Tag: E.T.

E.T. was not the worst game of all time.

I’ve talked about this before, but today NPR covered it again.

This is a well known story in the lore of videogame history… There’s a certain amount of misconception about it.

Howard Scott Warshaw likes to talk about how E.T. has the reputation of being the worst game ever, and how between it and the highly regarded Yar’s Revenge, it gives him the greatest range of any game developer. But even he doesn’t think E.T was really the worst of all time. As he carefully states, E.T. is “the game that is widely held to be the worst video game of all time.” That’s a bit distanced from accepting that it is the worst.

It makes for a good story, and he likes to tell the story, and he’s a good storyteller, and he likes to set the record straight when he tells the story, because telling the story takes away the power of the failure to hurt him. He’s a really good sport about it, and a good guy, and was a good game developer when that’s what he was doing. He has a great attitude about failure, and it’s served him well in life. So more power to him.

Howard Scott Warshaw’s game was actually pretty good. I owned E.T. and liked it. It was ambitious, and it definitely had its share of flaws, but it was a much more complicated game than the arcade style action games that Atari was known for, and that was a problem for a lot of gamers who weren’t ready for a deeper game design and complex puzzle solving. The game was difficult, and solving the puzzles was a bit arcane, and the pits that you fall into frequently were rather annoying, but it was not the “worst game of all time” that it has been labeled as.

What it was, it was a huge commercial failure — mainly because Atari overpaid Steven Spielberg $26 million for the license rights to make an exclusive ET videogame. It was one of the better selling games for the Atari, moving 1.5 million units. Unfortunately, Atari had produced 5 million copies, vastly overestimating the market. And reviews of the game were mostly bad, in spite of the high sales. The sales came through more through name recognition and the success of the film, but once people played the game, many of them felt like it wasn’t good enough. And it was rushed. But it’s a very impressive achievement to create something as big and complex as E.T. with the tools that Warshaw had at the time, in as little time as he was given.

Atari were counting on ET to drive more console sales, and it didn’t happen. By 1983, the VCS was a 7 year old dinosaur, and badly needed a replacement. But Atari had a hard time leading the launch of the next generation of hardware, because doing so would have obsoleted their market-dominating 2600 model. They tried with the 5200, but it had several design problems, and this combined with lack of backward compatibility (they did release an adapter later) and expense made it unpopular.

At the time, there wasn’t really a precedent for the idea of computer equipment becoming obsolete in just a few years time, and so many consumers of the day felt like buying a new console every few years, particularly if their old games wouldn’t play on it, was a ripoff. They viewed electronics like a radio or television or record player, which could last for decades if cared for, and newer models could continue to play old media. And old game consoles may still work four decades on, but they are obviously obsolete and can’t play newer games, and newer machines don’t play old Atari games (other than through emulation.)

Meanwhile, Atari corporate had alienated some of their best developers, by refusing to credit them for their work on the cover of the box, or pay royalties, They left to found Activision, which opened the door to any third party releasing games for the 2600, including many fly by night operators who could barely program for the 2600, who put out horrid garbage games that glutted store shelves and gave the Atari a poorer reputation than it deserved, and resulted in the Great Crash.

It’s popular to blame ET for being the cause of the great crash of ’83, but it wasn’t.


Ludum Dare 29 results

Voting results for Ludum Dare #29 were announced earlier tonight. My Jam entry, Alamagordo, fared pretty well, considering:

Rank (of 1004) Category Score (of 5)
Coolness 100%
#69 Humor(Jam) 3.60
#110 Theme(Jam) 3.70
#424 Mood(Jam) 2.97
#546 Audio(Jam) 2.53
#581 Graphics(Jam) 2.80
#592 Innovation(Jam) 2.52
#648 Fun(Jam) 2.33
#662 Overall(Jam) 2.58

The 69 and 110 rankings are the best that I’ve done so far in a Ludum Dare judging, narrowly edging the #70 ranking I received for Humor in my LD25 game, Bad Puppy.

