Thursday, July 24, 2014

Retro Game Review -- E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (Atari 2600)

SystemAtari 2600
Publisher: Atari
Ranking: Two Quarters

Like many young Atari owners in the early 1980s, I remember getting E.T. for Christmas. I was pretty young when the movie was released and only had a vague awareness of its immense cultural impact. I was, however, smart enough to recognize a wrapped Atari game under the Christmas tree, and I most assuredly tore it open with reckless abandon. As soon as my mother deemed it socially acceptable, it was in my wood-grained Atari and I was off to the races. Well, actually, I was off to the bottom of an endless torment of pits.

What is up with all those pits? I don't remember pits being an essential element of the movie. In the video game, poor little E.T. falls into them faster than Boba Fett getting sucked into the Sarlacc Pit. The worst part was that you had to deliberately fall into these death traps in order to beat the game. Hidden at the bottom of a very select few of these pits were the three pieces to E.T.'s transgalactic telephone that he needed to call home. Surprisingly, the 11 page manual fails to explain how the pieces ended up in the pits. I like to think that it was because E.T. smashed his phone to pieces after his buddies left the planet screaming, "Dear, God, why did you leave me in this game?"

It has probably been commented on many times before, but it is ironic that one of the most enduring myths about this game is that millions of unsold copies ended up IN A PIT in New Mexico. The story goes that E.T. was so bad that it single handily brought down the entire video game industry. The correlation equal causation argument runs that prior to E.T.'s release, North American video game revenues were $3.2 BILLION. Less than two years after E.T.'s release, revenues had plummeted to $100 MILLON. Things were so bad that rather than sell E.T. for pennies on the dollar, Atari thought it was a better idea to bury the millions of unsold copies. It's a tall tale for a short alien.

Over the years, classic gamers loved debating the veracity of the myth like two teenagers playing Pong at a bar in the early seventies. If it wasn't for Fuel Entertainment, it is likely that the debate would still be going on today. Partnering with XBox Entertainment Studios and Lightbox, Fuel Entertainment set out to reveal the truth behind the myth. They would find the site, excavate the pit, and document the experience. After a protracted approval process, they received permission from the city of Alamogordo, NM to dig at alleged burial site site on April 26, 2014. In the presence of many luminaries, including Ernie Cline, writer of Ready Player One, and Howard Scott Warshaw, creator of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, they uncovered the truth. Ernie's blog entry is a great first-person account of the event.

It turns out that for all these years E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial was indeed buried in a pit. Major news outlets declared, "Myth confirmed!". Alas, the subtleties of actual facts were once again lost on the mainstream media. While E.T. was buried in the pit many, many more games were buried alongside the lovable little alien. These titles included Adventure, Star Raiders, Ms. Pac-man, Space Invaders, and Yar's Revenge, arguably the most critically acclaimed game for the Atari 2600. E.T. wasn't even the most plentiful game. Copies of Defender, a blockbuster seller at the time, far outnumbered E.T. It appears that rather than covering up a singular critical flop, Atari was trying to pull the reset switch on their company console and start the game over again.

At the time of the burial, Atari was in a hard spot. The floor had fallen out of the video game market, and they were sitting on warehouses of games that nobody seemed to care about or even want. In order to cut their losses, the sharp business folks at Atari felt it would be a good idea to close extraneous warehouses and dump the goods in landfills. Alamogordo was the final resting place for the products from the El Paso, TX warehouse. Odds are likely that there could be other, unknown, Atari graveyards scattered across the United States. If we, like the intrepid extra-terrestrial in the video game, were only to fling ourselves in pit after pit across this great country, we too might just discover some long forgotten retro-game treasure.

Personally, for all my antagonism towards the pits, I do not think that E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial single handedly brought down the video game industry of North America, nor do I think that E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is an especially bad game. I fondly remember the colorful, vibrant graphics and the pitter-patter of E.T.'s feet as he shuffled across the screen. The difficulty range was large and selectable. At the easiest setting any player that can spot the true-blue alien hiding in a pile of stuffed animals can succeed. On the other hand, I suspect you'll need the intelligence of HAL to beat the most difficult setting. In the middle, is a Goldilocks zone, where with perseverance and profanity, you can save little E.T. from the terrifying NASA scientists. At least for a time...

And that gets to the true tragedy of this game. After dodging thieving F.B.I. agents, fleeing probing scientists, levitating out of a moon's worth of craters, and collecting all the telephone pieces you are gratefully picked up by your extra-terrestrial friends and carried off to your adoring family. Or so you had hoped. Horrifically, rather than taking you home, your bastard friends drop you off in that same pit-infested wood around that nice boy Elliot's house to do it again, and again, and again...

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial "completed" game screen: back at Elliott's home. 
Retro Game Rankings: No Quarters to Four Quarters. It should be noted, that although the going price of an arcade game was a single quarter when many of these games first came out, I feel that true retro game fans would be willing to pay a little bit more to capture the glory of playing some of the truly great ones one more time.