Has there ever been a greater disparity in quality, reception, and popularity between a beloved pop-culture milestone and its adaptation than in the gulf between E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial the hit movie and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial the nearly universally loathed Atari 2600 videogame? The only contender I can think of is the slight dip in quality between Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band the album and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band the movie musical, which was an epic boondoggle, but at least didn’t threaten to bring down a corporation and possibly entire industry the way the Atari E.T. did.
In theory, adapting E.T. for the home-videogame market should have been a simple matter of cloning E.T. for another medium. But adaptation is a tricky business, and videogames simply did not have the technology to do justice to E.T. in 1982. Adapting a cinematic-special-effects breakthrough like E.T. for videogames using the blunt, caveman-like tools at the disposal of videogame makers in 1982 was like trying to recreate the Mona Lisa using fingerpaint. But the attempt didn’t have to be so ugly. It’s as if Atari put Jon Hamm into a cloning machine and spat out an exact cross between Kevin Federline and Spencer Pratt. Or, in a slightly more plausible analogy, it would be like Tom Hanks’ genetic material begetting the smirking personage of Chet Haze.
The failure of Atari’s E.T. was so dramatic and public that it became the stuff of urban legends. Considering that one of E.T.’s infinite frustrations is its eagerness to strand players at the bottom of difficult-to-escape pits, there’s something poetically apt about the fact that millions of returned copies of E.T. are reportedly buried in a Alamogordo, New Mexico landfill. This is open to some dispute. In an interview with our own Keith Phipps, the game’s creator casts doubt that his handiwork ended up being buried en masse in the desert, but the mythbusters over at Snopes insist millions of unsold copies of the game did end up being dumped in the most famous videogame grave in existence. Atari wasn’t just unloading unsellable merchandise: It was hiding its shame, destroying evidence of its most egregious and unforgivable mistake in a crazed ritual of corporate self-negation.
How did things go so horrifically awry? How did the most commercially successful movie of all time up to that point lead to the least-successful videogame in history, a game so disastrous, it played a huge role in Atari losing hundreds of millions of dollars in 1982 and 1983 and getting sold in 1984? How did an all-time winner create an all-time loser? Corporate hubris, not surprisingly, plays a major role. Atari was riding so high in 1982 that it was happy to plunk down between $20 and $25 million to secure the game rights to E.T. in 1982.
E.T. director Steven Spielberg personally requested that Howard Scott Warshaw, the creator of the videogame classic Yars’ Revenge (and, more relevantly, the videogame adaptation of Spielberg’s own Raiders Of The Lost Ark) create the game. The stakes were high: Atari wanted the game ready for the all-important Christmas shopping season, so Warshaw was forced to pull the rush jobs of all rush jobs. He got the gig in late July, and had to deliver a finished game by September 1. That gave him roughly five weeks to create, more or less from scratch, one of the most anticipated, expensive games in the history of the still-young medium.
The time crunch between conception and distribution didn’t allow for niceties like audience testing. Had Atari focus-tested the game with potential audiences, I suspect they would have been forced to start again from scratch after receiving a flurry of indignant responses like, “What the fuck is going on?” “Are you out of your goddamn minds?” “My nightmares will be haunted by pits because of you monsters!” and “Why do you hate our children?”
It might have gone another way. To make matters a little easier, Spielberg reportedly suggested Warshaw pattern E.T. after Pac-Man. The advice was cynical but fundamentally sane: crossbreed an enormously popular film with an enormously popular game, and popularity might well ensue. While the resulting game might have been inherently derivative, no one was expecting miracles from a game created in just over a month. Warshaw would have faced intense criticism had he taken Spielberg’s advice and ripped off Pac-Man. He also probably would have sold a lot more games. Instead, Warshaw took the road less traveled and dreamed up a game that put players inside E.T.’s wrinkly green skin as he traveled around a series of boards in an attempt to procure three McGuffins that collectively form a telephone E.T. can use to phone home so a spaceship will retrieve him and take him back to his home planet. Who needs running, jumping, flying, cracking whips, or firing weapons when kids can harness the sheer visceral excitement of methodically accumulating the components of a technological device?
Warshaw was considered a videogame savant, but it’s telling that when he looked at Spielberg’s E.T., he decided the element of its narrative he wanted to focus on was the titular character’s telephone usage rather than the fact that he soars through the clouds on a motherfucking bike like some sort of creepy wrinkled alien-god. How does E.T. acquire these telephone components, you might ask? Why, by deliberately falling into a series of wells, of course! This brilliant addition proved educational and entertaining. It’s educational because it teaches impressionable children the important lesson that they can best achieve their objectives by plummeting into deep holes. That’s healthy, right? And it’s entertaining, because c’mon, what’s more fun than falling into a pit?
