E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial: The Definitive Review (Atari 2600 Review)

Note from Cathy: I’m still working on both Atari 50: The Definitive Review and Part Two of Atari 50: The Games They Couldn’t Include – The Definitive Review. My work on Atari 50 hit a snag as the collection was extensively patched, so I have to redo many games (especially the arcade games, since the dip switches were added). This Friday, I’ll be posting The Games They Couldn’t Include Part Two, and Atari 50’s 100+ game review will release in early February. E.T. was originally set to be part of The Games They Couldn’t Include: Part Two, but I ended up turning out a full-sized review. Instead of retooling the format, I decided to just cut it from there and paste it here. Plus, I don’t want to go another week without content.

I hope you all enjoy the Definitive Indie Gamer Chick Review for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial!

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
Platform: Atari 2600
Year: 1982
Designed by Howard Scott Warshaw

If you’re a gaming critic who covers retro games, E.T. is like a gas station bathroom: everybody, at least once in their life, reaches the point where they can’t hold it anymore. You just have to plug your nose, think happy thoughts, lay toilet paper across the seat, and remember that you normally deal with more pleasant crap-based experiences.

I was around 13 when my Dad decided I was now old enough and experienced enough watching movies that I could finally appreciate just how epic Plan 9 From Outer Space was in failure. He hyped to my mother and me how delightfully awful it was, like that was a good thing. Like it was so putrid that it would practically be life altering to see it. Then we watched it, and Mom and me were.. just really bored. I tried it again in my early 20s after we watched the biographical Ed Wood film. Surely now I was film savvy enough to laugh at the jaw-droppingly bad acting, complete with flubs making it into the final film. And the cheap sets that sometimes fell over. And the on-the-nose dialog that makes you feel bad for the people reciting it. And the fact that Wood’s dentist stood in for Bela Lugosi despite not even vaguely looking like him. Well, the second go around, we didn’t even finish the movie. I disagree firmly with the “so bad it’s good” tag. It’s just bad, and honestly, I don’t think it’s that interesting, really. Certainly not enough to be THE WORST MOVIE EVER MADE! It’s not. I was reminded of that when I played E.T. The ExtraTerrestrial for the Atari 2600. It’s been cited as the worst game ever made so often that a game critic saying “no, it’s not really THAT bad” is practically a rite of passage. Now, it’s my turn. E.T. for the Atari 2600 isn’t really THAT bad. It’s just very boring.

There are ROM hacks out there that eliminate the majority of the pits. Instead, I opted to play the standard retail version, and then used emulation options like Save States and Rewind. It certainly made the pits better. Not so much falling in the first time, but the falling BACK in part. That I would undo. Did it make the game better? Well, I was able to finish it faster and therefore I wasn’t bored playing it as much with cheating as I was without it.

And it’s not even complicated boring. The object is to locate three pieces of your phone and then, well, phone home. To find the phone pieces, you have to deliberately fall into the various pits in the game, then stretch your neck and hover out. Most of the pits are empty, and whether they are or not, it’s a slow climb out. Of course, you’ll just as often fall into pits accidentally, since they’re all over. It’s such an obviously doomed-for-failure play mechanic to begin with, and that’s before you get to having the threat of falling right back into the hole hanging over you. Hoo boy. Yea, it’s not so much the falling in pits that wrecks ET. It’s sheer volume of them (too many) AND how easy it is to fall back into ones you just climbed out of (too easy). Now, I also did play several rounds of E.T. without rewinding or save states, and that’s where I realized it was the falling back into the pits that really destroys the game. This could have been fixed by having you not be able to fall back into the same pit you were just in without leaving the screen first. Or hell, just have each pit fill-up once you hover out of them, permanently. That doesn’t fix everything but it would sure take the edge off. Which is like saying the benefit to losing a leg in a traffic accident is that doctors won’t be stingy with the percocets.

Stranger danger! Stranger danger!