Considering that Alamogordo was a last minute entry that I threw together in about 10 hours development time, and was intended as more of a joke entry than a game with ambition, I’m pretty pleased at how it was received, overall. I was going for humor and theme, and the other categories weren’t as important for me — I only cared about making the game look, sound, and feel like an Atari 2600 game, and I’m reasonably pleased with my work in that regard. It’s admittedly not very fun to play, nor innovative, nor very good overall, so I feel like my scores are pretty fair overall. I was also very pleased by the fact that I was able to build the game very quickly, with no false starts, rework, or getting stuck in debugging. In my previous LD games, I often found that I’d get stuck on a technical problem that should have been easier to solve than it turned out to be, I think mainly due to self-imposed pressure. This time, I felt mentally unhurried, confident that I was capable of doing what I had set out to do, that I knew how to do what I was doing, and didn’t have to spend any amount of time experimenting and figuring it out, and that helped me to build a clean, well-organized project. Although the game isn’t much, I’m pleased with the code that I wrote for it.

Alamogordo: Post-mortem

I almost didn’t submit a game this time around. For some reason, I couldn’t get my creativity going. I thought that Beneath the Surface was such an excellent theme, too, with great potential. When they announced it, I started trying to think of a game that would happen underground, or under water. But all I could think of was the setting, not what you’d do there. My brain was being an enemy to me.

So I stayed up until about 6 AM Saturday morning, and still hadn’t thought of any good ideas. My best idea of the night came to me when the Neil Young song, “The Needle and the Damage Done” popped into my head, and I briefly considered making a game about heroin use and damaging the skin beneath the surface. If I wanted to do that right, I needed to make a chiptune cover of the song, and I still can’t do music properly. One day…

So, I put that idea aside, and then nothing else came to me. I slept in until around 11:30, and spent most of the afternoon sitting around, waiting for inspiration to hit me, but nothing happened.

I dicked around on the internet, reading stuff, and started reading all these articles about the New Mexico landfill dig, where they were trying to determine if the legends of massive amounts of unsold Atari merchandise being buried in the desert were really true.

Turns out, they were true!

I found the story fascinating, because why would people still care  that much that they’d dig around in a land fill trying to find that stuff. It’s not as though E.T. was a rare and valuable game. To me, the story wasn’t fascinating, it was people’s fascination with the story that was fascinating. It seemed to be getting a lot of coverage in the media.

I still didn’t have any ideas for what would be a good game, and by around 5 or 6, I had given up and resigned myself to not producing anything this time around, and felt pretty down about my failure to come up with any good ideas. I had a relaxing Saturday evening, went to bed, had a pretty normal Sunday, and then, around 7pm it occurred to me that the land fill dig was happening beneath the surface of New Mexico. Beneath the surface…

Beneath the surface…

Beneath the surface…

Beneath the surface…

neath the surface…

the surface…




And I got this visual in my head of the pits in the E.T. video game, and connected that to the landfill, and immediately realized that there was a potential game in there.

Digging in the Alamogordo, New Mexico landfill, in a pit from the E.T. video game, searching for the secret stash of E.T. videogames. I knew exactly what I wanted it to be, not really a challenging game, just an idle time waster that paid homage to the legend and the events of the weekend. I had less than 2 hours before Compo deadline, and knew I’d never make it, but this would need to be a Jam entry anyway, as I wanted to use graphics and audio sampled from the E.T. video game.

Unfortunately I was already on my way to spend the evening with friends, and I didn’t get home until close to 11pm. By 11:30, I had just gotten started, and I worked through the night until 6:30am, and which I had most of the level laid out and working. Movement and collisions were very buggy, but the game was basically playable by this point.

I took a power nap, worked Monday, and then cranked out bugfixes until I got everything working right. All told, the game took about 10 hours to build. My fastest development time ever. Howard Scott Warshaw took 5 weeks to make E.T., his fastest development time ever.

I used that time rather well, struggling only a little bit with the bug fixes, and all I really needed to fix those bugs was to step away from the project and return to it fresh — once I did that, it was fairly easy to redesign the code that handled movement and fix the problems I’d been having in the wee hours of the morning earlier in the day. Throughout the project there was very little re-work, almost nothing thrown away, and everything that I built was done in such a way that it doesn’t feel like a mess. The project code is actually pretty decent. Almost every LD48 that I’ve done so far, I’ve struggled with some stupid error in a feature that should be very basic and easy to do, and ends up sucking a lot of my time away from the project, but this time, I worked effectively from start to end. Only, I had just about 10 hours of work put into the project over the entire weekend.

The game itself, well there’s nothing much to it, but it does feel somewhat like one of those terrible shovelware titles that caused the Great Crash of ’83.

So, there it is, an homage to terrible games. Since that’s what it is, it somewhat excuses it from itself being a fairly terrible game. At least the programming is fairly decent, …beneath the surface.

Well, play it and see what you think.


