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E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (Atari 2600) artwork

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (Atari 2600) review


"A little over a year ago, I wrote a review for one of my favorite games from my childhood. It was a game I had fond memories of, and was one of the first games I had encountered which actually had a quest structure that made sense, presenting a thinking man's challenge. That game was called "E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial", and it was released on a system not generally known for this type of involved adventure game, the Atari 2600. As I visited the review website's web entry for this game, I saw to..."



A little over a year ago, I wrote a review for one of my favorite games from my childhood. It was a game I had fond memories of, and was one of the first games I had encountered which actually had a quest structure that made sense, presenting a thinking man's challenge. That game was called "E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial", and it was released on a system not generally known for this type of involved adventure game, the Atari 2600. As I visited the review website's web entry for this game, I saw to my surprise that no other users registered with that site had reviewed it, so I took the opportunity to be the first. My review was positive, but like most of my reviews for Atari 2600 games, it was also short and to the point.

Many of my instant messenger contacts were listed in my profile on the review website, and before long, I was receiving instant messages to the effect of "You couldn't possibly have played that game and written that positive review", or "You are either lying, stupid, lost your mind, or all of the above". Not only did I receive such messages, but this game which had received no previous reviews on the reviewing website was suddenly being reviewed right and left, and these reviews were almost universally negative. It was almost as if I was being responded to by rival reviews. On the positive side, I did receive a few more appropriate responses, such as from one user who agreed with my review and thanked me for being willing to set the record straight.

I had no idea that the game was so universally despised, so what record was I setting straight? Most of these gamers were, in their not-so-subtle way, trying to let me know. I did a little research, and quickly realized that not only was the game hated, but it was virtually accused of causing the home gaming industry "crash" of 1983. So pervasive is this notion, that it appears on the websites of encyclopedias, industry analysts, and other gaming related sites. It has been entered in list after list representing the worst games ever made. It is accused of being unplayable.

I recognized that most of this is historical revisionist garbage from the past, repeated as gospel by those who know no better. I certainly knew the game wasn't "unplayable" by personal experience, and with a little more research, I knew I could come up with a more complete defense. After all, I was alive when the game was released. I received the game as a Christmas present. I played the game to completion more than once. I never, in all that time, thought I had been handed a lemon, let alone the "worst game ever made".

This review constitutes my attempt to clear up all the confusion around this incredible game, and provide it with a defense from the most common criticisms. I’ve narrowed these criticisms down to five major claims:
  1. “This game has poor graphics and sound!”

  2. “This game is unplayable!”

  3. “This game destroyed Atari!”

  4. “This game caused the video game crash of 1983!”

  5. “This is the worst game ever made!”
I will address each of these in their turn, and describe why I think they are, to put it lightly, exaggerated. As this review has to cover so much revisionist history, I have broken it down into five sections, each titled as, and dealing with, one of those five claims. As a result, this is an extremely long and involved review, so if one part of the review interests you more than another, you might want to skip to the relevant section.

I. "THIS GAME HAS POOR GRAPHICS AND SOUND!"

When E.T. was released, I considered it a marvel in graphical presentation for a game released on the Atari 2600 platform. Most games released on that platform resigned to their limitations, and in an attempt not to slow down the system with operations deemed good to have but not essential, they also limited the number of moving elements and their color composition drastically. While E.T. was admittedly not the best graphical presentation ever released on the Atari 2600, it was heads and shoulders above most of them. It certainly wasn't as impressive as games like "Yars' Revenge" or "Space Shuttle", but it was not as a whole below-average, or even average for that matter.

It wasn't uncommon at that time to have playable and non-playable characters on the screen consisting of only one to two colors, more often one than two. While the playable character, E.T. himself is limited to a sickly green color (or just pure gray when he's near death), the other non-playable characters are some of the most brilliantly colored in any game before or since. Eliot has a purplish peach face, black hair, a red and peach striped shirt, blue pants, and yellow tennis shoes. The Scientist has a blue hat, a peach skinned face, dark tan boots, and a lab coat with a white collar and three shades of gray. The FBI Agent has a peach-skinned face, with a tan yellow hat and a black visor. He wears an overcoat composed of three different shades of yellowish tan, and black boots. Each of these characters is made up of five to six color shades. That was uncommon enough at the time to garner my immediate attention.

