E.T. (Atari, 1982): Atari 2600 Game Review

So, E.T. The game infamous for not selling millions of copies which were subsequently sent to a New Mexico landfill. You know, if Atari had just rented a cheap warehouse and stacked them up there, they probably could have sold them off at $20 a pop two decades later to rich hipster kids who’d buy them to be “retro” and “ironic.” So it goes, I guess.
But is the game as bad as the reputation that precedes it? … Yeah, it really is.

The goal of the game is to steer ET around a world seemingly composed of nothing but sinkholes, with the exception of one screen that I guess is supposed to be Elliot’s house (set tastefully amidst Roman ruins here for some reason.) ET has to search around these various sinkholes, looking for three pieces of a phone he can use to call his alien homies for a lift home. There’s a little indicator at the top of the screen that I think is pointing you to the next piece, but it’s pretty confusing as it sometimes busts out with a yelling head or other random symbols I never deduced the meaning of.

Complicating the proceedings are two human antagonists that will randomly appear, and once they do will chase you from screen to screen – Dick Tracy and some crazy doctor. Dick Tracy simply wants to steal ET’s phone parts and won’t appear until you’re carrying one. If he touches you, he’ll jack one and run off with it, but apparently he trips and drops it in a hole in some other random location. The Doktor is much more menacing, if he grabs ET he’ll try to cart him back to town for fiendish experiments.

The real enemy here, however, is the sinkholes. The human enemies move at exactly the same pace as ET, so they can’t overtake you unless you stop, and the button makes you do a crazy dash that lets you escape from them pretty easily. Falling in a hole doesn’t hurt ET, and all he has to do is press the button to crane his neck and levitate out, but once you float out the programming and collision detection is so poor that you often fall right back in again immediately, and it can take 5 or 6 tries quite often to actually successfully get out of the hole.

Nobody expects much from the Atari 2600, and some elements of this game are actually kind of sophisticated for the system. I think the game never would have earned notorious lulz status if it wasn’t for how often you fall back into pits repeatedly. Otherwise it would have probably been seen as averagey and boring, but not that bad, and maybe 3 million people wouldn’t have returned their copies or whatever and caused it to go down as one of the most hideous games in history. So, a lesson to budding game designers – just take an extra hour or two to make sure the collision detection on your game isn’t flaky and works the way it’s supposed to, otherwise you may not only make a historical laughingstock out of yourself, you’ll be responsible for environmental damage too.

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