In defence of E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial for the Atari 2600

Some games are so famous (or rather infamous) that a mere capsule review will simply not suffice. E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (Atari, 1982) is one of those games. In the Internet era, E.T. has become the virtual poster child for the video game crash of 1983 and has otherwise become the stuff of legend for reasons too involved to get into here (watch Atari: Game Over to get the full scoop).

et_1atarigameThe bottom line is that lazy journalists producing clickbait articles and videos frequently label E.T. the worst game ever produced for the 2600, if not the worst video game of all time. This is nonsense to most dedicated Atari fans who know of numerous much, much worse games made for the system, many of which have been tackled in this blog already.

My position is that E.T. is not only not a bad game – it’s actually a pretty good one. Not great, but pretty good. At worst, it might have been a mismatch for its target audience of young children, with its so-called deficiencies mostly a result of being a bit too complicated for younger players.

Which leads us to the elephant in the room – the common difficulty of getting E.T. out of the game’s many, many, many wells. A simple read of the instruction manual back in the day would have solved a lot of problems. I quote:

“Sometimes E.T. will fall back into a well after he has levitated up to the planet surface. To prevent this, move E.T. right or left immediately after the scene changes from the well interior to the planet surface.  E.T. will move from the well onto solid ground, in the same direction you move your Joystick.”

 I can’t speak for everyone, but this method – combined with letting go of the action button in the surface scene while E.T.’s neck is still extended – worked for me as a kid and worked for me when I played the game recently. No doubt it’s a pain in the butt, but I honestly don’t find the wells any more troublesome than, say, the catacombs in Adventure. Yet it seems to be the main point of contention with the game. I’ll tackle my theories behind this shortly. First, I want to make my case for why E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial is a quality video game.

It captures the basic feel of Adventure. Adventure has the player collect a series of materials in order to fulfill an objective. E.T. also requires the player to collect objects in order to reach a goal. In both games, there are enemies that will steal your objects and generally make your game life miserable. Do these similarities make E.T. as good a game as Adventure? Probably not. But there are enough similarities that reflect well on E.T. and, at the very least, prevent it from being a total disaster.

There’s something important to keep in mind here. Adventure was released in 1980 to great acclaim and huge sales. It remains one of the most fondly-remembered Atari 2600 games to this day. At that time, video games were not just marketed to children – they were marketed to families: parents, teenagers and pre-teens.

E.T. was released in the 1982 Christmas season, and although it was only two years later, the video game world had changed considerably. Ever-younger gamers demanded action-packed video games that emphasized reflexes over strategy. Add to that the fact that E.T. was largely a children’s property and it may not seem like it made a lot of sense to associate the license with a strategy-based adventure game. But I’m not sure there would have been a better way to do it. Which brings me to my next point:

Howard Scott Warshaw was a genius game designer. Let’s face it: E.T. (the movie) was a pretty strange candidate for a video game in the first place, especially considering the limitations of video games at the time. There wasn’t a lot of action that a programmer could easily translate into compelling video game fare – something to do with the flying bicycle, maybe? Otherwise, I’m at a loss.

Considering what little he had to work with and what little time he had (just a few months), I think programmer Howard Scott Warshaw brought his unique talent for elegant solutions to the creation of E.T. (the game). We’re talking about the same guy who turned a failed prototype of Tempest into Yar’s Revenge – not only one of the greatest 2600 games, but one of the greatest video games of all time. Considering the film had barely been released before HSW started work on the game, he brought an astounding amount of elements from the movie into the game: E.T.’s basic quest, the antagonism from the FBI, and Elliott and the alien’s relationship. If only modern games based on other media could be so accurate.

The multiple action zones are a feature, not a flaw. The map of E.T. includes a number of randomized “action zones” in which you can make E.T. do different things. Some action zones can warp you to another screen, for example, while others allow you to eat candies for energy or call his home planet once you’ve collected all three phone pieces. Finding some of the more obscure action zones such as the alien ship landing area can be a little frustrating. However, I fail to see how this is any different from many modern games; if I could have all the time back I’ve wasted looking for passageways to new levels I’d probably be 20 pounds lighter and at least two times less socially inept. So, for better or for worse, E.T. was ahead of its time.

et_2atarigameGood graphics and sound. Not only is there a very handsome dot-matrix rendering of the titular alien on the title screen, but there is also a decent translation of John Williams’ main musical theme for E.T. Also, the animation and sprites are up there with the best graphics available in a game for the 2600 at the time: E.T. is clearly E.T., Elliott is clearly Elliott, and you can identify the FBI agent and the scientist even without the help of the instruction manual. It’s clear that the handful of people who worked on the game put in a lot of work over a very short period of time.

Essentially, my opinion of E.T. hasn’t changed much over the past three decades. I found it an enjoyable if unspectacular game back then and I feel the same today. What it is definitely not is the worst game of any time, any console or any genre. C+

More Info: E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial on Atari Age. For current listings of E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial for sale on eBay, click here

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