Ludum Dare 29

I didn’t complete an entry for Ludum Dare 29, and am a bit disappointed in myself. Although the theme “Beneath the surface” is an excellent theme suitable to all kinds of ideas, I struggled to come up with a concept that fit well with the theme. I thought about under ground, under water, and digging a bit, and I thought about skin, and metaphorical ideas, but these didn’t inspire a core play mechanic or goal, so I never really got to a playable game concept.

I need to figure out how to get myself into a creative mind on demand.


Around 7pm, inspiration struck. I made a game after all. I made it in only about 6 hours, so it is not a very good game, but the idea was a fitting one, and I knew that I would be able to build it in under a day.

Alamogordo, my entry for the LD29 Jam, is based on the legend of the buried E.T. cartridges in Alamogordo, New Mexico, that were dug up over the weekend.

The E.T. Dig

Yesterday, in a landfill in New Mexico, copies of E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial for Atari 2600 were unearthed, apparently confirming rumors of their mass burial in 1983.

I recalled hearing this story at some point, many years ago, but I don’t recall exactly when. It’s been repeated often enough. A number of Atari employees said that it was true, but as I recall the company officially denied it, leading to speculation as to whether it was really true or not. Likely the denials were to avoid admitting that the business was in trouble.

While the find confirms that Atari product was buried in the landfill, it’s still unclear how accurate the rumors really were. Over the years, I heard many things about the burial:

  • Supposedly, according to some, the games were crushed (whether by a compactor, or a steam roller or other heavy vehicle, it’s unclear) before burial, in order to take up less room in the landfill, or to prevent their being dug up and salvaged. This appears not to be true, as intact cartridges apparently have been recovered in what appears to be nearly pristine condition (unless of course the recovery story is a fabrication).
  • I also heard that the games were covered over with a layer of cement. This seems likely an embellishment. To my knowledge, landfills do not typically use cement to cover over layers of deposited waste, although they do sometimes use earth to bury waste in order to reduce pests such as rats and seagulls, reduce the odor, and prevent winds from blowing the waste away. Cement is expensive, and there’s really no reason for it, since this isn’t radioactive waste, but I always thought that it suggested a deep shame on Atari’s part, that they wanted to hide the fact so much that they would cover it up with cement, like a murderer burying a victim in the basement under a cement floor.
  • Supposedly, something like 5 million copies of E.T. were manufactured, and most were unsold, so the number of games buried in the landfill is supposedly a vast number. So far what I’ve read of what’s been reported has said that a few hundred copies have been recovered. So it remains to be seen whether more will be found at the site.
  • E.T. is remembered as one of the worst games of all time, but this is actually a somewhat unfair label to pin on the game. It sold quite well, 1.5 million copies, which is an unqualified hit, but for the fact that it was greatly overproduced. Selling well isn’t quite the same thing as being a good game, and the game did have a fair share of negative reviews. The complaints for the most part had to do with the difficulty of avoiding falling into pits that exist nearly in nearly every screen of the game, and play a prominent part in the game, but which don’t exist at all in the movie. Movie adaptation games often suffer from poor treatment, and failing to faithfully follow the plot of the movie story. Of course, the same can also be said of film adaptations of books. Apart from the pits, the game does actually include a lot of plot elements from the film, and somewhat reasonably follows the plot. What’s more important is not that the game re-tell the movie, but that it be a good game. E.T. may or may not be a good game, that’s a subjective judgement. But from a technical standpoint it was relatively well executed, including numerous innovations and technical feats that were impressive considering the hardware limitations. Apart from the pits, the game also suffered from a strange zone-based mechanic that was difficult to understand without referencing the manual. At the time E.T. was released, most games were simple arcade action style games involving shooting and dodging. E.T. involved a complex quest for pieces of the phone he uses to call home to arrange to be picked up by his people’s space ship, and many players likely simply weren’t ready for a complex game like this, and disliked it more for that reason than anything.
  • E.T. is often blamed for causing the Crash of 1983. It’s more accurate to say that the Crash of 1983 contributed to E.T.’s sales falling far below expectations, resulting in huge losses due to overproduction. As such, it was more a victim of the Crash than a cause of it. It was certainly a high profile commercial failure, but the real cause was a lack of quality control among the dozens of fly-by-night companies that sprung up to capitalize on the immense success of the Atari 2600. Atari could not control third parties through licensing, and the market was flooded with poor games, many of which were far worse than E.T.

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