‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’ set the (low) bar for film-video game tie-ins

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E.T. the Extra Terrestrial
Atari
Atari 2600
1982

Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (E.T.) is a critically acclaimed film that was release in the summer of 1982. The video game adapted from the film on the other hand, is unequivocally known as the worst video game in history. Its legendary disappointment reached mythical proportions when Atari buried a mountain of unsold cartridges in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Last year, E.T. was unearthed, increasing the game’s mythos. One lucky (or unlucky) cartridge made it to The Smithsonian, a symbol of the video game crash that lasted three long years from 1982 to 1985.

E.T. also has the distinction of being the first film-video game tie-in failure. In the game, you play as the title character who is searching for three pieces of an interplanetary telephone so that he can phone home for a ride, before you are captured by government officials and turned into a science experiment. Elliot, a human boy who is sympathetic to E.T.’s cause, can be summoned after he has found nine pieces of candy to help him retrieve the three parts of the phone. The game’s story is loosely based on the scene in which E.T. and Elliot put together a phone out of a pile of random items found around the house. Howard Scott Warshaw, the game designer, thought this would be an entertaining way to engage players in Spielberg’s story. If you are going to pluck a plot point from the film, putting together an interplanetary phone seems like a logical choice for a children’s adventure game. E.Thas the ability to levitate items and heal, and moving through environments inspired by the film and using E.T.’s powers to remove obstacles or dodge enemies could have been fun. 

Despite being sold as an adventure game however, most players found themselves bored with the game in a matter of minutes. Rather than a side scrolling platformer, players were greeted with a top down obstacle course drenched in green. You spend large chunks of time falling into pits, mostly by accident, and collecting Reese’s Pieces that look like little green dots. Good luck getting out of those pits, by the way. The game was programmed so that if any part of E.T.’s sprite touches a pit, he will tumble in. This game mechanic led to frustrated gamers who desperately wanted their money back.

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Once all three parts of the phone are collected, you have to find a location with good reception, place your call to the home planet, then book it to the rendezvous point within the given time limit without getting caught by police or government scientists. Safely on board the ship, the game ends and you are taken back to the beginning so that, you know, you can replay all the riveting action in the next level.

E.T. isn’t just the industry’s biggest failure, it is also the industry’s earliest example of the dangers of rushing a game to completion in order to capitalize on a popular franchise. After Atari talked Spielberg into selling them the rights to E.T. in July of 1982, Warshaw was given the greenlight  and asked to complete the game by September of that same year, so that the game could be in consoles before Christmas. They had a little over five weeks, FIVE WEEKS, to make a fully functioning best-selling game. This wasn’t a challenge in 1982–this was an impossible quest. E.T. had the potential to be a classic game about an alien and his boy, what we got instead was the a game that had gamers bitterly bidding farewell to the video game industry.

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E.T. not only failed as a video game in its own right, it failed to capture any of the magic from the film. Rather than feeling as though they were part of a larger cinematic universe, gamers felt disconnected. There is a serious lack of giant pits in the movie. Government agents also lack the power to magically appear out of thin air on screen wherever E.T. happens to be. Audiences did see a lot of sneaking around, but that aspect is noticeably missing. Instead, E.T. is running around out in the open where anyone can spot him.

Another key component that was missing from the game is the lack of any real consequences. There was a weight to the film that was absent from the game. At the movie’s climax, audiences were in tears. In the video game ,however, there is no build up or tension. If you are caught, you are taken to a strange building on a blue screen, and you worry for about two seconds, but then you realize you can escape with great ease. The only cause of death in the game is a lack of energy.

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Granting E.T. a little slack for gameplay, it is still one of the worst video games ever created. It set the bar for film-video game tie-ins (which explains a lot, honestly), is the precedent for capitalizing on the popularity of a franchise, and encourages companies to rush games out the door. While none of these things worked in Atari’s favor, major players in the video game industry have taken E.T.’s failures and made minor tweaks so that they are able to turn a profit.

Not everything about E.T.’s legacy is horrible. In a way E.T. is the grandfather of rage-quit games. It is a game that tests your skills, patience, and the ability to resist the urge to break your controller  as you navigate an 8-bit world. Without E.T. there would be no games like Super Meat Boy, VVVVVV, or Cat Mario. Atari’s take on E.T. may have plunged video games into the dark ages for three years, but it also pushed companies to produce better games, and for that we are grateful E.T. is part of video game history.

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