Yes it’s true that the backgrounds were made up of less color complexity. The four pit screens were composed of only two colors: the background being light green, and the pits themselves being dark green. The forest screen had three shades: the background itself was medium green, with a variation of pine trees, some light green, and some dark green. The buildings screen itself had two colors only: a blue background with white buildings. This may seem to modern gamers to be very limited, but it’s really on par for most games on the Atari 2600 for the day. Many many good games on the Atari 2600 relied on this type of limited color combination for their backgrounds, preferring to apply colors to their sprites and moving elements. It’s a formula that most games of the time get praised for. Heck, more than a few games of the time eschewed discernible backgrounds altogether, with one single shade that wasn't meant to stand out.

Sound effects are not lacking either. There are some rather bland but realistic sound effects related to the footsteps of E.T. as he moves around, but that is common in games of the platform. Sound effects like those accompanying a fall into a pit, levitation, raising E.T.'s head to perform a context function, etc., are no extravaganza to the ear, but are decent for games of the time. One exception was the sound effect accompanying E.T.'s mother ship, which is made up of multiple oscillating tones, and is one of the most impressive in any game of the time.

If any one aspect of the game blows the claims of poor graphics and sound out of the water, it’s the opening screen, with a finely drawn E.T. face, the "E.T." letter banner above it, and a very well programmed multi-toned melodic version of the basic E.T. theme. Modern gamers will most definitely not be impressed, but at the time it was more than expected from most games. We have little choice, when judging a game like this, but to judge it by its peers and by the capabilities available on the system it was programmed for. Its fine and dandy for a new gamer to hate the game because of its limitations in comparison to games of today, but it isn't acceptable to single it out when practically every game released at time would fail the same test. This game was, all things considered, above average for the Atari 2600 system, and generally above average for most games released at the time on almost any system.

II. "THIS GAME IS UNPLAYABLE!"

This has been the most frequent claim applied to this game, and there are two basic varieties. The most common says that the game is simply too difficult to finish, even for a seasoned programmer, primarily due to the supposedly untempered game mechanics. The second less common claim says that the game was impossible to complete due to an outright programming glitch. Let's get rid of that latter argument right off the bat, as it is one I've encountered at least once in a very personal way. I'll never forget having an argument with a good friend and avid gamer who told me, point blank, that Atari was guilty of the worst fraud a gaming company could perpetrate on a trusting public, that being the release of a game with an unavoidable, fatal bug, which completely blocked game completion. He described his numerous attempts at completing the game, all to no avail, until he was "informed by reputable sources" that it was actually impossible to win due to this bug. I wasn't in the mood to argue the unarguable, so instead I whipped out my old Atari 2600, and the game cartridge, hooked things up, finished the game to completion in about three to five minutes, and offered him some cardboard to chew on.

As mentioned before, what really set this game apart from most (but not all) Atari 2600 games was that it was primarily a quest-based game, and not a point-scoring shooter or chewer. It did have a point-awarding scheme driven at the end of each quest adding to an overall compiled score each time you completed the quest, but its clear that this point scheme wasn't the primarily focus of the game -- the game was all about getting E.T. home safe and sound. To simple quest formula can be described as follows: look for the pieces necessary to make up your interplanetary telephone, make a distress call to the ship, and find the rendezvous point before the time expires, at which point the mother ship arrives to rescue E.T. In theory it all sounds very simple, but it’s actually quite a complex little game with a difficulty that was uncommon for games in its day. What gives the game a level of complexity can be summed up in four basic factors.

The first of these is the mere presence of the pits you must traverse to find the phone parts. Except for two of the six available screens, these pits are virtually everywhere. One touch to a pit and you will fall all the way down to the bottom, having to use E.T.'s power to levitate out of the pit back to flat land. Any one of these pits may contain a part, but they don't advertise such a thing by default. Many gamers were turned off by the fact that these pits were so prevalent, and in some cases, hard to avoid. At least one screen contains pits that go right into the edge of the screen, which means entering the screen blindly from another screen at the wrong angle can cause E.T. to go crashing into a pit before he's even seen the screen he just entered. Some of the confusion as to how to travel from one screen to another comes from the fact that these screens formed one large self-contained cube world. The four pit screens are connected to each other by their sides, while their tops were connected to the forest screen, and their bottoms were connected to the buildings screen (containing Eliot's house, the Science Institute, and the FBI Headquarters). This means that traveling from the forest screen, or Eliot's house, will always lead to a pit screen. It also means that traveling right or left on a pit screen will always lead to another pit screen, while traveling up will always lead to the forest screen, and traveling down will always lead to the buildings screen. Although gamers had trouble with this, given some time and thought, its actually easy to memorize what leads to where, and at what angles to enter another screen to avoid automatically falling into a pit.

