Remembering the Classics: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

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t’s simply human nature to make mistakes. Despite our best efforts, human beings are flawed creatures who will fail and succeed in equal measure. We’ve all seen the product of failure in the entertainment industry countless times. For every major commercial flop on the market that people like to laugh at, it’s a harsh truth that there was an entire team that worked tirelessly to create the equivalent of visual garbage. Obviously no one likes to fail at anything, but how someone deals with failure is usually a good indicator of character. Some people like to view mistakes as valuable life lessons and choose to embrace them as means to move forward. This almost always makes the person or group in question more endearing to the public. Then you have the other people who will do everything they can to hide their past transgressions from those around them.

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1982’s E.T.the Extra-Terrestrial proved that Atari, Inc. was very much in the latter category. The story E.T. is an urban legend within the video game industry. After that game’s insane commercial failings, Atari supposedly buried truckloads of crushed Atari systems and E.T. cartridges encased in cement in a New Mexico landfill. It’s generally accepted that the astronomically poor reception to E.T. was a huge contributing factor to both Atari’s bankruptcy in 1984 and the North American video game crash of 1983 when the industry hit a massive recession. The supposed burial site has been inspected extensively and excavation was actually underway for a time, but it was further delayed due to hazard concerns. As of April 3rd though it looks like the digging will resume within Alamogordo, New Mexico. That’s right, E.T. might finally be able to go home after all.

It’s almost amazing how different two properties on the same subject can be. The 1982 film by Steven Spielberg is considered to be one of the greatest movies ever made. It was nominated for an incredible amount of awards, including Best Picture, and is still adored by the public as a whole. Seriously, who doesn’t love E.T.? The video game couldn’t be any more different. Atari successfully secured the rights to make a video game adaptation in July 1982 with the insane desire to release the game by Christmas. This gave designer Howard Scott Warshaw only five and a half weeks to create an entire game for the Atari 2600. Considering how critically acclaimed the film was (and still is), pre-release reception was incredibly high. The industry was young so a video game adaptation of a movie was a fairly new idea. What people got though wasn’t a delightful recreation of a timeless classic. They got what is now considered to be the worst game in history.

Since E.T. had the distinction of being connected to a beloved film, the game was commercially successful. It was a highly sought after Christmas present. That quickly subsided though when people realized how unimaginably terrible the game was. Literally nothing about it was viewed positively by anyone. Critics found the story to be extremely uninteresting and the gameplay to be impossible. The game completely revolved around E.T. collecting Reese’s Pieces for energy so he can collect phones from Elliot to return to his homeworld. He traveled through six environments, all connected to the film, and he has to avoid scientists and FBI agents. One major complaint critics had in this regard was how difficult it was to pull our friendly alien out of these wells that filled the map. Many people got so frustrated they immediately returned the game upon purchase. It also didn’t help that the game had absolutely abysmal graphics. That’s right, for 1982 these blocky graphics were considered the worst.

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Despite its many failings, it would be unfair to blame industry downfall entirely on E.T. It just ended up becoming the ultimate personification of that dark time. The industry was still very young but companies like Atari, Mattel, and Activision were riding an apparent boom. Arcades gained popularity on the backs of mega hits like Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and Space Invaders. This caused many inexperienced companies to rush into the growing market in an attempt to make big money. None of the games released were considered high quality though, and the market rapidly became inundated with content no one wanted to buy. Companies were over producing and underselling. E.T. was simply that big nail in the already built coffin that destroyed consumer confidence. If a game based on a major motion picture can fail so immensely, what else is left?

This of course makes E.T. one of the most historical and influential games to ever exist. By being so terrible, this game set the absolute bottom standard. It proved that even the most profitable of brands can sink like the Titanic with poor development and planning. E.T.’s failure also guaranteed the collapse of Atari and subsequently the North American market as a whole. This meant that Nintendo had the perfect opportunity to make their inaugural Nintendo Entertainment System the number one console in the world. So while E.T. was the failed epitome of a collapsing industry in North America, it opened the door to a recovery that was spearheaded by Japan. Nintendo even implemented a rule that put a cap on how many licensed games can be released per year. This ultimately prevented the market from becoming oversaturated with content no one cared about.

I’m not even going to pretend to say that I’ve played E.T. before. That game predates me by a full seven years. By the time I was born, the industry had already recovered and Atari systems had almost completely become a thing of the past. Nintendo was in and Sega was doing everything it could to take them down. As a video game aficionado though, the failure of E.T. absolutely fascinates me. Failure on that scale is almost unfathomable today. The same can be said about destroying all unsold copies and burying the remains in a landfill. Can you imagine if Nintendo, Sony, or Microsoft did the something similar right now? It would absolutely decimate their image. I can only imagine that’s how people felt about Atari back in 1982. It certainly didn’t help restore faith in an industry people had grown tired of.

While there are plenty of reports claiming that this site in New Mexico is where these mythical E.T. remains are, it’s still all speculation right now. The excavation could be completed and nothing could be found. But I’m sure we’re all hoping that the dig sponsored by Microsoft and Lightbox Entertainment will officially solve this urban legend. E.T. is the exact type of game that belongs in a museum somewhere. Not because it was technologically groundbreaking by any means. It belongs to history because of how much of a dark spot the game was on an industry that now makes billion of dollars in revenue every year. People behind E.T. tend to look back on the game now with a smile, acknowledging their failure while taking pride in how much the industry has grown since then. Quite a far cry from burying it underground as if to pretend it never happened.

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