at the time was Atari, decided to go ahead with a project of the film and negotiated the rights from Stevie Spielberg. He asked for one Howard Scott Warshaw (a games engineer at the firm) to complete the title in time for September 1st 1982 (expecting a Christmas release). This meant the game had to be done and dusted in 5 weeks flat. A good start, eh?
Although he was working on two consecutive projects at the time Warshaw hoisted up his manly arms and seized upon the nearest computer terminal. Despite meeting with Spielberg (who wanted a Pac-Man styled game), Warshaw (under immense pressure, admittedly) went ahead with one of the most bizarre game concepts known to tuna and mayonnaise sandwiches. Now we’re not allowed to use pictures of E.T the film, or the game, as they’re copyrighted, but you can have a look at the final DESIGN RIGHT HERE! Yes, it looks rubbish. But it was 1982. Below is the Atari 2600 you played the game on. Behold!
The fundamentals of the game were/are simple; as E.T you must waddle about screens and fall in random holes to find parts of your alien phone. Regularly a scientist comes along to kidnap you and take you back to hiding, whereupon you must begin your quest for the phone pieces again (you lose them with each kidnap). The real problem with this, other than it being horribly dull, was the difficulty getting in and out of the holes. As E.T’s design was so poor it would often take lengthy periods of time to get out of a random hole you had fallen into. Many of which contained no phone pieces. And then you’d get kidnapped again.
Anticipating huge sales Atari went ahead and got 4 million+ cartridges produced for the Christmas release. Predictably enough, when it came out the company enjoyed strong sales. Then the backlash began. The game was (and still is) so unspeakably awful that dumbfounded customers began sending the cartridges back to Atari. Critically maligned as it was, Atari now had the problem of millions of spare cartridges to deal with. Their weird solution (and we’re really not making this up) was to use a landfill in a desert in New Mexico where they crushed all the remaining cartridges and heaved them into the hole.
Cement was poured over this lot to forever seal the fate of E.T the videogame (although many at Atari still downplay this element of the story). The whole debacle probably contributed to the videogame market crash of 1983, and Atari’s loss of control of the industry.
There are still thousands of copies of E.T in circulation and it has a cult following of sorts if you were insane enough to want to hunt one down. Of course, video game/movie tie-ins still continue in the now hugely successful games industry. Most of them are still awful.
Additional: In 2014 Microsoft went and made a full documentary film (Atari: Game Over) on the subject, which is insightful on what happened with the game. Here’s the trailer – enjoy!