The second complexity factor is that E.T. has a limited supply of life energy that is used up at a constant rate for every activity except for sitting completely still. Each step E.T. takes, whether walking or running, uses up a small amount of energy. Lifting E.T.'s head to exercise an action costs energy. Falling into a pit causes damage in the landing in the amount of a rather large energy depletion, but this damage could be avoided by hovering before you actually hit the bottom. Hovering itself costs energy as well, but as you have to hover out a pit anyway, hovering to avoid crashing into the bottom of the pit is a good way of preventing a larger overall loss. Once E.T. runs out of energy points, he "dies", in which case Eliot appears to revive him. Eliot can revive him for up to three times in each quest cycle; however, and if E.T. encounters a dead flower in one of the pits and revives it (by lifting his head), Eliot will be able to revive him a fourth time in that quest cycle. Eliot will only revive E.T. to a fraction of what E.T. starts the game with. E.T. can find Reese's Pieces laying around near the pit areas, and consume those to bring up his energy total significantly, but this isn't the best use of those candies, as picking up nine of these and summoning Eliot will cause him to bring E.T. one of the phone pieces he is currently missing. If Eliot is summoned to take less than nine, he'll take them, but won't return with a phone piece. Many gamers hated this idea of a limited energy resource, but I think it was a fantastic idea that has been used over and over again since by other game developers. It forces you to focus on the least expensive path to finish the final quest, considering the cost of each action you take.

The third complexity factor in this game is the human presence. There are only three humans in this game. One of them is your friend Eliot. The other two are villains: the Scientist from the Science Institute, and the FBI Agent from the FBI Headquarters. The Scientist has the annoying task of grabbing E.T. from wherever he is, and taking him to the Science Institute. E.T. can leave immediately once he is there, so the purpose of this task is really just to interrupt E.T. from his current task, but has no effect beyond that. The FBI Agent is far more sinister, and far more frustrating. His goal is to rob E.T. of whatever telephone parts he has found. Each time he successfully comes after and touches E.T., one of the pieces E.T. has found will be taken permanently away, forcing E.T. to acquire that piece all over again. This can lead to one of the most difficult aspects of the game -- successfully avoiding the FBI Agent to fulfill your quest to phone home, and while there are many methods, the most effective one is to find the context-sensitive area which represents a column as its icon. Raising E.T.'s head on this area forces whatever human is currently pursuing E.T. on the same screen (even Eliot) to return to his respective building immediately.

The final complexity factor had to do with the context-sensitive button. In fact, this may have been the first game to have used a context-sensitive control setup in the history of the gaming industry, and that idea has literally become a staple in quest, adventure, and platforming games since. Games like "The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time" and "Conker's Bad Fur Day" have relied on this type of mechanism, among others. While those games had their own reasons for using that kind of control scheme, "E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial" did so out of sheer necessity. The Atari 2600 controller was really too simple for games that tried to move beyond the framework of point-scoring shooters. It had a joystick and a single firing button, and that's it. This setup worked well for most Atari 2600 games, which were trying to emulate as close as possible games which were favorites in the arcades. When the game developers tried to make more complex adventure games for the Atari 2600 that went beyond the arcade model, they had to find unique and inventive ways to expand the limited controls. For the game "Raiders of the Lost Ark", which acted as a platforming game with item-based puzzles, this was accomplished by using a second controller in the second player slot to access and use those items when necessary. Simulator games like "Space Shuttle" attempted to use the switches on the console itself as extra controlling mechanisms, with some resounding success. This game solved the problem by making each part of a screen publish a context, i.e. an operation that E.T. could perform using his power by raising his head on that area (done by clicking the firing button). The icon related to the area that E.T. is currently on will appear at the top-center of the screen. I've already hinted at some of these areas' context-sensitive operations, but among these are an area which will allow E.T. to eat Reese's Pieces, an area from which you can summon Eliot, an area which will identify which pit on the present screen contains a phone piece, an area which will send any humans pursuing E.T. back to their respective buildings, a few areas which will allow E.T. to teleport directly to the same respective location on the next screen over (one for each direction), an area which will allow the fully assembled phone to "phone home" and summon the mother ship to rescue E.T., and finally a landing pad area on the forest screen which is where E.T. must be to be rescued by the mother ship when it arrives

