Friday, May 09, 2014

E.T.: The Game

The E.T. video game for the Atari 2600 has been in the news recently. I'm going to weigh in, because I actually played this game as a kid. Back then, I didn't think the game was that bad. In fact, I might have even - gasp - enjoyed playing it! (To a point.)

Sometimes, I wonder how many of the people who bash the game have actually tried playing it themselves. And even if they did try playing the game, I have to wonder how many of them understood how the game works, or - gasp - read the instructions. The game was obviously a huge commercial failure - can't dispute that - but in terms of "worst video games ever", I don't know about that.

(screenshot from Wikipedia)

Gameplay can be summarized thusly. There are six screens, and many of them have deep pits, and you have to go into those pits looking for pieces of a telephone so that you can, you know, "phone home". Along the way, eat a bunch of "Reese's pieces" (a.k.a. dots) so that you don't die. Collect all the telephone pieces, and then search around aimlessly looking for the very spot somewhere in those six screens (there's only one) where the icon at the top of the screen indicates that this where the spaceship will come pick you up. Then, press the button on the joystick, and the spaceship takes you home. You win! Would you like to play again?

(Also, depending on the game settings, you may also have a scientist and FBI agent chasing you around. I always played the "Children's Version", which meant that I basically had no enemies.)

Now, a few points I'd like to make in the game's defense:
- This was 1982, not 2012. Games had pretty simple premises and gameplay back then.
- Falling into pits over and over again searching for pieces of a telephone gets old after a while, sure. Can't the same be said for every basic mechanic you do in a video game? Especially in that era?
- Searching around the map aimlessly looking for something can get old after a while, but this is basically a staple of "adventure" or "role playing" games, even today, right? You need to find something. Where is it? I don't know! You have to find it, and it might take you a while. "E.T." is hardly the only game ever created that's like this.
- One pit per game had a flower, and if you found it, the icon at the top of the screen turned into a smiley face, and that was nice. For me, finding the flower was as much a part of the game as assembling the telephone.
- The game sold 1.5 million copies. It's not like the game came out was immediately labeled as one of the worst video games ever. They sold a lot of copies. Sure, it has some flaws, but they're not game-breaking flaws, and certainly not worthy of "worst game of all time" in my book.

I don't think this game would be considered the worst of all time by anyone if it weren't for the millions of unsold cartridges, and the now famous story about how they were buried in a landfill. It's kind of like when a 85,000-seat football stadium has, say, 15,000 empty seats. Everybody starts talking about how bad attendance is and how the fans don't support the team, even through there are still 70,000 people at the game. It's not that the fans don't support the team; it's just that they overestimated demand and built too many seats! In the same way that empty seats at a football game look bad, so do millions of unsold game cartridges.

As far as which game actually deserves the title of "worst video game of all time"...oh, I don't know. But if we're going to stick with the Atari 2600, I'd say the worst/dumbest/least fun/most confusing Atari game I ever played is something called Swordquest. But, then again, I never read the instructions, so...


Walter Kolczynski said...

Not on the Atari, but the worst game ever is "Desert Bus".'s_Smoke_and_Mirrors#Desert_Bus

Anonymous said...

Swordquest absolutely was the dumbest game ever made. What made it even worse was that the box cover was so cool. Then, with these high expectations, you put the game in and try to play it, and nothing you saw or did even remotely resembled a video game in any sense of the word.

Not only was Swordquest the dumbest game ever made, it was and remains the dumbest game that could ever possibly be made. Given an infinite number of universes and an infinite amount of time, Swordquest would still be the pinnacle of dumbness produced by such infinite infinitude. I still feel the pain of this game. I still remember the dumbness...