Diehard GameFAN Hall of Shame: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

Every week, we will present a new game to be nominated for the Diehard GameFAN Hall of Fame and Hall of Shame. These nominations will occur every Monday and Friday, respectively. Our standards are just like the Baseball Hall of Fame: every game will be voted on by members of the staff, and any game that gets 75% of the vote – with a minimum of four votes – will be accepted – or thrown – into their respective Hall.

Game: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Developer: Atari
Publisher: Atari
Release Date: December, 1982
System Released On: Atari 2600
Genre: Adventure

Who Nominated The Game: Lucard.

Why Was It Nominated: Before I begin, I have to curtail a myth: E.T. did not “cause” the Video Game Crash of 1983. There were a lot of things that helped contribute to that crash, some of which happened well before Christmas of ’82.

I will say, however, that E.T. was the final nail in the coffin.

Let’s go back in time and see just where the games industry was when E.T. was put upon us. Activision – at that time a company full of ex-Atari employees who were liberated by the company’s focus on individual programmers – had just won a lawsuit brought against them by Atari, who sued for the right to exclusively publish on their console. The lawsuit actually had a negative effect on the industry as a whole, as for every Activision and Imagic, there were a bunch of companies like Zimag (makers of video cassettes) and U.S. Games (a subsidiary of Quaker Oats. Yes, that Quaker Oats) who were pumping out crap game after crap game. This led to the market becoming exceptionally saturated, and led to difficulties in telling good and bad games apart. It would be one thing if the games were something someone threw together in their basement, but it’s another altogether when there are some genuine, high-profile failures. Pac-Man, the biggest arcade game in the world at that time, was ported over to the 2600. It sucked. Atari later came out with Raiders of the Lost Ark, based on the Indiana Jones movie. It sucked. Atari also ran a contest around a series of games named Swordquest, and used the chance to giveaway some serious loot. The project failed, and the games sucked. There were even some companies that made pornographic games, based around the 2600’s powerful colour palette. They all sucked. Oh God, did they suck.

However, Atari was not disturbed. They had licensing rights to a game based around the movie E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. It’s hard to remember this – hell, I was only two myself – but when this movie came out, E.T. was huge. If someone had pictures of Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus having sex with each other while Justin Bieber stood off to the side having a wank, MAYBE it would be as big as E.T. was back in the early ’80s. Atari was expecting this game to move BIG figures, the 1982 equivalent of Black Ops figures. They got Howard Scott Warshaw, the man behind Yars’ Revenge (and Raiders of the Lost Ark, but we won’t hold that against him), to program the game specifically at Stephen Spielberg’s request. Everything was on its way.

Then things went to shit.

First, the game had to be ready for Christmas of 1982, which meant it had to be ready to be pressed by September 1st. Considering the fact that Mr. Warshaw wasn’t even CONTACTED about the game until July 27th, that gave him four effective weeks to get what was to be a major game done. Even back then, programming on the 2600, that was a difficult task. At that point, Mr. Warshaw got over-ambitious. He wanted to capture the spirit of the movie within the game, whereas Spielberg just wanted to do something like Pac-Man where E.T. ran around eating up Reese’s Pieces. And any issues that would have been picked up before release – like the fact that the game sucked – ended up going live because Atari cancelled consumer testing because of the massive time crunch.

(This is off topic slightly, but the old Gamespy article where some of that information came from – referencing Mr. Warshaw’s keynote speech from the 2000 Classic Gaming Expo – is a blast to read. Check it out here.)

The game came out in time for Christmas of ’82, and performed well initially. However, Atari – who’s mismanagement during this part of the decade was so bad it’s shocking they lasted as long as they did – ordered way too many cartridges. Even selling 1.5 million units – a good number, especially in 1982 – considering they ordered over twice that, they were guaranteed to have massive overstock. Then product started getting returned in massive quantities. Prices were massively slashed across most retailers at a rate that Sega Superstars Tennis could only dream of, which only served to piss them off. Even the press – at that time little more than willing gimps for the publishers who supplied them with advertising money (wait, that sounds familiar…) – almost universally panned the game. They had every right to, because playing E.T. was a nightmare. It involved dropping into holes to search for phone parts, which wouldn’t be so bad if getting out of the holes wasn’t such a chore. You had to press up on the joystick to get out, but if you weren’t careful, you would end up dropping right back into the same hole. All of this was exacerbated by the fact that the game had a time limit that could only be extended by collecting Reese’s Pieces (for you younger kids: they product-placed Reese’s Pieces in a way that would make Budweiser blush). At best, the game was, conceptually speaking, at least ten years ahead of its time. At worst, it was poorly planned and conceived.