My guess is that many gamers found the game seemingly impossible because these gameplay mechanics were so new for the time. They simply didn't understand what they were doing or supposed to do. The fact that gamers at the time were so used to plugging games in and playing with little to no instruction meant that very few of them actually bothered to read the manual and become acquainted with the control scheme. The Atari 2600 itself was really too limited to include in-game instructions, so the gameplay was actually described in great detail in the manual, and methods for beating the game were included in the tips guide, both of which were included prominently with the game pack. I think that many gamers just rushed right into this game without reading either of them. Heck, Atari developers actually went the extra mile and added easier difficulty modes to help the user get accustomed to the layout, the easiest of which featured no enemies. This made the game so easy that a gamer could literally get E.T. home in one to two minutes, but the point of this easy gaming mode was to allow the user to become familiar with what it was that he was supposed to do in a more complex game with both human enemies present. It was another first for the time -- an in-game training mode. Many gamers never realized this training mode existed, and that is also likely because they never read the instructions, which speak to it explicitly.

As a twelve year old, I played and beat this supposedly "unplayable game" on a regular basis. Pulling it out almost 15 years later when I rediscovered the Atari, I was still able to play and beat the "unplayable game". Pulling the game back out for the last week, while I played the game over and over to refresh my memory in preparation for this review, I beat the "unplayable game" numerous times in less than five minutes on the hardest modes available, and had a pretty good time doing it. Even after more than 20 years, I am still able to play, enjoy, and beat the "unplayable game". I guess you could say I am unconvinced that the game deserves that crank title.

III. "THIS GAME DESTROYED ATARI!"

I want to put forth a scenario for game players of today. Imagine a gaming company that has sold as many as nine million of its own consoles. In fact, let's assume its consoles are the dominant gaming console in the market. This gaming system is popular at a time when arcades are the hangouts for kids and teenagers across the country, and luckily, the company owns exclusive license to make home video versions of many of the most popular titles in these arcades. Imagine an industry that puts out games which sell remarkably more than many of the most popular video game titles do today. This gaming company is making money hand over fist in a market that seems to be growing. Things are looking good. The games this company produces sell at around one to two million copies, i.e. rates that are far higher than a game producer in the current market would need to call a given title a financial success. Then the company makes a game it expects to break records, but ends up selling just as well as these other successful games. The company is still making a profit, but it goes under BECAUSE this game did not meet expectations.

Sound unlikely? Well this is precisely the scenario we are asked to believe when someone repeats the wives' tail that "E.T. was the game that destroyed Atari". We are basically being told that a company with no internal or fiscal problems was wiped out by the release of a SINGLE video game. At least, that's what is being assumed. But let's be reasonable here. No company with so many vested interests is going to die from a single game release. Think of how many popular and successful game developers have had a game that flopped in the market. A great many, I'd say. How many of those companies went under over it? Here's a clue: companies don't die from one aspect alone. Many factors contribute to their fall, and usually over a long period of time.

Atari was a game company that had literally dominated the market from its first home game, the one-game home consoles called "Pong", which were little more than simple ping-pong games. These took the country by storm. Though Atari wasn't the first to make a version of the game (that was Magnavox with its "Odyssey" console in 1972), they were the ones who perfected the system, marketed it successfully, and made it into a profitable business. Years later, they expanded by selling themselves to Warner Communications, which funded Atari's work on building a console without built-in games but rather a plug and play cartridge-based system. They released that system and distributed "Pong" among other game cartridges to use with it. After some delay from the market saturation brought about by the many pong-clones flooding the market, these also literally took the country by storm. Again, Atari wasn't the first to make a cartridge-based system (that distinction goes to Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corporation with its "Channel F" console in 1976), but it was again the first to perfect the system, market it successfully, and make it into a profitable business. Once gamers realized that Pong wasn’t the only thing in town, and that the new Atari system had the potential of playing virtually hundreds of games on a single console, it became an immediate hit. The Atari 2600, or "Atari Video Computer System" as it was called them, sold one million units in 1979. Its sales doubled every year until 1982 when the console sold eight million units in a single year.

