E.T. For the Atari 2600 - The worst game in history

Here’s a question that’ll likely get some cages rattlin’: What is the worst game of all time? Is it Duke Nukem Forever? Superman 64? Aliens: Colonial Marines? Sonic ’06? Daikatana? Ride To Hell: Retribution?

The answers, in order, are no, no, no, no, no and… Actually, it could be that last one. But considering that’s not what everybody’s expecting, let’s skip the facade and get straight to it: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600 is apparently the kind of legendary failure that has been equaled only two times in the last century, by the Second World War and the invention of reality TV.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial was released in the tail-end of 1982 after a troubled and shockingly brief development period, flaunted as a major title that Atari had a lot invested in. The eventual product was an unmitigated disaster, with the public consenting to own a third of all the copies that had been made in the first place. Nowadays, the game is possessed only by historians of the medium, as well as a few deranged oddballs like the guy shown below.

Joel Franey with E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600

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See what I mean? Complete creep if I ever saw one.

But the process that generates such a failure (E.T., not Blondie) is rather an interesting one. See, right from the beginning Atari had put a self-imposed time limit on themselves, one that many companies still hold in place today – E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial had to be on shelves by Christmas of that year. Every day it was delayed marked the decline of the world’s obsession with the little grey alien, and Christmas was the ideal time to capitalise on that obsession for all that it was worth.

So Atari’s first goal was to acquire the rights to make the game, a process that immediately and brutally cost them twenty-two million dollars. That’s a bad sign right there. When you haven’t even had the first design meeting and could’ve already bought a whole street with the money you’ve spent, you might want to take your foot off the accelerator and have a few strategy meetings with the top-level guys before things get worse.

That wasn’t going to happen though, mainly because nobody had time for it. Upon the purchase of those adaptation rights, the green light was immediately given to the production staff to start work on slapping this thing together. But a game that needed to be in the shops by December only got started at the end of July, and most of that intervening time would be needed for manufacturing. A-lister game designer Howard Scott Warshaw and a small team were given only five weeks to put a blockbuster title together, a request so utterly stress-inducing and unreasonable that Warshaw was allegedly offered two hundred thousand dollars and a free holiday in Hawaii. How coincidental that it sounds like they were giving him the means to flee the country and change his identity after his work was finished.

I certainly can’t blame Warshaw for E.T. going wrong. Asking somebody to make a smash-hit game in just over a month is like asking a person to write and record a chart-busting single in a weekend. Even Spielberg’s input to make something more akin to Pac-Man wasn’t really an option here – there just wasn’t time for any of it. Atari were so desperately chomping at the bit that they didn’t even bother to play test the final result or show it to any focus group audiences – because surely they’d love it, right?

Wrong. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial was released on schedule, but then rejected wholeheartedly by the public, who refused to buy and sent back three and a half million of the five million copies constructed. Bad news for all the kids who got this toxic mess sitting under their tree on Christmas morn, but even worse news for Atari, who had tied most of their financial stability to the success of this game, much in the way that one might tie themselves to a heavy weight before they throw it into the ocean. The company reported losses of over half a billion dollars in the aftermath of the whole affair, literally throwing the unwanted copies into a hole in the New Mexico desert. And whilst their financial problems were not the sole fault of E.T., it certainly didn’t help when things were already starting to take a turn for the worse.

Atari Game Burial SiteIn the next year the world would come to witness the infamous Video Game Crash of ’83, where the whole industry’s value plummeted like a shot pigeon. Many have claimed that E.T. was largely or even solely responsible for this, but it bears mentioning that there were a lot of other factors that were making this ship leak, even before the little alien ever made the jump to video games. I confess that there may be an argument for saying that E.T. was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but it certainly didn’t bring down the whole business by itself. That would almost to be to give the game too much credit.

The reason I say this is that E.T. seems to have been labelled as terrible only in hindsight. At the time the response wasn’t good, but it certainly wasn’t universally detested. There were positive reviews amongst the bad ones, and the phrase “worst game ever” wasn’t anywhere near the critic’s lips. A poll in Softline magazine didn’t even call it the worst Atari game of the year, and several publications were pretty positive. The choice to degrade E.T. so vehemently is more attributable to its effect on the industry, which is hardly the game’s fault. At any other time in history, it would’ve popped up and fallen back down. After all, nobody really talks about Jupiter Rising anymore, do they?

Today E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial exists mainly as a symbol of poor business choices and as an example of where having very little respect for an audience can get you – an example that most of the big businesses seem to have ignored in the decades since. Atari certainly don’t appear to have taken it into account, hence why that abysmal Alone In The Dark game flopped out onto the Steam Store last year. Thanks for that, Atari. We love you too.