E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Atari 2600)

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E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
The video game cover of the game
Developer(s) Atari
Publisher(s) Atari
Distributor(s) Atari
Designer(s) Howard Scott Warshaw
Release date(s) United States 1982
Genre(s) Adventure
Mode(s) Single player
Platform(s) Atari 2600
Media 16Kb ROM cartridge
Input Atari joystick

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is a video game developed by Howard Scott Warshaw based on the film of the same name and released by Atari for the Atari 2600 video game system in 1982. It was widely considered a poorly produced and rushed game that Atari thought would sell purely based on brand loyalty to the names of Atari and E.T. Instead, the game fared horribly and cost Atari millions of US dollars. E.T. is seen by many as the death knell for Atari and is widely regarded as one of the worst video games ever produced as well as one of the biggest commercial failures in video gaming history. A major contributing factor to Atari's demise, the game's failure epitomizes the video game crash of 1983. Over 2 million excess cartridges were dumped in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico.


The gameplay of E.T. consists of maneuvering the fictional alien character E.T. through several screens to obtain the three pieces necessary to assemble a device to "phone home". The phone pieces can be obtained by finding them scattered randomly in various wells (pits) or the player can collect nine Reese's Pieces and then "call Elliot," who will then bring him a phone piece. Additionally, the player must avoid an FBI agent and scientist in pursuit. If either enemy catches E.T., the player is carried to the Washington D.C. screen. If the FBI agent catches E.T. he also will lose all collected phone pieces (or Reese's Pieces if no phone pieces have been collected). The difficulty setting can be changed with the game select and left and right difficulty switches located on the console. This will either change the number of humans present, the speed of movement of the humans, or the conditions needed to call the spaceship.

E.T. is also given a limited supply of energy and starts the game with 9999 points. Any action, including movement, depletes the energy. E.T. can use Reese's Pieces at an "eat candy" spot and press the button to replenish energy. If E.T. reaches zero energy he will turn white and die. Three times per game, Elliot will then appear to revive E.T. by "merging" with him, letting the player continue with 1500 points. Locating and reviving a wilted flower adds an extra revival from Elliot. If E.T. dies more times than Elliot can revive him, the game ends.

Four of the six screens are riddled with wells of varying size that E.T. falls into if he gets too close, causing him to lose some energy. In order to get out, the player must levitate E.T. by pressing the controller button and tilting the joystick forward. Since phone pieces and wilted flowers are found at the bottom of wells, this often leads to the majority of the game consisting of players intentionally falling into wells in order to complete the round.

Once E.T. has all three phone pieces, the player may press the controller button at a "call ship zone." This causes a timer to appear and count down the time E.T. has to arrive at the landing zone. In most cases, E.T. cannot call his ship when a human is present (lower difficulty levels will allow it). Once the player finds the landing zone they may press the controller button again to call the ship. If no humans are present when the timer has run out, the ship will appear and pick E.T. up. This will end that round of play. The player is then given bonus points based on how many Reese's Pieces he has left and may continue playing for another round. Aside from bonus points earned, all rounds are functionally identical and do not increase in difficulty with play.

E.T. is also notable for being the first video game to "credit" a graphics artist, with the initials of E.T.'s artist, Jerome Domurat, being hidden as an Easter egg. Howard Scott Warshaw also had his initials hidden as an easter egg, but by this point, programmers having their names hidden as easter eggs had become somewhat commonplace and thus is not as notable.

Production and sales

Following the record-breaking success of E.T. at the box office in June 1982, Steve Ross, CEO of Atari's parent company Warner Communications, entered talks with Steven Spielberg and Universal Pictures to obtain rights to produce a video game based on the film. In late July, Warner announced that it had acquired the exclusive worldwide rights to market coin-operated and console games based on E.T., the Extraterrestrial. Although the exact details of the transaction were not disclosed in the announcement, it was widely reported that Atari had paid US$20–25 million for the rights—an abnormally high figure for video game licencing at the time. Atari CEO Ray Kassar's response to Ross' query of how he liked the idea of making an E.T. based video game was, "I think it's a dumb idea. We've never really made an action game out of a movie." Ultimately though, the decision was not Kassar's to make, and the deal went through.