In retrospect, with all of the other issues that were befalling the industry – generally poor quality of games, a saturation of both games and systems (in addition to the 2600 and the recently released 5200, there was the Coleco-Vision and Intellivision) and fading casual interest in the decaying and still expensive technology of the day – E.T. The Extra Terrestrial ended up being both the final nail in the coffin of both Atari and the industry as a whole, as well as an exemplification of everything that caused the industry to fail at that time. It was rushed, overambitious, completely tone-deaf to what consumers wanted, and a very poor game to boot. Since that time, E.T.‘s failure has become legendary – the story of millions of copies being buried in a New Mexico landfill is now a commonly known anecdote – and for that reason alone could be considered a Hall of Shame candidate. The fact that the game was truly atrocious is just a cherry on top.

All in Favour:

Aaron Sirois: Back before I had the internet, and knew nothing of this game, my family found a working Atari and a gaggle of games for it at a yard sale. I remember trying them all out, one by one. While they distracted me from the Super Nintendo only momentarily, there where at least a few that I liked.

Then I tried E.T..

I have never known such frustration from a game so quickly. I’ve been playing games for most of my life, and I can’t remember a game I hated so much after playing it for only a couple of minutes.

Forget the game’s legacy of “killing video games” or the fact that a million copies were buried in the desert. I would vote this game in without those reasons. E.T. was one of those experiences, ’cause there is no other word for it than experience, that showed me how much I could truly hate a game. I’ve thrown controllers, stomped out of rooms, and screamed at the top of my lungs. But nothing in my memory compares to what it felt like to play this piece of crap.

If there were only one game to ever make the Hall of Shame, this should be it.

Alex Lucard: True story. I managed to beat this game as a small child. I don’t know what I did because I was paying more attention to an episode of Thundercats where they had heavily implied that Lion-o KILLED Mumm-Ra and as a small boy of single digits, that held far more interest to me, especially as I always rooted for Mumm-Ra and not those furries. Next thing I knew, I was seeing the equivalent of an end-game cinematic for the Atari 2600 (which was reaching the spaceship and the game starting over) and I was never to beat the game again. Instead, every subsequent playthrough met the same fate as the ones before my one and only success – the god damn fucking pit. Oh my god was that an awful experience.

Yeah, I’d vote in E.T. just because of that, but it’s also primarily because the game was a business disaster from beginning to end, one even Steven Spielberg tried to convince Atari not to make. Atari laughed him off, laughed off the idea of audience testing, and made so many copies, the company eventually went into debt allowing me to eventually pick up 2600 carts at my local Kay*Bee for a buck each. This is a game that has rightfully achieved its urban legend status – not because of how bad the game itself was, but because of how bad everything that revolved around the game was as well.

A.J. Hess: It seems that every time a gaming journalist compiles a list of worst games of all times, E.T. shows up pretty high on that list. The reasons are numerous. Even for the simplistic days of Atari, the controls went from bad to incomprehensible. The reason most players hate movie tie-in games might be able to be traced all the way back to this one. The game can be summed up thusly: Walk around, fall into hole, float to top. Repeat until you randomly die. Even if you don’t believe the urban legend of massive landfills full of Atari cartridges of this game, spending more than five minutes playing the game is an exercise in madness.

Ashe Collins: The only other game I hated almost as much as this one on the Atari is Raiders of the Lost Ark. I have no idea what possessed my uncle to add this to his collection of Atari titles when there were so many other great games in his collection, but this title only got played maybe two or three times. It was awful. It wasn’t the first movie tie-in to be terrible, but it certainly started a long trend that really hasn’t broken a whole lot. I’m ignoring the urban legends surrounding the game mainly because I remember playing it and much like one of the other poor titles I see my son playing, instead of my son putting down the controller and going outside, back in the 80’s that was me.

Aileen Coe: Movie tie-in games don’t exactly have a reputation for delivering amazing gaming experiences. Already, E.T. was not off to a good start.

Then you actually turn the game on.

