Atari’s E.T.: Why it deserves its strangely legendary status

Atari’s E.T.: Why it deserves its strangely legendary status

The recent discovery of the rumored trove of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial Atari 2600 cartridges buried in a New Mexico landfill was, for video-game fans, like the discovery of Atlantis. It’s really true, they thought. This is the worst video game of all time, so bad that Atari had to bury the evidence in the desert under a layer of concrete.

In its most hyperbolic, abbreviated version, the legend has it that the E.T. game was so bad that it brought not just Atari but the whole video game industry down with it. The reality, of course, is more complicated: the failure of E.T. was more a product of the industry’s mid-80s woes than its cause. Atari spent way too much money on the rights to the game, and developed it in way too little time, then made way too many copies and was left with its heartlight-finger waving in the wind when the industry crashed and the Atari 2600 was suddenly less an extra-terrestrial than a magic dragon, ignored by kids (and adults) who had moved on. One of the satisfying things about the E.T. legend is that the landfill became a poignant metaphor for a gaming system that had been so beloved by so many.

I was one of those many, thanks to a lucky box of Cap’n Crunch. In a turn of events as astounding to my eight-year-old self as Charlie’s discovering a golden ticket, my mother shouted in astonishment one morning circa 1983 as I sat in the sunroom waiting for my bowl of cereal. Cap’n Crunch was running a promotion in which fake currency (“Crunch money”) was enclosed in each box, and a few special bills could be redeemed by mail for Atari 2600 systems. Though my father had previously forbidden the purchase of such systems, which he maintained—and still probably does maintain—are bad for kids by their very nature, once the system arrived, he and his golf buddy quickly discovered the thrill of Combat just like the rest of us.

One of the weird ironies of my life is that I almost never play video games now, in this golden era when games have production values comparable to major motion pictures—or at least network mini-series. Yet I spent hours, hours, hours playing that Atari 2600. The timing of our win was propitious in that post-crash, many of the game cartridges that weren’t buried in the desert were sent to the equally remote perdition of the Kay-Bee clearance aisle in the Duluth, Minnesota. We bought those games at a deep discount, and I played them all: the famously crappy Pac-Man, the critically acclaimed Yars’ Revenge, the hair-raising Outlaw, and, yes, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.

If I’m inclined to defend E.T. from its critics, that’s in large part, no doubt, because I spent so much time playing it that if I were to admit it was a terrible game, I’d have to face some uncomfortable facts about the developing young brain that willingly inserted that cartridge and flipped that power switch, again and again and again. When someone else was using the color TV downstairs, I’d get my fix upstairs in black and white. If there’s anything more pathetic than freely choosing to spend dozens of hours playing the worst video game of all time, it’s freely choosing to play it in greyscale.

Especially knowing that the game was developed in only five weeks, though—its developer Howard Scott Warshaw was on hand at the recent excavation, explaining how the game was rushed to market—I’m impressed by what an impressively epic failure the game was, not just in economic terms but in terms of its bold conception. It’s the Room of Atari games: endlessly fascinating in how it refuses to play safe, aiming high so as to fail all the more spectacularly.

E.T. Atari 2600

There was no other Atari game like it, at least not at the time of its release. It was a complex (by 4K standards) quest game that had our squat hero racing among six screens, trying to find the pieces required to assemble a phone. Once you had your phone, you had to go to the forest screen, find reception (yes, really), and phone home—then avoid capture until the mother ship arrived to take you home. Throughout, your energy ebbed—literally with every step—and you had to rejuvenate yourself by eating Reese’s Pieces. There were additional details: flowers that could bestow extra lives, special abilities corresponding to different areas of each screen, the ability to call Elliot to come bring a phone component to you if you saved enough candy to make it worth his while. Throughout, you were pursued by a scientist who’d try to abduct you and an FBI agent who’d try to steal your stuff.

Sounds like fun, right? Well, apparently it was, since I played the crap out of it. It was an excruciatingly frustrating sort of fun, though, since the game universe was a through-the-looking-glass nightmare where everything that should have been enjoyable and pleasantly challenging was deadeningly difficult and mind-numbingly repetitive. I wonder whether any kids who weren’t raised with a belief in the importance of purgatory got as into the E.T. game as I did.

The game screens were connected, but in a weird Escher-like multidimensional loop that made it difficult to remember which screen led to which. I remember frantically running from screen to screen, trying to get back to the forest but always running into the screens full of pits. Yes, pits. The E.T. game was full of pits, despite the fact that the movie featured not a single one. Playing the E.T. game was, fundamentally, about falling into and then levitating yourself out of pits (also never mind the fact that the movie E.T. never demonstrated an ability to levitate).

Falling into pits was inevitable, not only because it was possible to fall into them immediately upon walking into certain screens—due to Atari’s sprite technology, E.T. would fall into a hole if even a single pixel of his body touched a single pixel of pit—but because if you didn’t fall into any pits, you’d never find the phone pieces. There was one trick that allowed you to scope out a screenful of pits to see if any contained phone components, but failing that, the only way to find your phone was to intentionally fall down a fuckload of pits—just on the off-chance that any one of them might contain a phone component. If the FBI agent stole one of your phone pieces, guess where it went? That’s right, right back down a big ol’ pit.

About that FBI agent. The difficulty settings allowed him to either come insanely fast or not at all. Ditto with his buddy the scientist. In the former setting, I’m genuinely not sure if it was even humanly possible to win the game: the bad guys would swoop down on you like hawks, picking you dry on virtually every screen. In the latter setting, the game was just a dull, lonely slog.

To appreciate why the E.T. game became such a famous flop, you have to put it in the context of the rest of the Atari universe. In the average Atari game, game play never really changed: it just got faster, until it finally got faster than you. The sense of a world you could actively explore, spanning multiple screens, was kind of a mind-blow. The fact that there were characters you could actually see—that you wouldn’t just have to imagine existing inside your blockish little spaceship—gave the game a sense of richness, even if it was a uniquely sour richness. The game even had music, another relative rarity in the Atari world: John Williams’s poignant theme, sounding on loop in all its eight-bit glory.

The E.T. game had a distinctly melancholy feel about it, with its dark, cool palette, its mysterious forest, and its ominous intruders. Even Elliot, your supposed ally, was ultimately looking out for number one: he only came to help when you could pay him off in candy. It didn’t just feel like a bad game, it felt like a sad game. In retrospect, that’s really its designer’s greatest achievement: to have made a game that—in the shallow, frenetic world of early video game technology—had any discernible mood at all.

E.T. came to earth, proved that a video game could have feelings, and was buried in a deep pit. No wonder we’re all rooting for those cartridges to levitate.

Jay Gabler