I am not particularly interested in revisiting what was one of my primary interests as a seven year old (unless it has something to do with Hanna-Barbera, natch). That isn't to say I hold any of my contemporaries that obsess over their latest Atari thrift store find in contempt. Playing old Atari games just isn't high on my list of priorities. Regardless, I was over at a friend's house that is indeed one of these Atari obsessives, when the topic turned to, "What was the greatest Atari game?" Well, for me the answer was easy. Without question, the Atari game I played and enjoyed the most was Atari's interpretation of the Steven Spielberg hit ET. Those present laughed in an esoteric Atari aficionado type way and dismissed my answer. "All joking aside, what was actually your favorite game?" I had to plead ignorance. I had no idea why my answer was so implausible. When I steadfastly insisted I wasn't joking, my defense of the game became highly controversial.
I had mastered the game at the age of four, and admittedly, the object of ET was incredibly stupid. I hadn't even seen the film at that point but I knew that there was no way this piece of amusement was following the movie plot. The object was for ET to collect a series of black dots and coveted gold pieces while trying to avoid falling into pits. You also had to dodge a oddly animated scientist and an FBI agent in a trench coat that would steal your dots and gold. Once you had collected a certain amount of dots and gold without falling into pits, you would return to a field, pump the joystick's red button and summon a space ship to take you home: the end. Well, I thought it was fun.
It wasn't until my friends enlightened me last year that I realized I was the only kid in North America enjoying the game. When I first plugged the cartridge into my Atari on a joyous Christmas morn, I was instantly impressed with the image pictured on the right. This was the best-looking Atari graphic I had ever seen! The Atari-ized ET theme was nothing to sneeze at either. As I have learned, most people found the game frustrating, difficult to learn, impossible to master and not particularly fun. I don't know why. I, for one, enjoyed the otherworldly and somewhat creepy feeling I got from it. Elliot, The Professor, and a man in a trench coat enforcing the PATRIOT Act were void of facial features. This made them seem like terrifying creatures from an old drive-in movie, which I always felt added to the mystique. Although, I did not enjoy losing all my lives, thus bringing an end to current play, the graphic of a pathetic ET skeleton was always something haunting to behold. Can you imagine the rotting corpse of Mario or Zelda (or a much more current reference) appearing on your screen? Of course not.
Unfortunately, I am alone with my "praise." Not only is ET regarded as a worthless piece of shit, and by several sources as the worst video game ever made, there are many thorough explanations for why this is. For one, the game was rushed through production. The reason for this was to cash in on the success of the movie before it became passe and secondly, to make sure it was on the market in time for the Christmas season. This gave the game's programmer, Howard Scott Warshaw, a meager six weeks to prepare, conceive, design and program the most anticipated video game of the year (Warshaw also designed the classic Yars Revenge). This game would never have a chance to be a baron of quality, even by Atari standards, with such pressure put against it. Warshaw was paid an incredible two hundred thousand dollars for his six weeks of grunt work. When ET was released right before Christmas, it sold, as anticipated, incredibly well. 1.5 Million units moved in just over a week making it the eighth highest selling video game of all time. However, Atari had been anticipating even greater sales and had manufactured a total of four million copies of the game, many which remained in Atari warehouses that were being prepared for shipping when retailers sold out. Unfortunately, Atari failed to anticipate what would happen next. Angry parents and children alike returned to their stores of purchase in the forth-coming days, and what happened is now legendary. Word of mouth about ET's supposed shittiness resulted in more than half of all purchased copies being returned, according to one Atari executive. Nor did the three million cartridges sitting in the warehouse ever make their way onto the shelves of stores or into the hands of consumers. ET's bad rap resulted in enormous losses for the Atari company and is ultimately blamed for the company's complete demise. Atari posted a loss of $536 million dollars in 1983 and would soon come to resemble the rotting ET skeleton I have pictured on the right.
The best part of the story is often dismissed as urban legend. People say "impossible!" This website, which devotes itself to debunking urban myths, verifies it as fact. In the autumn of 1983, ten to twenty semi-trailer loads worth of unsold Atari ET cartridges (and some other unpopular Atari merch for good measure) were driven out into the New Mexico desert. It was there that the games were crushed with machines, tossed into a landfill and buried. As if that weren't enough, they decided to pour a layer of concrete overtop, cementing them in for all time! This eventually became rather controversial, not because of the sheer weirdness of the act, but instead, because of the typical corporate disregard for the environment involved. Public protest swelled against the large amount of dumping Atari was doing in this area near Alamogordo, New Mexico. Public sentiment turned sharply against the local dump that was allowing the out-of-state video game corporation to dispose of their wares. The dump manager's made off with a substantial amount of money in exchange. After the outcry, local bylaws were imposed to keep such a circumstance from happening again.
I still don't know how anyone can find ET a harder game to play than Atari Football (and I didn't just struggle with it because I'm privy to CFL rules). Lastly, nerds, don't post comments that the dots are candy or that the gold was phone pieces. I didn't know that when I was a kid. I still mastered the game without that knowledge. And I don't care.