During my life I’ve read a lot of top 10s, a lot of list of best things and even more lists of worst things.
I did created some list myself, we all make lists, we all classify everything, we all say that something is good or that something is bad but most of times we do not sit down neither a moment to really think about all this things we like to coldly catalogate, we do not want to think about what is behind the realization of a certain product and most of times we only go with the flow, we follow the popular opinion, we think as other people think just because it has to be like that, just because if thousand and thousand people say the same thing, so maybe it must be true.
As in all human things, even the video gaming industry has its own lists; highest grossing games, commercial flops, most copies sold, less unit produced, but one list is the worst of them all, the most depressing for all the things listed within and most of all the worst for all the people that are behind these things, the list of the worst games ever made.
This should be a 50:50 list: half “scientific”, based on the numbers, on the success or insuccess of a game and half “emotional”, based on the personal grade and on the personal experience with a game. So it’s rather sad to see that all the lists begin (or end, it depends if you start from the top or from the bottom) always with the same title: the Atari 2600 E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
You don’t have to think I want to be the devil’s advocate or that I want to be a revisionisit, just because it’s mainstream to say things that are not mainstream, but I think that a lot of people never paid enough attention on this game, they never thought about what was behind the scenes and what was the set that saw its rise and fall.
First thing first, let’s be honest: E.T. is not a good game. It’s hard, it’s unfair, it’s annoying if not frustrating, it’s approximate and it’s a thousand light years away from the game Atari and its creator, Howard Scott Warshaw wanted it to be.
But let’s even face the truth, wind back the tape and jump back to the early 80s when Atari spent an inconceivable amount of money (something like 20-25 million $ – in the early 80s) to get the rights to realize a game based on E.T. the movie on their Atari 2600. It’s the summer of 1982, precisely in July and Atari decided that they have to ride the wave and take advantage of the success of the movie so the game had to be ready for Christmas. It’s a period of 5 months and there was just the time to have a good idea, code it as fast as possible and start to produce the cartridges.
But producing the cartridges took almost two months and Ray Kassar, CEO of Atari called Howard Scott Warshaw, the developer of the game on July 27th. The task was as easy as it was hard to fulfil: create a game from zero in 5 weeks, while developing a game in normal conditions usually took 5-6 months. At least.
Warshaw, despite facing an impossible challenge, barely saw the opportunity to become the man who turned E.T. into a brilliant video game and with a mix of recklesness and pride started to work; he even installed a proper coding station in his house to work up to 24 hours a day. After the five weeks period he submit his work to Atari and to Spielberg. Both were fine with what they saw, even because there was no extra-time to modify or change something: the game HAD TO BE ok. So the cartridge of E.T the Extra-Terrestrial was put quickly into production, right in time for Christmas ’82.
Warshaw himself later admitted that when he met Spielberg the first time and he explained him the philosphy of the game, the director asked why it wasn’t more Pac-Man style. But Warshaw had different ideas and he wanted E.T. to be a game that could capture the magic of the movie, in which people could empathize with E.T. and live again the feelings of the original story.
Atari prepared a great number of cartridges of the game, around 5 millions, expecting that the success of the movie would have driven up the sales of the console itself; it was the same idea Atari had for Pac-Man for which 12 millions of cartridges were produced, compared to the 10 millions of VCS on the market. At first the sales were lukewarm with 1,5 millions of units sold at a retail price of 40$, giving a gross total of 60 million $: not bad but not enough to think that E.T. would have been another big hit for Atari, especially after the ridiculous price spent for the rights for the conversion.
The big problems came on surface a bit later. A lot of players considered E.T. a difficult and unfair game, developed approximatively; in the end an horrible game. They started to return the copies of the game to the retailers that began to return the cartridges to Atari, following the standard procedure of the time and waiting to be refunded with new titles. But Atari didn’t have anything neither remotely decent to sell and a lot of small retailers folded, leaving the market without decent tiles and Atari balance sheet dramatically in the red.
This was only one of many episodes of the video game crash, but later on the literature and the storiography, looking after a scapegoat, pointed their finger on the poor E.T. and by reflex on everyone involved with the project.
Today, more than 30 years have passed, Atari (the REAL Atari) doesn’t exist anymore and we can look back ant E.T. from a different point of view. There are other games in video game history, not only for Atari 2600, but even for other platforms that were way worse than E.T. that paid the price for being a conversion of a great movie, realized in a short time and on the brink of a disaster. 1983 was the annus horribilis for the home consoles industry and E.T. was only one of the hundreds of causes of the disaster. E.T was the son of an era that was close to the extintion, was only a product of a particular way to conceive the video games industry, that now, in 2017 looks stupid and out of fashion, but back then was the only way existing in a market that was still young, very young. And when you’re young it’s easy to make mistakes.
E.T. was not the cause of the disaster, but was the consequence of all the causal factors that led to disaster, it was something that was born on the edge of a whirlwind, in the wrong place and at the wrong time.
I would like to make a sort of experment with all of you: if you have a VCS and you have the E.T. cartridge (you can even easily buy one for a bargain) or if you have a partially unreal but more easy to find emulated version of it, try to play it. Swear in front of it, get mad for all the fucking holes in which E.T. falls every second, shout against the F.B.I. agent that chase you but think only for a moment on how this game was ideated, developed and produced and in which context.
Probably you’ll find out you will always hate it but maybe you’ll understand that the story will be a bit different than how you’ve been told.