It’s been called the worst video game of all time. Some people even credit it with causing the 1983 video game crash that nearly ruined the industry. A common legend surrounding the game is that it was so bad that Atari buried all of the unsold copies under a layer of cement in Alamogordo, New Mexico.
Of course, all of these statements are half truths at best. E.T. did not cause the catastrophe of 1983, and the idea that it is the worst video game ever is a completely subjective viewpoint. The mythical burial site is based in a modicum of truth. In 2014, Zak Penn directed the film “Atari: Game Over” about the 1983 crash. In the film, he locates the burial site. That’s right. It does exist, but it wasn’t simply a site to dump unsold E.T. cartridges. The excavation revealed all sort of Atari merchandise at the location. In addition to E.T., there were copies of classics like Yar’s Revenge, Defender, Centipede, and many more. In total, it was estimated that there were some 700,000 cartridges buried at the site.
So, what about the game itself? The title was released in 1982 after a $22 million dollar deal was reached with Steven Spielberg for the rights to his classic sci-fi film. The game sold around 1.5 million copies, a respectable number, though with the company producing 4 million cartridges, there were plenty left over.
Howard Scott Warshaw designed the game. Prior to E.T., Warshaw had designed Yar’s Revenge and Raiders of the Lost Ark. His work on Raiders led Spielberg to request him specifically for involvement in development of E.T. In interviews, Warshaw stated that Atari wanted the game to be available for Christmas. The licensing deal with Spielberg was completed in late July, and so Warshaw had around 5 ½ weeks to complete the game.
The game put you in control of E.T. Your mission was to collect three parts of a telephone that would let E.T. “phone home.” Along the way, E.T. lost energy, but could regain it by collecting Reese’s Pieces. Once you collected all the pieces of the phone and phoned home, you had to reach the ship in the woods. It would pick you up and whisk you away from earth. The game then started again, with the pieces of the phone in new locations. Along the way, you had to deal with an FBI agents and scientists out to interfere with E.T.’s journey. In addition, the phone pieces were located in pits which you had to enter. Once you collected the piece, you had to levitate out again.
It wasn’t a perfect game, but the “worst ever” label is a bit absurd, the sort of wild hyperbole that seems to thrive in certain sectors of the gaming community. E.T. even has some notable defenders. Among them is Ernest Cline, author of Ready Player One. He notes the games innovations: it contained a complete world which was mapped out on a cube, it was loaded with Easter Eggs, and contained a level of emotional depth not found in many other titles.
Despite all of this, the game’s notoriety is unlikely to fade. Whatever your final opinion on the game, it’s impossible to dispute that it marked a seminal moment in video game history.