Of course, in the event you DO fix the game (and some people have), the entire premise was flawed beyond the pits. It’s basically an Easter egg hunt game. As you walk about the map, you’ll find these “power points” that are signaled at the top of the screen, which can do things like summon Elliot to give him the delicious Reese’s Pieces™ The Official Candy of E.T.™ you collect to score points, or use the Reese’s Pieces™ The Official Candy of E.T.™ to restore your life. But there’s non-product-placement hot spots too. Some tell you if a phone piece is located in a pit on that screen, while clicking others makes the human characters retreat to their homes. To win at E.T., once you have the three phone pieces, you have to search around the map to find the randomly-generated spot where you phone home, then go to the starting screen and click the correct spot on the ground. That doesn’t sound too bad, but then the rules get in the way. You can neither phone home nor catch the spaceship if any humans are on the screen, and they’re relentless. The FBI guys will take a piece of your phone if they touch you while scientists will take you to the building screen. While you can click spaces to make them walk back to their spots, the timing is practically left up to chance as to whether any will show up when you’re trying to catch the space ship. It’s so annoying.

You know what? If nothing else, I’m happy I can say I finished a round of E.T. both with cheating and without it. I’m not so happy I put a couple hours of playtime into getting there, but hey, it’s done. I played it all the way through, and I never have to do it ever again. Until I review the ROM hack, which knowing me, I’ll probably end up doing.

I ended up playing this FOR HOURS. I wanted to finish it multiple times, with and without cheating, so that I could speak on this with some level of authority. In my non-cheating sessions, I honestly worried I wouldn’t finish it. I even game overed a few times because I couldn’t find the spot to phone home. I ended up walking back and forth and back and forth and back and forth, falling into pits, then falling back into pits I just f’n climbed out of, sometimes three or four times, or getting touched by the FBI guys and having to find my phone again. It turned ET into a game that was something like mowing a lawn. Just walking straight lines across the screen, watching for the icon, and hoping against hope I’d see the little Space Invader icon that lets you phone home. It makes me wonder if it’s possible for it to randomly generate in an unreachable area of the screen, like the middle of a pit or something? I even played the children’s mode (mode 3) that’s missing the FBI/Scientist guy, and couldn’t find the phone home icon. I consulted the instruction book, wondering “is there a step I’m missing that I accidentally did without realizing it when I cheated?” There wasn’t. And I never did end up finding it that round. When I finally DID win a round without cheating, it felt like it happened because the gaming Gods took pity on me and I found the icon just as soon as I stepped off the starting screen.

It looks like that either E.T. has an outie or he has rigor mortis in more than one way.

So, now you can add me to the list of game critics who wrote disappointing E.T. reviews. If you aspire to be entertaining while doing your work, E.T. doesn’t lend itself to that as much as you’d think it does. I’m not the biggest Angry Video Game Nerd fan out there (awesome games though, read my review), but the man was able to create an entire movie where the final punchline was E.T., his most requested review, wasn’t even interesting enough to do an entertaining review out of. It’s a really bad game, but not in a funny way or a compelling way. Having now put quality time into it, I don’t think this ever had potential. E.T. was dead on arrival, which would have been caught early-on, except Warner Bros. made a very expensive deal guaranteeing an E.T. game would release in time for Christmas of 1982 under the presumption that games are delivered by the game stork. Atari removed every safeguard that could have helped make this a better game, or outright smothered it in the crib. Howard Scott Warshaw was called on July 27, 1982. The final game was due September 1. It’s not like they had modern development tools, especially for a game that wasn’t a reskinning or recycling of a previous engine. So, he had 36 days to create a game based on the most successful movie ever made up to that point. There was no market research or focus testing done, so they didn’t get feedback from their target audience. Another hugely underrated aspect of what went wrong was other Atari designers didn’t get an opportunity to provide feedback. Warshaw was under such a time crunch that he couldn’t stop his work to let anyone else play it. Remember, that type of feedback turned a first-person Space Invaders knock-off into Tempest, a game that I might very well name the #1 game for Atari 50 in the coming weeks.