When companies grow so rapidly with little to no competition, problems abound for various reasons, and Atari was a company plagued with problems. Warner's direction for the company was becoming more haphazard. While it poured money into unlikely hardware projects with little oversight which would never see the light of day, it put unnecessary restrictions on the development of its high selling games in an effort to streamline production. One of the first issues was that many games were restricted to a very tiny amount of available ROM, not enough to store programs large enough to make games of the quality that gamers were accustomed to in past Atari releases or in arcades. Warner had developed a business plan which put more stock in obtaining exclusive licenses to make such titles than it did into actual game development. One of the worst examples of this was in its exclusive license to make games based on the arcade hit "Pac-Man". While developers internally pushed for more memory to make a better quality game, their requests were universally rejected. When Atari's "Pac-Man" game cart did get released, it was so unlike the original that many gamers cried foul. Even with this protest, the game still sold over two million copies. This justified Warner's belief that license and quantity were more important to the success of the industry than quality. Lacking vision, they saw no reason to fix what they didn't think was broken.

In addition to the technical aspects of Atari's internal development issues, there were also legitimate human resource issues which would plague Warner's attempts to keep a foothold not only on the market, but controlling interest in games released for its own console. Warner had an anonymity policy which literally required that developers responsible for hit titles wouldn't receive any in-game or in-manual credit. Disgruntled developers started finding unique ways to hack their names into titles, but this was hardly the worst issue these developers had to face. Warner's pay policies were equally harsh. Developers who would create technically astute titles that pushed the Atari 2600 to its limits would receive relatively low pay, especially when compared to the amount of money their titles would make for the company. Given that the market was virtually dominated by Atari/Warner, there were few places for a disgruntled and underappreciated game developer to go. Eventually, these developers left the company to move to new startup game development companies, such as Activision. These new game companies were taking more and more of Atari's best developers, until only a few of the very best were still with the company. This led to lower quality games developed in-house, such as the horrid "Swordquest" series.

Atari and Warner, when developing their new console, had not considered it necessary to implement a console licensing scheme to control quality assurance levels for software titles released for their console by third party developers. Given the relative youth of not only the gaming industry, but the personal software industry as a whole, it simply hadn't occurred to them that such a licensing system would be necessary. As a result, the market became literally flooded with cheaper Atari games which competed directly with Warner's enterprise. Activision was one of the better companies, producing titles that rivaled even Atari's in quality, but most third party game developers produced horrid titles which generated a quality problem, with games such as Data Age's "Airlock" and "Sssnake", and US Games' "Squeeze Box". These titles were significantly cheaper than those released by Atari, averaging at only 20% of the price of in-house games. Many customers, attracted to the lower prices, would buy these titles and then balk at the console itself for the poor quality of the games. If these titles gave the console an image problem in terms of quality, other games gave the system an image problem in terms of integrity. Pornographic titles such as "Custer's Revenge" started appearing, as well as gratuitously violent titles such as "Texas Chainsaw Massacre", which put gamers into the shoes of a violent serial killer who scored points by murdering screaming teenagers. Warner recognized the problem, but attempts to stop these third party developers in court were awash due to the absence of a licensing scheme, and judges often sent Warner Communications packing.

As if matters were not already bad enough, new consoles were entering the market. Mattel's Intellivision, Coleco's Colecovision, and a unique system called the Vectrex, were taking a significant, though not catastrophic portion of the American market. Japan on the other hand was moving en masse to Nintendo's new console, the Famicom. These consoles took advantage of hardware advances made in the five years since the release of Atari's console, and made the 2600 seem like a dinosaur by comparison. Atari tried to counter these trends with the release of the Atari 5200, but design problems in the console, as well as a lack of backward compatibility to the 2600, made it cumbersome and unpopular. Warner didn't win popularity contests in its relationship with retailers either, and took advantage of its marketing power by insisting as far back as 1980 that retailers order large quantities of games more than a year in advance in many cases, with veiled threats that they wouldn't make these games available to them otherwise. In an attempt to gain sales on less-popular titles, Warner virtually required retailers to buy larger quantities of those less-popular titles in exchange for the privilege of receiving their desired quantity of sure hits.

Market analysts were surprised by the success of the gaming market, and were unequipped to understand how it worked or what drove it in the first place. As a result, analysts were largely ignoring many of the market trends and the problems with Warner's management, predicting a continuing exponential growth trend. Warner itself was unwilling to fix a lot of its issues, and worse, completely unable to fix the issues its management had acknowledged as legitimate problems. The game "E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial" was released at the dawn of 1983 (actually the end of 1982) with the hopes that it would buck the on-coming trends. It sold well over a million copies.

