A Jaundiced, Buck-Toothed Nightmare: A New Look At Atari’s ET

The ET game for the Atari has its own place in gaming legend as the game that was so bad it was literally buried in the desert. But is this stigma really worth it?

In the decades since the 1983 crash of the video game market, people have taken a somewhat softer view on E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), recognizing that Atari had many prior ailments, both industry-wide and internal, that made E.T.‘s flop more of a symptom than a direct cause. This isn’t to say that E.T. is innocent – its dull graphics, repetitive design, rushed production (developer Howard Scott Warshaw was given just over a month to complete the game – that it was completed at all is a remarkable feat) and air of a corporate cash-grab make for a perfect microcosm of the industry’s ails at the time.  But for my first feature at Autosave, I wanted to exhume (no pun intended) this oft-maligned game – it’s practically a requisite for any “Worst Games of All Time” list – and separate it from its historical context in an effort to find some nugget of gold, some redeeming factor in its 8KB of code that has been overlooked in the 30-plus years since.

Let me break it to you right away: I didn’t, at least not in the game as presented. As an action-adventure game licensed from Steven Spielberg’s hit family film, it is absolute garbage, nearly unplayable, and just a genuinely unpleasant experience. This isn’t a case of unfamiliarity with the era, either. To make sure, I played some 2600 classics like Pitfall and Space Invaders and, while primitive, they still hold up.

A licensed action-adventure game, however, is just E.T.‘s presentation. Games from this era generally required an overlay – originally literal, but soon evolving simply to one of imagination – to give meaning to the primitive graphics, and as I played it became clear that this game became much better if you just changed the overlay. Taken as a psychological horror game drawing from the worst aspects of early ’80s gaming, E.T. remains unpleasant, but its unpleasantness is taken into a novel and strangely compelling dimension. The game is tense, lonely, and doesn’t play as though it’s designed as an adaptation of the film of the same name.  

What it plays like is being put in the shoes of some foul spirit escaping its eternal torment, only to find itself caught in the endless purgatory dividing the afterlife from the physical world. If that sounds like a stretch, you’d be surprised.

 

“Who was this strange little homunculus I found myself thrust into the body of?”

 

A quick disclaimer: I have never seen Steven Spielberg’s E.T. As you’ll come to see, that may have been a boon to my experience. Lacking a display with the appropriate inputs for a 2600 I was forced to use my trusty Raspberry Pi, chock-full of emulators. It’s got some nice woodgrain, though, so it’s at least aesthetically appropriate.

With everything set-up, I booted the game and… yikes. Let me back up a bit first. By “never seen E.T.”, I don’t mean I’m going in totally blind. He’s an iconic character, his basic traits and looks practically burned into the collective memory of pop culture. I feel pretty confident that I’d know E.T. when I saw him. Further, in a licensed game, that the first thing you see when the game boots up would be the main character’s familiar face is a perfectly reasonable expectation.

That being said, this was no fucking E.T. that I have ever seen. E.T. is ugly, sure, but there’s a certain childlike charm to him. This creature was bloated and stretched. Cracks and holes in the pixels, intended to communicate detail, radiate the feeling of a tortured being using all its strength to not dissolve into the ether. The creature’s grin was split into massive buck teeth, big enough to cleave a redwood in half. Every inch of them is a sickening yellow. And the music, good lord, the music, a whining two-voice synth rendition of the E.T. theme. The wonder of John Williams’ score gives way to a pervasive sense of unease and tension. Like a poisonous frog, every aspect of this intro screamed at me to stay away. Like a starving hawk, I ignored it, blind to the fact that I was looking at a mirror, a reflection of a “me” to come.

I pressed Start, and whatever peace of mind I was hoping to attain by getting myself away from that screen eluded me as the music faded out into nothing, and did not pick up again. After a few seconds of silence came a sound not unlike an amateur noise band covering the Tardis sound effect. With it, a crude viscera-colored vessel delivering me into a mottled green plain. It was as I stepped out, getting a clearer look at my blocky, bulging form bearing only a glancing resemblance to anything, let alone a beloved pop-culture alien, that my suspicions about this being a game about something entirely separate from what its title implied were all but confirmed. My vessel left me, and I wandered aimlessly to the left. There I found a similar flat patch of land to the first; this one more uniform, a single shade of spring green broken up by broad splotches of a darker shade. Controller in hand, a chill came over me. Who was this strange little homunculus I found myself thrust into the body of? What was I doing? What were these massive spots on the ground? Was I alone? Save for the first, my questions would be answered faster than I was prepared to receive them as I waddled over to one of the spots and fell right in.