Immediately your eardrums were assaulted by a cacophony that could barely be called music. You have this Dick Tracy wannabe stalking our poor beleaguered alien protagonist (barely recognizable in that form) the whole way. You’re constantly falling into wells trying to find pieces of a telephone (and Reese’s Pieces). All while your health ticks down with every move. And you’re thrown in with no context of your actions – you have to piece it all together yourself. Until you do, it makes no sense. Even after you do…it still makes no sense, though slgihtly more sense than it did before you did (confused yet? That was the intent).

The whole experience was so horrible it became hilarious in its sheer disagreeableness. The hilarity, however, did not mitigate the excruciating part of the experience. It could probably even be used as a training tool to increase one’s pain threshold. Landfills nothing – the experience of going through the game in and of itself is enough to earn it shame.

Christopher Bowen: I’ve stated before that I find a game’s place in history to be every bit as much of a qualifier of its place in our two Halls as my personal opinion of them, if not more. For example, if Final Fantasy Tactics were to be put up for a Hall of Fame vote, I would vote it in, not because I liked it – I still much prefer Shining Force and Fire Emblem – but because it was undoubtedly a great game regardless of my personal opinion. To me, not voting a legendary game in because I either don’t play it, didn’t play it or personally didn’t like it as much as other games is like someone not voting for Tony Gwynn for Baseball’s Hall of Fame because they’re pissed off that Dale Murphy and Don Mattingly aren’t getting enough recognition.

Let me state for the record that this doesn’t come up with E.T. Not only is the game legendarily unpopular, I personally hate it like a motherfucker.

There’s a bit of nostalgia fighting me here. I got E.T. when it was marked down – WAY down – at a Caldor in 1986 (to put that in perspective, Caldor has been defunct since 1999). It was something like $2.95 on a clearance rack, and this was before I got my NES. I played a LOT of Atari as a kid, and I was just excited to have another game.

That excitement did not last. At six years old, I could not figure out what was going on, nor could I figure out how to stop falling into those fucking holes. Hell, I STILL can’t really figure it out! The only difference between me at six and me at thirty is that I no longer get slapped and grounded for swearing at my games, and even for the purposes of going down memory lane, I swore a lot at my Atari over this one. I even took a bit of time getting the game working. It’s like my 29 year old system was fighting me with every last ounce of its strength. “Please, no. Please don’t make me do this. Let me go out with dignity.” In fact, it hasn’t been able to play a game since I tried this a month ago.

So not only does it suck as a game, E.T. murdered my fucking Atari 2600.

All Opposed:

Mark B.: So, here’s the thing: Seanbaby came out against this game a while back, called it one of the worst games ever, whatever, and ever since then, people act like this is a thing, like “E.T. IS TEH WORST GAEM EVAR” as if they’ve played it. Have they? Possibly. Most likely not, considering it was at one point a valuable game on Ebay and the odds of finding a functional Atari with which to play it are about on par with finding a gold nugget in your morning bowel movement, but one never knows.

But, fine. It’s terrible. Whatever. You probably don’t even need to play it to know that, yeah? They buried a million copies of the damn thing out in New Mexico because no one bought it, even though the reality is that no one knows WHAT they buried out there and the belief that it was mostly ET comes from our COMPLETELY INFALLIBLE NEWS MEDIA, so, sure, it sucks.

Here’s the thing, though: go back and play your old Atari favorites. I don’t mean the arcade versions, I mean the games on the home console. Pick one. Pac Man, Adventure, Pitfall, whatever. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Back? Okay. Not so good of a game anymore, was it? No, I didn’t think it was. See, that’s the problem here: back in the very early heyday of video gaming, making a GOOD console game was nearly impossible for a number of reasons, but making a mediocre game that was impressive because we were interacting with the television screen? Not so hard. It was a different time and the technology was completely primitive by today’s standards, so any game that was “playable” immediately became “good” in the eyes of the public.

It also bears noting that ET, while not a hit or anything, wasn’t decried as a shitpile at the time it came out to the level it is now (again, THANKS SEANBABY), and frankly, things like Custer’s Revenge, Beat ’em and Eat ’em, or, if we don’t want to include porn games, Raiders of the Lost Ark. They just don’t happen to get the same attention E.T. gets because, well, hype is king.

The bottom line is that E.T. was going to end up buried in a landfill (assuming it even did) no matter how good it was, because the market had started turning on the Atari consoles by that point and moved on to competitors, and later, to not playing video games. E.T. did not kill the industry, Atari did, and the game was the final sign to Atari that they were screwed and it was time to give up, not the game that ended the first generation of consoles. It’s not a good game by any means, but it’s not nearly as worth recognition as history has deemed it, and there are worse games from that period of history. Sorry, but I’m not on board.

