I Pity the Fool Who Doesn’t Phone Home

Atari: Game Over – This documentary from last year discusses the rise and fall of Atari, centered around the excavation of the 1983 dump of video games in the New Mexico desert. It focuses on the 1982 game E.T the Extra-Terrestrial, often cited as the worst game ever and the destroyer of the video game industry.

In truth, that’s rather too strong. It’s not a good game, but it’s playable and creative, and the E.T. sprite is actually pretty good for its time.

For comparison, here’s how Indiana Jones looked in the Raiders of the Lost Ark game from the same year.

But then, whenever you see a list of, say, the worst movies, most of us have seen movies that were worse than anything on it. What makes the list isn’t the absolute worst, most of which would be incredibly obscure for good reason; but mostly films with a big budget and a lot of hype that ended up with a poor showing at the box office. It’s much the same way with E.T., a very heavily promoted game that was rushed out for the holidays, leaving the programmer only five and a half weeks to complete it. I’d also say it’s too ambitious for its own good, as there’s a lot going on there for an Atari 2600 game. It’s not obvious what you’re supposed to do like it is in many games, and even when you know it’s quite difficult. You have to find the parts of E.T.’s interstellar telephone at the bottoms of holes, but which holes contain components is totally random, and it drains your health to fall into and teleport out of the pits.

When you have all the parts, you have to take the completed device to a particular location to use it. What’s more, there’s a scientist who tries to capture you, and an FBI agent who steals your items. It doesn’t help matters that E.T. was not a movie that translates well into a game, a common problem with games of the sort. If only E.T. had been shooting down other spaceships instead of befriending children and serving as an allegedly unintentional Christ figure! I’d still say it’s not as bad as the Atari 2600 Pac-Man, a game everybody already knew and loved marred by a terrible adaptation.

So was the rumor of the buried Atari cartridges true? Yes, but apparently only about ten percent of them were E.T., and others were ones that sold quite well.

I kind of find it odd that it was deemed more financially viable to bury the games than sell them, even if they had to sell at a loss, but apparently Atari was really hurting at that point. Regardless, I doubt one bad game would have been enough to destroy a previously profitable industry. There were several different reasons for the crash, not just a lovable alien falling into holes in the ground. I understand that a fictionalized version of the burial is the subject of the Angry Video Game Nerd Movie, but although I’ve been a fan of his for a while, I still haven’t seen the film. It’s so much easier to be a fan of something that’s free.

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