The Atari E.T Video Game: Was It The Worst Game Of All Time?

the E.T video game

With all the crappy video games out there did one really rise above all the rest?

The Atari E.T video game has been considered one of the worst games of all time, if not the worst. It’s also been associated with destroying Atari and almost bringing the video game industry to its knees. The game has now become the stuff of legend creating a renewed interest with its supposed mass burial in a landfill.

You can listen to the podcast version here or keep listening with your eyes by reading the whole blog. The Choice is yours!

Setting The Stage For The E.T Video Game

I’m pretty sure video games have played a role in your life, even in a small capacity. Whether you started on Coleco playing pong, were around for the golden era of the Atari on only got started on the original NES video games were a core part of the 1980s. I remember when the original Nintendo came out and it was mind-blowing. I definitely played Atari but didn’t own one. It did the trick though as it was home-based entertainment even if the game looked nothing like the amazing artwork on the cartidge and package.

The NES took things to the next level as far as quality but the Atari really set the stage for home gaming. For a while it was the absolute king and the story of the E.T video game is a combination of a lot of things; arrogance, short-sightedness, and the thought that nothing could derail them.

Though it might not have been directly responsible, the E.T video game set in motion a series of events that brought the video game industry to its knees.

E.T The Movie

Everyone knows E.T. Released in 1982 by Steven Spielberg it told the story of an alien that was strandard on earth trying to get home. It basically paved the way for ALF 6 years later. The story has roots in the divorce of a young Spielberg who conjured up a imaginary friend to keep him company during this rocky time.

When it came out on June 12th it was an immediate blockbuster. Most people don’t realize it actually surpassed Star Wars and became the highest grossing film of all time. This lasted for an incredible 11 years until another Spielberg creation, Jurassic Park, broke the record. It’s still considered one of the best movies ever made. It was nominated for 9 Oscars and won four of them.

There was actually a sequel that was planned written by Spielberg himself that was going to be called E.T II: Nocturnal Fears. This is a real thing…The plot was going to be based around Eliot and his friends being kidnapped by evil aliens and would follow their attempts to contact E.T for help. This feels like the Bodyguard with Whitney Houston set in space. Spielberg eventually bailed on it thinking it would rob the original of all its greatness.

He was probably right.

Like any big movie franchise merchandising played a big role in the spread of the movie and the concept of releasing a video game presented itself. Any movie or T.V show that comes out now seems to automatically have a video game associated it but this wasn’t common practice in 1982. Here’s some actual movie based video games:

  • Beetlejuice
  • Austin Powers
  • Waynes World
  • The Blair Witch Project
  • Bram Stoker’s Dracula
  • And, not making this up; White Men Can’t Jump

Development of the game

A man named Howard Scott Warshaw was the man behind the E.T video game. He was the creator of the insanely popular Yars Revenge game and had actually made a movie based video game before. It actually involved Spielberg and Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. This was actually the first movie adapted into a video game and was a massive success so it makes sense that Spielberg and company would go this route again and obviously turn to Warshaw.

It took 10 months to make Raiders which included writing code, getting feedback, reprogramming it and putting it through qulity control. This is still a pretty quick time to turn around a video game, keep that in mind….

Here’s the big problem from that year; getting any form of video game out by Christmas is absolutely paramount and Spielberg and Atari were haggling over money for months cutting into the game design time. By the end of all this, they only had 5 weeks to make the Christmas deadline but Warshaw said he could do it.

He only had 36 hours to come up with the concept of the game. Spielberg wanted something like Pac-Man but with E.T having to eat Reeses Pieces. Warshaw wanted to make something elaborate involving E.T able to go to different worlds as opposed to stuck on one screen like so many other games. E.T would be able to travel in many directions but also fall down into pits. Spielberg eventually signed off on the game and Warshaw was now under the gun. He even had a console installed in his house to essentially be working on it 24/7.

But he did it. He completed a video game in 5 weeks. The hype for this game was through the roof and it also leads to this piece of Christmas magic:

Game Play Problems

I remember playing this game as my neighbor had got it for Christmas. I don’t recall kids ever being so excited for a game and the packaging and cartridge art made it look amazing. I remember thinking how frustrating it was. My neighbour, who loved everything, had trouble hiding his dissatisfaction for it.

The problem comes in that form of frustration. Not only that, it’s confusing as hell. All you knew is you had to collect some pieces of a telephone (to phone home, get it…) and avoid government agents trying to catch E.T. Since there were multiple worlds and you could go in every direction there was no flow or progress to the game. It’s not like a Mario game where you knew you were continuously moving from left to right.

The other thing that sucked is you were always screwing up by no fault of your own. You would constantly fall into this pits and moved out of the pit and into other screens made you instantly fall down it again. Also, you just had no idea what the hell you were doing. You keep coming back to the same screens and that is infuriating.

The pieces of the phone were scattered in the pits and you had an energy bar that would drop every time E.T would move or fall in a damn pit. You could find Reese’s Piece’s to restore some of that energy but they just looked like little pebbles.  