Joel Rose: E.T. is a bad game. There is mistake that it’s amongst the worse interactive experiences anyone with eyes can endure. The problem I have with it’s inclusion in the Hall of Shame here is that it’s kind of a give in in a lot of regards. It’s a universally hated piece of software, that is legendary in it’s badness. It seems redundant to have it included in yet another list.

Result: 6 In Favour, 2 Opposed, 75% Approval = SHAMED

Conclusion: It was meant to be. E.T. is so legendarily bad that even despite a sympathy vote, it still had enough hatred and bile towards it to make it into the Hall of Shame.

I guess what’s ironic is that I have this game – box, book and all – on a “special” shelf in my house. It’s a game so bad that I felt it needed to be displayed, like a museum relic. “Look, everyone. It’s one of the worst video games of all time!” That’s something, though I’m thinking it needs to be moved. It’s sitting right next to my Lunar Complete box sets, and making them look bad by proxy.

Next Week: Riding bikes. Female breasts. Both of these things are individually fun, so like peanut butter and chocolate, one could be forgiven for thinking they go together well. Oh, if only…


6 responses to “Diehard GameFAN Hall of Shame: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial”

  1. 7th Avatar

    I had this game when it was new. I was around 7 or 8 I think. I had beating it down to a science. I could usually beat it three or four times in a row before the increasing difficulty bested me. As far as it being too obscure I don’t really think it was as hard to figure out as, say, Adventure, and Adventure’s considered a 2500 classic. But it had graphics that sucked even for that time, a totally out of place screen off to the right that I remember having this sort of weird conveyor belt section that reminds me now of Cloak and Dagger (even though that game wouldn’t come along for another year or two)and you had that annoying FBI agent following you around. Then you finally build the phone, turn it on, and here comes the garbage can sized space ship. But here’s what would REALLy piss you off. If you didn’t get to it in time, or if you weren’t standing PERFECTLY in line with it, it would take off without you and leave you standing there, knowing you’d have to start all over. All the kids in my neighborhood hated it. I can remember there was so much hate for this game after it came out that it was even mentioned on the local news that parents and their kids felt ripped off, and had little kids holding up their copies with “sad panda” faces before Sad Panda even existed. So the idea of Seanbaby making “ET for 2600 is utter shit” a trend might be true for people who’ve never played it, but believe me, those of us who DID play it when it first came out didn’t need him to tell us it was a pile of rat ass.

  2. 7th Avatar


    You find the missing pieces, turn on the phone, then get back to the green field and hope the Fed guy doesn’t grab you before the ship comes down. Can be beat in under ten minutes.

  3. AFN Avatar

    I have had this game since about 1985, I was 4 then. I now have like 3 copies. I have decried it as being awful since then. Even at 4 I knew it was awful.

    Mark B, sure a lot of the games don’t hold up today (Pac Man was awful as well, but MS. was great), but they were fun back then. E.T. wasn’t even fun back then, it has always been awful. The fact that Seanbaby came out against it makes me want to give it another chance however.

  4. Mark B. Avatar
    Mark B.

    My issue isn’t exclusively whether the game was awful relative to what came out at the time; my issue is that I didn’t think this was anywhere near worthy of the amount of hatred it’s received over the years. I mean, the game came out in the infancy of the console video game market. I was three years old when this game came out and there are several people on staff who are honestly younger than this game. I mean, to me, it’s like looking at “The Navigator” and saying “This film was awful, it’s one of the worst of all time”. Whether the film is horrendous or not isn’t of much interest to me, because it came out in 1924. I don’t see much of a point in crapping on people who were experimenting with what did and did not work on technology that is essentially dwarfed by a TI-84 graphing calculator, y’know?

    But working within the confines of games not holding up well, 1.) I’ve gone back and played a lot of Atari games over the course of the past several years and with the exception of a small few of them, they’ve all been, well, generally unenjoyable and primitive at this point, and 2.) I’ve played a WHOLE LOT of bad games, to a point where ET simply doesn’t impress me with its badness. Half of Acclaim’s library is more frustrating than this game. I don’t know what to tell you.

  5. Sebastian Howard Avatar
    Sebastian Howard

    Thanks for the history lesson!

  6. […] a lot of people put E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial as the game that killed Atari and one of the biggest causes of the video game crash of 1983, long time Atari fans, economists and […]

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