The task of designing and programming of the game was then offered to Howard Scott Warshaw, whom Spielberg requested due to his previous work on the video game adaptation of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Due to the considerable amount of time that had been spent in negotiations securing the rights to make the game, only five weeks remained in order to meet the September 1 deadline necessary to ship in time for Christmas shopping season. By comparison, Warshaw's previous works, Yars' Revenge and Raiders of the Lost Ark, each took, respectively, 4 to 5 months and 6 to 7 months to complete. An arcade game based on the E.T. property had also been planned, but this was deemed to be impossible given the short deadline. Warsaw accepted the assignment, and was reportedly offered 200,000 USD and an all-expenses-paid vacation to Hawaii in compensation.

Spielberg's idea was to make E.T. into a Pac-Man-type game, which Warshaw rejected to try a more original idea. Warsaw had favored a design that was more story based in hopes of creating a game that would capture some of the sentimentallity he saw in the original film, but eventually ended up scrapping some of his own ideas due to time limitations. Ultimately, Warshaw designed a game based on what he believed could be reasonably programmed in the amount of time he had available to him. The basic design was worked out in two days, at the conclusion of which Warshaw presented the idea to Kassar before proceeding to spend the balance of the allotted five weeks writing, debugging, and documenting about 6.5 kb of original code.

Even with a rushed game in hand, Atari anticipated enormous sales based on the popularity of the film, as well as the enormous boom the video game industry was experiencing in 1982. By the time the game was complete, so little time was left before the game's desired ship-date that Atari skipped audience testing for the cartridge altogether. Emanual Gerard, who served as co-chief operating officer of Warner at the time, later suggested that the company had been lulled into a false sense of security by the success of its previous releases, particulary its home video version of Pac-Man, which sold extremely well despite inferior graphics to the original version.

Additionally, Atari had expected the game would perform well simply because, the previous October, it had demanded its retailers place orders in advance for the entire year. At that time, Atari had dominated the software and hardware market, and Atari was routinely unable to fill orders. At first, retailers responded by placing orders for more supplies than they actually expected to sell, but gradually, as new competitors began to enter the market, Atari started receiving an increasing number of order cancellations, for which the company was not prepared.

While the game did sell well (it ranks as the eighth best selling Atari cartridge of all time), it was only able to sell approximately 1.5 million of its 4 million cartridge stock. It is an often stated bit of misinformation that more copies of E.T. were produced than Atari 2600 consoles owned; in reality, company research by Atari showed that about 10 million consoles were owned in May 1982 (the actual game that produced more cartridges than consoles owned was Pac-Man with 12 million copies). Despite reasonable sales figures, the quantity of unsold merchandise coupled with the expensive movie license caused E.T. to be a massive financial failure for Atari.

This game was one of many bad decisions that led to the bankruptcy of Atari, which posted a $536 million loss in 1983, and was divided and sold in 1984. It is also seen as one of two major video game releases (along with the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man) that sparked the video game crash of 1983.

Critical response

Reviews and scores
Source Score
Game Freaks 365
User rankings
Average GameFAQs review score
IGN reader average
GameSpot reader average
External review average at AtariAge

E.T. has been almost universally panned by critics and gamers. The most common complaint is the tedious repetitiveness of falling into holes coupled with the additional hassle of it being too easy to fall back into a hole once out. Other complaints include the frustration of losing phone pieces to the FBI agent, poor graphics, and the story given in the manual being inane, a departure from the serious tone of the movie.

What do I do now? The only one I can trust is that nice little alien— Ellleeott. He gives me those tasty energy pills (What did he call them? Reeessseess Peeesssesss?)
― Excerpt from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial's manual

"The worst video game of all time"

E.T. is one of the most commonly chosen candidates for worst video game of all time by gamers and is often brought up in any discussion of "worst game ever". This viewpoint was most famously made by Seanbaby when he ranked it #1 in a list of the 20 worst games of all time in Electronic Gaming Monthly’s 150th issue. Michael Dolan, deputy editor of FHM magazine, has also ranked it as his pick for the #1 worst video game of all time. Additionally, G4 show X-Play's score of 0 out of 5 was the lowest grade they have ever given a game in the show's history and another G4 show, Filter, picked E.T. as #1 in their "Top 10 Biggest Flops of All Time" countdown.

Other views

However, E.T.'s title of "worst video game of all time" is largely influenced by its notorious failure, which in turn was influenced by high expectations. When compared objectively to other, less infamous Atari 2600 duds, E.T. is often thought to be "not that bad". Among communities that have played a wide variety of Atari 2600 games, titles such as Karate, Skeet Shoot, and Sssnake are more often chosen as being the worst game for the Atari 2600, sometimes with E.T. not even making such "worst of the Atari 2600" lists. A small minority of people even go beyond the "bad but not the worst" stance and admit to genuinely enjoying the game. Howard Scott Warshaw himself doesn't show any regrets for E.T. and feels he did a good job on the game.