Alas, there were a few unexpected problems in making a game’s action revolve around falling into holes. For starters, E.T.’s pits could be awfully difficult to get out of, even with E.T.’s remarkable neck-stretching, levitating abilities. Even once you emerged from a pit, it was awfully easy to fall back in, unless you were extremely careful.
The best early videogames benefit from elegant simplicity. The graphics of the Atari 2600, Colecovision, and other early systems were inherently primitive, and the gameplay basic and clumsy. So the games that weaseled their ways into our hearts and souls and stood the test of time figured out a way to find fun in repeating the same primitive actions over and over. Pac-Man made maneuvering through a maze and eating dots maddeningly addictive. Donkey Kong elevated jumping over barrels and occasionally smashing something with a hammer to an art form. Space Invaders rendered moving back and forth while shooting at menacing aliens an irresistible pastime for kids, adults, and burnouts alike.
These games all shared memorable characters, clear objectives, and obvious goals. In each of them, you knew exactly who you were and what you had to do to win, or even survive to the next level. There’s none of that in Atari’s E.T. It drops players into the deep end, or, more specifically, into nightmarish wells, and expects them to figure out how to levitate out. The game begins with E.T.—who looks an awful lot like a diseased, hunched-over sentient penis—being deposited by a spaceship into a vague digital representation of woods. At the top of the screen, arrows and strange symbols ostensibly tell you where to go and what to seek out, while at the bottom of the screen, a timer informs you how much time you have left until your energy runs out and you die, no doubt of boredom combined with soul-wrenching frustration. To keep this from happening, you can retrieve dots meant to represent Reese’s Pieces, which restore your energy.
As E.T., you must retrieve the telephone’s base components by exploring wells. There is an art and a science behind E.T.’s well-falling: Chose the right one, and you’re in a position to retrieve a third of the game’s holy grail. Fall down the wrong one, and you’re just wasting your time and depleting more of your valuable energy. Once you’ve fallen into a hole, you must use your magical powers to stretch out your neck and levitate out. Your reward is a 90 percent chance of immediately falling back in. While playing an online simulator of E.T., I spent so much time falling into wells, deliberately and otherwise, that they began to seem less like an obstacle and more like a haunting metaphor for the inherent futility of all human and alien endeavor. Oh sure, you can struggle and strive and try to overcome, but really, you’re just going to plummet into some bottomless pit of your own devising over and over. Why bother trying to get out, when your own inherent weaknesses will only land you right back where you started?
But it was more than that: E.T.’s propensity for spending nearly all of his time falling into wells and wandering around crudely digitized landscapes ostensibly representing different scenes from the film began to feel like the game’s commentary on the fundamental loneliness of existence, on the way we’re born alone, die alone, and are doomed to spend the unhappy moments between scouring the earth in search of candy and telephone components. I grew so lonely and frustrated playing and failing miserably at E.T. that I came to welcome a trenchcoat-wearing FBI agent and scientist who serve as the game’s primary antagonists. True, the FBI agent is a villain and confiscates pieces of your precious telephone, but in a world seemingly devoid of anything but the agonizing silent scream of eternal loneliness and an endless series of wells, it’s nice just to see a human face, even if it’s patently unfriendly.
In my desperation, I sought out help online, which led me to this vintage video on YouTube of a man with a hypnotically sleep-inducing monotone explaining how to play and win Atari’s E.T. in the patient, slightly bored tones of a kindergarten teacher explaining something to a slow child.
Here’s the thing: this explains nothing! On the contrary, it’s a lie that makes Atari’s E.T. seem like a logical, playable, and non-sadistic game that can be won with merely a fair amount of effort. Just about the only acknowledgment that Atari’s E.T. was created to destroy the souls and minds of anyone playing it is the casual concession, “Getting out of a well can be troublesome, but there’s not much we can do about it but try again.” That’s like saying getting hit directly by a nuclear bomb can be painful, but there’s not much we can do about it other than try not to let it happen again.
The E.T. videogame performs a tricky reverse alchemy, transforming one of the most beloved characters in the history of pop-culture into a terrible, eminently forgettable videogame protagonist, and the most successful motion picture of its era into the single greatest videogame disaster of all time. That’s a hell of a drop-off, but it’s richly deserved. Atari’s E.T. deserved to fail just as strongly as Spielberg’s E.T. deserved to succeed. Indeed, it took the videogame industry years to crawl its way out of the deep pit it fell, into thanks to E.T. and Atari’s terrible judgment. (Symbolism!)
I did not defeat the E.T. game. I didn’t even come close. I wanted to write about a videogame disaster in honor of the successful launch of our sister site, Gameological Society, but Atari’s E.T. has cured me of my desire to play videogames of any kind for the indefinite future. It defeated me, just as it defeated an overmatched, overconfident Atari.
Failure, Fiasco, Or Secret Success? Failure