With any other game, this would have been considered a significant market success; however, Warner and Atari had decided in a strange move to create a larger number of copies of the game than the console's dwindling popularity called for, leaving millions of leftover game packs. This wasn't its only bad sale that year, but the hype around the title and its associated blockbuster movie caused many analysts to focus on it exclusively. Warner reportedly buried the unsold copies of "E.T." in a desert landfill in the American West, adding to the overall impression that it was a commercial disaster. The truth is, the industry needed a scapegoat, and “E.T." was a convenient one.

Now let's get one fact straight in all of this. Atari did not die out as a company. The Atari 2600 console did not disappear. It went into decline, but because of a variety of factors, not one game alone. Games for the Atari 2600 did not discontinue development. In other words, Atari was not "destroyed", nor did it die. Atari was still a more than profitable enterprise, making what game developers today would consider huge profits, but these profits weren't enough to meet the expectations of either the analysts, Warner, or its investors, and so while the system was profitable in the retail market, Warner and Atari were not popular among investors, and anyone who knows anything about the public stock market knows what that means. Warner decided the time had come to de-emphasize Atari, and analysts started referring to the home gaming industry as a fad in its moment of passing.

Atari released a new console in 1984, the Atari 7800, which was technically superior to anything in the United States at the time, but Warner's management spent little time or money marketing the console. It wasn't until the company was sold in 1986 to Commodore that it received any marketing attention at all, and by then it was too late. The Atari 2600 was STILL extremely popular, however, and so it was revamped in 1986 as the "2600 Jr." and was successfully remarketed to the public. The Atari 2600 continued to sell along with games available on the console all the way up until 1990, when it was finally discontinued. Atari went on to make at least two more consoles, and at least one handheld system, before it left the console market to concentrate entirely on game development as late as 1996.

That's right; a system that supposedly died in 1983 was still sold and supported as late as 1990. A company that supposedly "crashed" in 1983 was as late as 1996 developing new consoles and hand-held gaming systems. Atari still releases games today, some developed in-house, and some published from other developers. Does that sound like a destroyed enterprise?

IV. "THIS GAME CAUSED THE VIDEO GAME CRASH OF 1983!"

Let's make this very clear. Since the home gaming industry began in 1972, it has never experienced a "crash", or a depression. It has experienced a few recessions, but NEVER a "crash". Why is this such a sticking point with me? In the past two centuries, our country's economy has only experienced ONE major depression, while it has experienced numerous cyclical recessions. My reaction to references of the "video game 'recession' of 1983" as a video game crash are no different than how I would react at the numerous recessions in our economy being called "depressions". An infamous terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, arguably two of the largest financial centers in the country, which brought them to rubble wasn't able to "crash" our economy, yet we are asked to believe that a single video game literally destroyed an entire industry. This claim is even more common than the common one that it destroyed Atari, and by the scalable difference between these two claims, it is proportionally (if not exponentially) more absurd.

Recessions are a natural part of any free market. They occur on such a market in its entirety in general recessions, and they occur with specific industries such as the video game industry. These types of recessions are very natural, and expected. Markets almost need to be naturally "pruned" in order for new economic growth to occur. This is particularly true when markets become saturated, or less commonly but much worse, exaggerated. The "Pong" crisis of 1977 was just such a recession. It was severe and costly, but out of its wake, Warner and Atari went on to great success. The slightly less critical console crisis of 1993 and 1994 saw the market literally flooded with less-than-stellar consoles attempting to move into the 3D gaming space. While largely leaving the 2D gaming market unaffected, it was costly and pushed many console makers out of the market altogether. This cleared the way for more innovative consoles such as the Sony Playstation and the Nintendo 64.

I don't view the larger Atari crisis of 1983 any differently. It was this recession that paved the way for Nintendo to release its revolutionary Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985, and for Sega to release its Sega Master System a year later. Just as these other examples of industry recessions prepared the market for more growth and more innovation, the 1983 recession led to unprecedented sales and legitimate market growth. Nintendo's console sold far more than Atari could have ever dreamed, with literally one in three American households owning at least one.

Like all recessions, some players were forced out of the market. Horrible game developers and publishers who helped bring about Atari's public image problem received a demise of their own. And unlike what we could term a "crash", Atari itself didn't die out in the process, nor did the console that helped bring that situation about. It lived on until 1990. Mattel's Intellivision had some financial troubles, but outlived the recession, with continuing console sales and new game development all the way until 1991. The ColecoVision and the Vectrex were necessary casualties of this recession, but hardly constitute in and of themselves a "crash" of an entire industry.