But the fact is E.T. was a tough technical challenge that I feel I met reasonably well. I made that game start-to-finish in five weeks. No one has ever come close to matching that kind of output on the VCS. It could definitely be a better game ;), but it's not too bad for five weeks.

That said, I also realize that consumers don't (and shouldn't) care about development time. All they should care about is the playing experience. I feel E.T. is a complete and OK game. Some people like it. It certainly isn't the worst game or even the least polished, but I actually like having the distinction of it being the worst game. Between that and Yar's, I have the greatest range of anyone ever on the machine :)
― Howard Scott Warshaw

The Atari landfill

In September 1983, The Alamogordo Daily News of Alamogordo, New Mexico reported in a series of articles that between ten and twenty semi-trailer truckloads of Atari boxes, cartridges, and systems from an Atari storehouse in El Paso were crushed and buried at the landfill within the city. It was Atari's first dealings with the landfill, which was chosen because no scavenging was allowed and its garbage was crushed and buried nightly. Atari's stated reason for the burial was that they were changing from Atari 2600 to Atari 5200 games, but this was later contradicted by a worker who claimed that this was not the case. Official Bruce Enten stated that Atari was mostly sending broken and returned cartridges to the Alamogordo dump and that it was "by-and-large inoperable stuff."

Starting on September 27, 1983, a layer of concrete was poured on top of the crushed materials: a rare occurrence in waste disposal. An anonymous workman's stated reason for the concrete was: "There are dead animals down there. We wouldn't want any children to get hurt digging in the dump."

On September 28, 1983, The New York Times reported on the story of Atari's dumping in New Mexico. An Atari representative confirmed the story for them, stating that the discarded inventory came from Atari's plant in El Paso, Texas, which was being closed and converted to a recycling facility. The Times article did not suggest any of the specific game titles being destroyed, but subsequent reports have generally linked the story of the dumping to the well-known failure of E.T. Additionally, the headline "City to Atari: 'E.T.' trash go home" in one edition of the Alamogordo News implies that the cartridges were E.T. As a result, it is widely speculated that most of Atari's millions of unsold copies of E.T. ultimately wound up in this landfill, crushed and encased in cement.

Eventually, the city began to protest the large amount of dumping Atari was doing; a sentiment summed up by commissioner Guy Gallaway with, "We don't want to be an industrial waste dump for El Paso." Local manager Jack Keating ordered the dumping to be ended shortly afterwards. Due to Atari's unpopular dumping, Alamogordo later passed an Emergency Management Act and created the Emergency Management Task Force to limit the future flexibility of the garbage contractor to secure outside business for the landfill for monetary purposes. Mayor Henry Pacelli commented that, "We do not want to see something like this happen again."

Today the story is often misrepresented as an urban legend, despite considerable documentation of Atari's dumping on record in the city of Alamogordo. As recently as October of 2004, Warshaw himself expressed doubts that the destruction of millions of copies of E.T. ever took place, citing his belief that Atari would have recycled the parts instead in order to save money.

In popular culture

The urban legend of E.T.'s mass burial has sparked the imaginations of gamers for years and has led to fantastical depictions of trips off into the desert in search of the Atari landfill:

  • In the same episode in which they reviewed the game, X-Play hosts Adam Sessler and Morgan Webb ventured into the New Mexico desert in search of the missing cartridges in a parody of the film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
  • The indie rock band Wintergreen released a music video for their song "When I Wake Up" that retells the urban legend of the mass burial of E.T. cartridges. All the cartridges were actually fake. Some speculate they were made from cardboard with the ET cover printed. The music video is an idealistic imagination of the Atari landfill story, with the cartridges being simply buried in the middle of the desert in relatively pristine condition.
  • In the Strong Bad e-mail "trading cards" (featured on the Homestar Runner website), an easter egg brought up by clicking on the words "good graphics" reveals a title screen similar to the one in the game, only with the series character The Cheat (spelled C.H.E.A.T.) rendered instead of E.T.
  • In the cartoon "Wake me up when we're at E3" for Cubetoons, it shows a truck dumping out E.T. cartridges into a land fill and blowing them up after the video game crash being caused by "them releasing E.T."
  • The Moonintites from Aqua Teen Hunger Force are rumored to have somehow derived from a storm over the E.T. landfill.

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