My sister, an E.T. FANATIC, is beside herself over the fact that they made an E.T. video game without flying bicycles. Without exaggeration, her jaw dropped. She thought I was messing with her. “It’s one of the most iconic scenes in film history, and they didn’t do the flying bikes? That would be like doing a Back to the Future game without the DeLorean.”

I don’t blame Warshaw one bit. His record of quality Atari 2600 games speaks for itself. Hell, even a game he did that never came out during the VCS’s natural life cycle, Saboteur, is really good. Frankly, if YOU were in charge of Atari in 1982 and you had to choose one guy from your roster to pull this off, he’s exactly who you would have called. As far as the concept goes, with new types of video games, you can’t know if something will work until you make it. Had this been anything BUT E.T., this never would have come out. It would have been killed in the alpha stage. But, contracts were signed, a deal was done, and this HAD to come out. You know what my takeaway from this whole thing is? E.T. was a lesson the industry had to learn: games don’t just make themselves. The people who made the E.T. deal at Warner had absolutely no appreciation for the development process, and they didn’t even care to learn about it. It’s not like the nerds who made these games were REAL artists, like movie makers. I mean, that’s what the attitude was. Really. Mind you, this is a film studio where Superman III was in production at the very same time this entire story went down. Frankly, it was high time for a few execs to learn a lesson on how games are made. Sure, not everyone leaned their lesson, which is how the world works. To this day, clueless execs will still say “you need your licensed game in three months? NO PROBLEM!” But, many more stop and think about E.T. before signing licensing deals based on unreasonable deadlines. It happens more than you think. Someone had to make THAT game. That “we don’t want to be THAT game” game.

In a COMPLETELY, TOTALLY, 100% UNRELATED TO THIS GAME OR REVIEW aside, this was around the time Warner Bros. signed a four-picture deal with Steven Spielberg to direct two movies and produce two movies. Those movies ended up being Gremlins and Goonies, which he produced, along with the Color Purple and the Empire of the Sun, both of which were prestige films he directed. Yet, the biggest check he got from Warner Bros. in the 1980s, by far, was the $20,000,000 to $25,000,000 in 1982 dollars he was paid for the rights to the E.T. game. That’s $60M – $65M today. Why, if one didn’t know better, they’d think Warner Communication massively overpaid with a contract from their most profitable division, one they thought was bulletproof, as a dangled carrot to secure his services for a completely different division.

It just plain sucks that, in terms of damage to reputation, the person who got stuck with the check was one of the greats in Howard Scott Warshaw. You can’t fault his ambition, time crunch or not. Famously, Spielberg said “why can’t it just be like Pac-Man?” when he heard the pitch from Warshaw, which to me signals that even the pitch sounded boring. Warshaw has since said that, in retrospect, Spielberg had a point. No, Howard, don’t do that. I do think Warshaw made the right call in not wanting yet another maze chase. I rather admire that he ignored Spielberg’s plea, actually. Took guts. I just sort of wish he had instead built off Atari’s Superman game. They’re in the same boat: abstract, fetch-quest adventure games where nothing looks quite like it’s supposed to. But, Superman holds up to the test of time (see Part One of Atari 50: The Games They Couldn’t Include – Definitive Review for that review). Barely, but barely counts, and I’d honestly love to play a remake of it that builds off that title’s core gameplay. I never want to play anything like E.T. ever again. Period. I finally figured out why it’s so singled-out: it has no charm. I think that’s why it and Pac-Man did as much damage as they did. It’s not simply that they’re bad, but they’re not even endearing for it, like so many bad Atari games can be. Fittingly, they’re both games that had no consideration for quality or gamers. They were given mandated deadlines by executives who knew nothing about game development, because they didn’t understand good games from bad games anyway, and people buy the name, not the game, right? E.T. isn’t the worst game ever, but I’m actually okay with it wearing that title, because at least gaming might be overall better off for it.
Verdict: NO!

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