We could well have another recession in the gaming industry again. Market saturation, poor management decisions, and bad quality control could all help contribute to such an occurrence. One thing is for certain, it won't center around a single console or game, any more than it did in 1983.

V. "THIS IS THE WORST GAME EVER MADE!"

Allow me to wax anecdotal for a moment. When I was a young boy I became virtually obsessed with a classical composer who, to this day, is one of my most admired heroes. That composer is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In 1984, I saw the film "Amadeus" close to 30 times at the theaters. The film was a fantasia on the life of Mozart, rather than a biography, but it captivated me with the story of how his "arch nemesis" in the Viennese court, court composer "Antonio Salieri", had not only plotted to destroy his career, but attempted to murder him. For years, I was convinced that the story was true, until 1988 when, much to my chagrin, I was faced with a much more biographical account of Mozart's life which forced me to recognize not only how unlikely the conspiracy scenario was, but just how exaggerated was the rivalry between Salieri and Mozart as presented in that film. Even after being faced with that information, I still reveled in the story and pretended to myself it was true, finding justifications to believe the most unlikely scenario over the less interesting hard facts. Only recently have I come to terms with the fact that the more fanciful version was just a good story, and little else.

So why am I bringing this anecdote up now? My purpose is to illustrate this point: sometimes it’s easier to repeat an attractive lie than it is to seek out, and ultimately face, the facts for yourself. It’s quite easy for gamers of today, who never personally experienced the game when it was new and had technical edge, to rely primarily on the rumors they've heard and read over the years, instead of actually giving the game a decent chance. They rush into the game, plug it in and play directly, or through a ROM file with an emulator, without bothering to take the time to read the manuals available in reproduced copies all over the internet, just as gamers from the past did. They play for a few minutes until they are left dazed and confused, and rush off to the forums to declare the game "unplayable". Yes, the game is difficult, but since when is that a negative? Modern games like "Siren" for the Playstation 2 are near impossible, taking many gamers several months to a year to finish, yet these types of games are praised by many for exactly that level of value. "Viewtiful Joe" was praised for being a game of immense difficulty, as was "Devil May Cry 3: Dante's Awakening". E.T.'s reputation as a hard game is no more damning. It’s a well earned badge, and that's part of why I love it.

Gamers of the world, this game is most decidedly not "the worst game ever made", in fact it’s far from it. However, I fear that the unfair reputation it has been pinned with by analysts and executives looking for a scapegoat for their past failures will forever keep this game out of consideration for most of you. I am resigned to the fact that nothing I say here can convince you that a game you are determined not to like... isn't really all that bad after all. I do hope, however, that I have helped to give a solid rational defense of this title that will interest some of you outliers who have been fed the lines but aren't trained to believe everything you read or hear. I suggest to any gamer who wants to judge this game objectively to (1) read the manuals, (2) run through the game's training mode to get comfortable with the gameplay mechanics (difficultly level three), (3) play the game for yourself with an open mind to completion, and (4) judge the game by standards that are reasonable for the time. This industry is already plagued by enough group think to sink a space ship in zero gravity, and for the uninformed and impatient to just repeat mindless screeds does a disservice not only to those who make and develop games and the hardware technologies behind them, but to the gamers who play them as well.

Rating: 7/10

m0zart's avatar
Community review by m0zart (March 27, 2006)

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zippdementia posted March 24, 2010:

This is a dissertation and I really like it. It borders on Manifesto at times, even, but goes a long way to put to rest an urban legend about a game that one man named mozart loved. Thought it deserved mention.
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aschultz posted March 25, 2010:

I remember this game and how it was supposed to be so big. I think it worked out better than Pac-Man, which I did get. I found it to be above-average once I figured out what the heck to do. The problem is, as he mentioned, ET went up against the movie, which had an emotional resonance the game couldn't capture. Pac-Man had a big hype machine, with everything from cereal to a cartoon. Thank goodness ET never had a cartoon. (If you find proof otherwise, I'll ignore you.)

Also, I'm impressed that a review about an Atari game can be that long. There is a lot of tangential stuff here but it's worth looking at if you're in the mood, and though I never met mozart, damn he seems interesting from this. Thanks for pointing this review out.

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