Speeding downwards, I was hit with a jarring shift from the top-down perspective of my adventure thus far to a side-scrolling one. My avatar remained the same, somehow remaining identical no matter from what angle I perceived them. I was in a deep pit, dug for some unknown gruesome purpose and illuminated by a shaft of light from above. But wait – to my left! Left? East? The perspective dulled my already-poor sense of direction in this hostile alien world. But wherever it was, it was. My first hint of a goal, an object, something in this world besides myself and the cruel vessel that abandoned me here.

It was – but what was it? It had the form of a shining golden rune of some sort. Wearily, I approached, anticipating the worst. A trap, a dormant predator, some evil thing that would prevent me from ever leaving this pit, much less this world. How did I plan to leave this pit, anyways? I couldn’t jump, and I wasn’t even sure that I had arms to climb with. With little to lose, I grabbed the rune, and… I just took it without much fuss. I felt that maybe that I was on the right path, that there was a path to follow at all. A strange sense of purpose filled me and my misshapen form.

 

ET Screenshot 1

 

On the plains, I could do little but run around and take whatever action the land decided for me. But in the pits, with these rune, I was something more. I reached deep down inside myself to draw out that hidden power, extending my neck in the effort, and began to levitate. Up and out of the pit I shot, up into the plain. I still hated these plains, but my helplessness melted away into determination stemming from a knowledge that I could escape from this place, that I would. I took my first step onto land, and fell right back into the pit. Perhaps the world punishing me for my hubris, I had to repeat this several times before I was able to fully emerge. Firmly on land, I knew what I had to do, consisting in large part of falling down holes. It struck me that there was a cruel sense of humor woven into every part of this world.

Besides the holes, I noticed a small dark speck of something. It looked like, with much straining, a beloved peanut butter candy treat. Are they food on this world? Could have been money. I felt myself gain a little more energy, but I also held onto it to collect. I choose not to think about it too hard. I had to get back to work. Not all of the holes held runes – in fact very few of them did. For longer than I would feel comfortable admitting (or could have told you at the time,) I repeated this process. Pit, stretch, fall back into the pit 2-3 times, “candy”, pit, stretch. I think I see a flash of movement as I leap down a fresh pit. The sudden possibility of another lifeform sent my mind reeling, and blunted my satisfaction at the new rune waiting in the chasm.

I needed to get a closer look. I grabbed the rune and rocketed out of the hole without a second thought, and outside the flash of movement revealed itself: A tall figure in some sort of trenchcoat. It stood mostly still, occasionally moving a step or two in a random direction. I approached cautiously, but once I touched ground outside the hole it darted right towards me. No time for introductions around here, I suppose. I braced for the worst in the confrontation, but as it collided with me, I was fine. I didn’t appear to be damaged at all, but something felt missing. As the trenchcoat retreated, I realized: They stole one of my runes! What a dick! Who does that?

So much for progress. I only lost a single rune, but I figured I ought to go get it back. I pursued Trench, as I took to calling them, to the north, but it was in vain. Whoever Trench was, they were gone now. As I collected my thoughts and prepared to keep searching, I met another new “friend”. This one was a little thinner, clad in a long white coat. They appeared to be some sort of religious figure. Combined with what happened next, I gathered that this figure must be the leader of this land, or at least some type of authority.

The white coat was a little faster than Trench, moving with a palpable sense of urgency towards me. When they reached me, they didn’t take anything from me: they took me. Unable to pry myself from their grip or call upon any powers to dispel them at this point, I had no choice but to submit to the mercy of the white coat. I wasn’t especially hopeful. Mercy seemed to be at a premium in these parts.

 

“This was a harsh and random world, and anything you got came from luck.”

 

Coat (I had taken to calling the two figures Trench and Coat. It was cute. Had to keep the spirits up somehow) dragged me through several screens to a cell. After locking me up, Coat up and left on some business that I dared not contemplate. Pacing my tiny cell, I found that “locked up” was less than accurate. The cell was not locked, in fact it did not seem to have sides at all. Just as easily as I was put in, I was out. It struck me that simply being an obstructive nuisance took priority in this world over punishment, that maybe the nuisance was the real punishment.

