ET The Extra-Terrestrial -‘Worst Game Ever’?


The E.T. Extra-Terrestrial game designed by Howard Scott Warshaw is based on Steven Spielberg’s 1982 blockbuster of the same name. The game was designed to lead the eponymous character through a wraparound world to collect three pieces of an interplanetary telephone that will allow him to contact his home planet. But as luck would’ve had it, while the movie was a hit, the gaming counterpart, a disaster.

Big Monies

ET The Extra-Terrestrial -'Worst Game Ever'?

The game was ordered for an initial run of four million copies and budgeted for a reported amount of whopping five million USD for advertisement campaign. Needless to say, the biggest advertising campaign for a video game at that time. The developers believed that the label of such a successful movie will make the game successful and to begin with. However, the game was on the Billboard top sellers list only during the initial days of release.

Creator of the Game

Howard Scott Warshaw
Source:Wikimedia Commons/ Official GDC

This 1982 adventure video game was developed and published by Atari, Inc. for the Atari 2600 video game console. Howard Scott Warshaw, the designer, expected to have good sales. And why not, the world was still relishing the movie.

The E.T. Extra-Terrestrial game was developed in a rush, as Warshaw had only around five weeks for development after negotiations for the game rights was ended in late July 1982 for release in during the Christmas season of the same year. The final release of the game had low-quality graphics and confusing gameplay that ended up with developers receiving negative reviews and facing significant criticism.

Warshaw had only 36 hours to come up with a concept for the game. Warshaw made that the basic plot of the game similar to the movie where E.T. puts together a communicator he uses to “phone home.” The game engages the player as E.T. to go around and gather parts for the phone. A major constraint that Warshaw had in the game design was of a limited period of five weeks for completing it.

Recession hits home

ET The Extra-Terrestrial -'Worst Game Ever'? Atari 2600 console
Source:Wikimedia Commons/Evan-Amos

E.T. Extra-Terrestrial game is considered as one of the biggest commercial failures and the worst video games of all time in the history of video games. The failure of the game has been a significant reason for the video game crash of 1983, popularly known as the Atari shock in Japan. The game and the developer have been often mentioned and mocked in popular culture as a cautionary story of the dangers of rushed game development and studio interference.

The video game crash of 1983, caused a large-scale recession in the video game industry primarily in the United States from 1983 to 1985. Apart from the failure of E.T. Extra-Terrestrial game, the video game crash is also attributed to other factors like the waning interest in console games in favour of personal computers and the market saturation in the number of game consoles and available games. The crash caused the revenues to drop by almost 97 per cent, from around $3.2 billion in 1983 to around $100 million by 1985. The crash brought an end to the second generation of console video gaming in North America.

Unsold E.T. games

There were millions of copies of the E.T. Extra-Terrestrial game that went unsold. This prompted the developer Atari to bury the game by dumping many surplus cartridges into a New Mexico landfill. Atari, Inc. got into a controversy when Alamogordo Daily News in New Mexico reported in a series of articles that ten to twenty semi-trailer truckloads of boxes, cartridges and systems from the company’s warehouse in Texas, were crushed and buried at the landfill within the city and covered with concrete. The developer’s first dealings with the landfill were that the garbage was crushed and buried because no scavenging was allowed.

Why, oh why

The key factor behind the failure of E.T. Extra-Terrestrial was its confusing gameplay. The characters have to travel through a wraparound where the gamer is returned to the same screen without explanation. The little alien found itself constantly trapped by the pits in the ground, where in fact Extra-Terrestrial’s phone is hidden. After getting a copy of the game soon after the release, NPR’s Gene Demby, reviewed the game to be “purgatory.”

Warshaw, the game’s designer explains the game’s problem differently. He says that there is a difference between frustration and disorientation. He says that video games are all about frustration and that it is OK to frustrate the gamer, without disorienting them. With the sales going around strongly and the game on the top of the charts during the initial release, Warshaw didn’t realise that it was a failure. He knew that the game was a failure from people who came up to him in the halls at Atari.

Quite a blast from the past, this one.


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