Certain conversations are inevitable. No one can talk about heavy metal without bringing up the Big Four (Anthrax, Megadeth, Slayer, and Metallica). Talks about slasher films aren't complete without mentioning Jason Voorhies, Michael Myers, or Freddy Krueger. Finally, conversations about bad video games always steer toward E.T.
E.T. on the Atari 2600 is often labeled as one of the worst games in history, if not THE worst. It is often given 100% of the blame for the Video Game Crash of 1983 and the sinking of the once mighty Atari. It's one of the games people love to hate the most. However, like with Pac-Man on the 2600, I think it's reputation is worse than the game itself. Don't get me wrong; it is a very bad game, but I have played much worse.
Before I get into the nitty gritty of the game, it's time for a history lesson. The game is based on the movie of the same name. The movie was about a boy named Elliot who befriends a lost alien trying to get home. The movie was (and still is) one of the biggest blockbusters of all time. Atari paid $25 million for the exclusive rights to make games based on the movie. Steven Spielberg himself chose Howard Scott Warshaw, the guy behind the Raiders of the Lost Ark game, to make it. Opposing the Pac-Man clone idea that Spielberg had, Warshaw decided to develop an adventure intended to match the spirit of the movie. The problem was that negotiations for the license ran so long that Warshaw only had 5 1/2 weeks to make the game in order for it to be on store shelves in time for Christmas.
The objective of the game matches the movie. The titular alien needs to collect three parts to create an interplanetary communicator to "phone home" and be picked up. All the while, a scientist tries to abduct him, and a federal agent steals phone parts collected. Fortunately, Elliot is available to help.
All of E.T.'s abilities are mapped to the fire button, and which ability is used depends on the icon that's at the top of the screen at any given moment. There are icons to fast travel between screens, drive away the adversaries, call Elliot, and phone home, and all of the icons are randomly placed each time the game starts. Every ability and even just walking uses energy. E.T. has a limited amount of energy to complete the mission. If his first 9999 units of energy run out, he can be revived twice by Elliot for 2000 units each. Another collapse after that means game over.
The game has a LOT of problems mostly stemming from the lack of time for play testing. The phone pieces are found in pits. Falling into the pits costs energy; levitating out of pits uses energy; and it's easy to fall back into the pits. The scientist can be quite annoying when he carries you back to the lab. However, the fed is infuriating! Imagine the irritation that comes from falling into six pits to find one phone piece only for the fed to show up immediately to steal that piece. Luckily, there is game mode 3 (reached by pushing the Select button) which removes the adversaries. This mode makes the game playable but also too easy.
Glitches are all over the place. Characters can be seen walking in place. Phone parts are sometimes missing. The icons for phoning home or the landing zone don't show up about once every ten games. The game is an absolute technical mess.
Yet, through it all, there are flashes of what Warshaw was trying to accomplish. The goals and objectives are more clearly defined than in Raiders. The most I had to check the manual for was identifying the icons. Playing the game on the whole wasn't as maddening as Raiders (especially after switching to Mode 3). Given enough time to make and test the game properly, I believe E.T. could have been salvaged.
E.T. was a tragedy for the games industry. Overproduced and underdeveloped, it failed with everyone who played it, critic and consumer alike. Yet, I can't muster the kind of hate for it that everyone else could. Yeah, the game sucks the big one and isn't worth anyone's time. However, I still see that if Warshaw had the time to complete the game properly without greedy executives rushing him, it could have been worth phoning home about.