I don’t have a lot of memories of it but I remember my neighbour giving up on it really quickly and going back to playing Adventure. Kids generally will stick with a game providing that the gameplay is good. It should leave you wanting more and the sentiment here was, this sucks ass. So if we were feeling this would that mean other kids all over the country would be too?


What Was The Initial Response To The E.T Video Game

Even if kids hated it there was no way to share this at first. Even if the internet and texting existed most 8-year-olds wouldn’t have had access to that anyway. It would all have to come by word of mouth but that can take awhile. Since there was so much hype to the E.T game the initial sales were really strong. E.T was at the top of the charts for video games reaching #4 in the top 15 of the year. It also sold 1.5 million copies.

But they made 4 million of them.

Retailers started reporting that E.T was not meeting expectations sales wise. Low sales combined with excess inventory added to kids hating and returning the game is like the perfect storm of retail hell. There are some reports that there were more E.T video game cartridges made than there were Atari units.

So now you’ve got a huge movie that is universally loved and praised and the video game version which kids were using as frisbees. A lot of money was put into the licensing of this game and they were not seeing the returns. There was now becoming a real negative association with E.T in general.

But it would get worse

The Backlash & Downfall Of Atari

Atari had been on top of the world. They were basically the only game in town and could put out any piece of crap game that they wanted. What were you going to do? Go play Nintendo? Sorry, that didn’t even exist yet. But other competitors were starting to enter the market (the NES would come out in 1985). It wasn’t the main factor but the failure of the E.T video game was connected to Atari losing $536 million in 1983. E.T was giving the Atari 2600 a bad name and people were starting to distance themselves from the console. It was said that the failure of the E.T video game was responsible for ending the product life of the Atari 2600.

As I mentioned Atari wasn’t the only game in town. You know had:

  • Atari 5200
  • ColecoVision
  • Odyssey
  • Intellivision
  • Coleco Gemini
  • The Sears Tele-Game System (that sounds terrible)

Add to this that the home computer was starting to take off. You now had the Apple I and the Commodore 64 which were much more advanced machines and capable of so much more than just playing a game. The big move happened when these computers cut their prices in half, notably the Commodore 64. Why would you buy a video game system when you could get a better value home computer that played video games too?

(Here’s a great commercial of Commodore 64 ripping Atari a new one. Go to 5:56 in this YouTube collection)

When you combine this along with the flood of crappy Atari games that were on the market, and the monumental failure of the E.T video game, it started a snowball effect on Atari and the video game industry. Retailers started stocking less Atari video games and sales dropped from $3.2 billion in 1982 to only $100 million in 1985.

Atari’s value ended up dropping by $1.3 billion and shares lowered from $54 to $34. Even in 1982, their revenues were cut by 50% and they thought that was going to be the worst of it.

The company would end up becoming divided up and then sold in 1984.

The Renewed Interest & The Game Over Documentary

Wikipidia Commons

Thanks to the introduction of the Nintendo Entertainment system in 1985 video games would experience an absolute renaissance and would change everything forever. Nintendo would lead to a whole new generation of video games and consoles. This obviously saved the video game industry and allowed for Atari, and the E.T video game, to fade into the background.

Somewhere along the way through an urban legend started to grow. As years went by and people looked back on video games the E.T video game was starting to cement itself as the worst game ever created.

And then there was this:

A random throw away article appeared in the Alamogordo Daily News in New Mexico in September 1983. It made mention about 10-20 semi-trailer truckloads hit their local dump carrying Atari boxes and cartridges from their warehouse in El Paso, Texas. It was reported that all of this was crushed and buried in the city landfill. Atari wouldn’t say what was in this giant dumping but it was reported that it contained a majority of the nearly 3.5 million unsold E.T Atari video games.

A New York Times article from September, 1983 also shared this story.

This story was left alone but somehow remained in the conscious of video game nerds and grew into somewhat of an urban legend. The story continued to grow and in 2013 entertainment based company Fuel Industries was allowed to excavate the burial site. In the early hours of excavation E.T cartridges started being discovered. This was documented in the awesome documentary Atari: Game Over.  This should still be on Netflix so you need to watch it.

If you don’t think this whole situation wasn’t irrelevant in December, 2014 the freaking Smithsonian Institution added an excavated cartridge to their collection. In 2015, The Henry Ford museum – for some reason – added several excavated cartridges, dirt, and items of clothing by the excavation team.

Wrapping It Up

The story of the E.T video game by Atari is an absolute classic. It’s a great example of companies getting too cocky for their own good and the fallout that can happen. It’s also an amazing story how 8-year olds who basically didn’t give a crap about this tripe being shoved down their throats could essentially take down an entire industry.

The E.T video game is probably not the worst video game ever made but to me, it may be. I haven’t played every video game ever but it sticks with me as being so uneventful and disappointing that it makes it hard to think of anything worse. There’s nothing worse for companies than indifference by their customers. In this case, it lead to the downfall of a company and a real place in pop culture history.

Is there any other video games you found to be worse? Feel free to share below!