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Digital Archaeology: E.T. Atari 2600

E.T. by Atari is widely regarded as one of the worst videogames ever created.  Based upon the wildly popular film Steven Spielberg, it was made in under six weeks by a single developer working on hardware that was, by 1982 standards, utterly archaic.  The Atari 2600, the console on which the game was released, had just 128 bytes of RAM – not 128Kb of Ram, but 128 bytes.  Building the game on such notoriously underpowered hardware at such ridiculously short notice was a catastrophe.  $20 million had been spent by Atari on acquiring the license, but only a few thousand dollars were invested into the actual development of the game which was shipped in vast numbers.  At least four million copies of E.T. were manufactured and though the game was initially a commercial success, selling upwards of one and a half million copies, it left a vast inventory unsold which Atari eventually shipped to a landfill site in Mexico and buried.

The burial of hundreds of thousands of unsold E.T. cartridges was bad enough, but the game’s quality was so notoriously poor that the real damage was caused by the copies which were actually sold.  The game found its way into a million and a half homes in time for Christmas, 1982 and, in so doing, helped to sour the American public’s taste in videogames, proving that a well-loved brand was no guarantee of quality.  E.T., alongside several other notoriously bad Atari 2600 games from that same era, was an advertisement for why people should not want to play videogames and, in 1983, the market for computer games in the United States collapsed.  To be sure, Atari was not the only company responsible for the market crash, but it was a massive contributor.  By 1985 the value of videogame sales in the United States had declined from several billion dollars to perhaps one hundred million as consumers across the country lost trust and interest in the medium.  E.T., for all its hype and initial success, practically destroyed a medium which had been growing massively since its explosion into American homes in the 1970s.  E.T. was the anti-Pong.

Other than a footnote in pop culture and business history, then, where does all of this leave the notoriously bad E.T? Is it as bad as its reputation would have us believe; is it really the worst videogame ever made? The simple answer to that question is no.  In spite of the fact that it was rushed to market and that it is marred by some terrible design choices, Atari’s E.T. possess degree of charm, particularly when its six week production cycle is taken into account.  Granted, one must sometimes look deep to uncover it whilst forgiving some pretty significant flaws, as a piece of retro Americana it carries appeal.  The gameplay revolves around E.T.’s quest to assemble the phone that will allow him to ‘phone home’.  In order to accomplish this, the titular character is able to move around a type low resolution quasi-open world.  Players are forced to go in no one particular direction though there is little variety and little to see wherever they do go.  As the player explores the world, such as it is, they find themselves chased by government agents, though the real threat faced by players is the game’s extremely buggy nature.  The map is littered with pits, wherein the pieces of the phone are to be found, but falling into such craters is as much a matter of chance as it is a matter of design.  Once in a pit, players must extend E.T.’s neck to ascend upwards but might well find that they become snared in a pit-loop, immediately falling back into the same hole from which they have emerged.  Sometimes these loops can be broken, often they cannot.

To make matters worse, players will find themselves falling into pits for seemingly no reason.  Passing from one screen to the next, players will inexplicably find themselves at the bottom of a crater, forced to monotonously ascend whilst clinging to the hope that the game does not immediately cast them back down.  It is an infuriating experience that brings to mind the market crash that this game helped to precipitate but, for all that, there remains something here, the kernel of a great idea marred by the technical limitations of the hardware upon which it appeared and the punishing timescale on which the game had to be made.  Graphically speaking the game is intensely basic and, in places, disastrous, but there is something retroactively compelling about the way that E.T. or the agents which chase him are realised and animated.  The world they inhabit is so plain as to be almost utterly unremarkable, but the character models, 8-bit distillations of much more complicated designs, possess have a certain je ne sai quoi about them that is a credit to developer Howard Scott Warshaw.

Of course admitting that E.T. possess charm does not equate to saying that the game can be described as fun in any meaningful way and there is a fair argument to be made that if a videogame is not an enjoyable experience it cannot be appraised positively.  Viewed in such a light, E.T. does not fare well, but despite its own shortcomings –and there are many– there is something about the game today that entices.  Perhaps it is its emphasis upon exploration, the way it shuns violence, a consistent go to theme and mechanic from an early stage in the medium’s history, or the way its clunky graphics succeed on the margins even as they fail overall.  Perhaps it is the sense that this is a game that crosses the line from bad to so bad it’s good, a truly rare occurrence in an interactive medium where bad tends to mean really bad.  Whatever else can be said about E.T., it possess a distinct character all of its own and that counts in its favour.  It is never going to be considered a good videogame, but as a piece of disposable pop art, it might just have come into its own.



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