I was once again free to resume my tortuously repetitive quest. I won’t bore you with the details, if you could call them that. It was exactly the same quest as before, but now I realized Trench and Coat were on my tail. Practice had delegated the cycle of pit-diving, looking around, and moving on to the back of my head. In the front was the growing realization that I truly had all the pieces of the puzzle. Victory was in sight, and that knowledge was all it took to keep me from trying to rip myself out of the world, consequences be damned.

I was and am hesitant to ascribe any gains I made in the world to talent or skill. This was a harsh and random world, and anything you got came from luck. Whatever the reason, I found myself with all 3 runes. They appeared to create a complete symbol, and I was filled with the sense (maybe the deluded hope) that this part of my task was done. All that I needed to do now was get back to where it all started.

Being one of the only areas in the world not pocked with deep holes, the drop zone wasn’t as difficult to find as I feared it might be. After arriving and scrambling in vain to call my fleshy space pod back, I found the one very specific square of land I needed to stand in. I added “poor reception” to my list of complaints with this hellscape. Frustrations with the process aside, I was able to transmit the signal and even got a neat little visual indicator of how long it would take. I prayed that Trench and Coat didn’t get to me before I could wait it out, and my prayers were answered.

This was it. The moment I had clawed and scraped all this way for was finally here. In hindsight, I should have expected it: Nothing quite lives up to its hype, and my exodus was no exception. The same sequence from the beginning appeared to just happen in reverse, and before I take off I’m treated to a scene of a small child-like figure running in and out of its own home while I look on in confusion. I can only assume that the child was running in panic or fear. I hadn’t seen this child before now in my playthrough. Oh well. I’m pretty sure I made enough friends anyways.

Just like that, I was back at the title screen with that buck-tooth jaundiced nightmare wearing E.T.s face. Nothing had changed, I was simply at the beginning as if I had never started. I felt different, though. I felt a little wiser, wise enough to know what would happen if I began this journey again. I certainly wise enough to, when faced with that prospect, turn the game off and never, ever look back.


ET screenshot 2

 

I spoiled this at the beginning, but let me reiterate: Mechanically speaking, I found nothing redeeming about this game whatsoever. Even compared to other games of the era, it controls like hot garbage. The level design is hacked together and confusing and the central step of “fall down a hole and dig around a little bit” is nothing short of infuriating. I can factor in whatever external circumstances I want to, and while it’s true that the game is impressive in a sense, any appreciation for the short turnaround begins to melt away as you play. It comes right back when I stop, of course, but when you’re in the thick of it there are too many horrible, thorn-covered trees in this game to see that particular forest.

What many retrospectives on the game have failed to take into consideration, and what may be the only remotely redeeming factor about playing E.T., is that “overlay of imagination” I alluded to. For all its faults, the game has several elements that didn’t feature in the vast majority of its contemporaries. Namely, it had a narrative and a definite end. It was a clumsy and poorly conveyed narrative, there is no doubt about that, but that clumsiness may be strength: There are so many gaps in the game’s storytelling that, especially without filling it in with knowledge of the source material, it becomes a canvas for telling your own stories.

This sort of gameplay is far from new at this point. The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, and even non-RPG games like PLAYERUNKNOWN’S Battlegrounds derive much of their replayability from dropping you into the role of until-now anonymous avatar and letting you loose in the world. This naturally draws players into constructing their own stories. It’s rare to see a Skyrim player stick directly to the script paying close attention to every detail for their entire save file, or a PUBG player who isn’t ready to spin a yarn or two about their first chicken dinner (not to mention the impromptu vehicle stunts they pulled getting it).

It’s a childlike way of playing, in the absolute best terms possible. Children are masters of constructing improvised, rarely coherent but entertaining storylines practically on a whim. Picturing myself as a child in 1982, stuck with this as one of my few games and lacking easily-obtained alternatives, it takes no trouble at all to imagine myself sinking hours into this game and weaving intricate storylines to justify embodying the blocky mistake that is this rendition of E.T.

Naturally, there are many games out there now that give this feeling in a much better and more encompassing way, ones that do it on purpose rather than via gaping holes in every part of the game’s design. That being the case, it would be tough to recommend going back and giving this a play. I still recommend doing so, though, if for no other reason than a reminder: sometimes, a game just plain sucks, but if you’re stuck with it, your imagination can be a powerful debugger.

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About Dalton Reyburn

Dalton Reyburn is a Columbus-based writer for Autosave who believes in earnestly making the choice to have fun. Despite his Twitter handle, he is not a dad. Check out more of his thoughts on gaming, animation, and the merits of pulp-free juice on Twitter at @worldclassdad.
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