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E.T. The Extra Terrestrial – Atari 2600

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial – Atari 2600

E.T. Box artPlatform:  Atari 2600 (Emulated using Stella)

Developer:  Atari, Inc.

Publisher:  Atari, Inc.

Release Date:  December 1982

Genre:  Adventure

ESRB Rating:  N/A

Nerd Rating:  3.75 out of 10

Reviewed by:  Variand


I wasn’t even born when E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial came out, but we’ve all heard the stories.  Millions of kids wake up Christmas morning to find under their trees a small cartridge that would herald the doom of an industry and ultimately find its end buried in a land fill in New Mexico.  Still today, over 30 years later, this game still holds the number one spot on just about every Top Worst Games lists around the net.  It seems that most people just accept and spread this hearsay, but is it really as bad as that?  Well, in honor of April’s Foolish Games, I took on this challenge and played it for myself, the results of which are available for view on the Nerd Bacon Twitch Channel and Youtube.

A Story of Unrealistic Expectations

The Steven Spielberg film, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, was beyond a smash hit, and Atari did their best to capitalize on that success by obtaining the rights to make the game.  Part of that was getting it on shelves for the Christmas rush, which left Atari and Designer/Developer Howard Warshaw only 5 weeks to create a game when the average dev time was closer to 5 months.  Warshaw did succeed in delivering the final game on time and the game sold well at first launch, but somewhere after the Christmas rush, sales dropped… hard, and worse, the games were being returned.  Atari was suddenly left with a surplus of games they could not sell, and were taking an influx of games that they had already sold.  Inventory was becoming a problem, and during Atari’s decline, the excess games were buried in Alamogordo, New Mexico (as the legend goes).

Title Screen and Title screen music are probably the only things that are similar to the movie.

Title Screen and Title screen music are probably the only things that are similar to the movie.

This story is one wrapped in half-truths and legend.  Yes, a large number of E.T. game cartridges were buried in a landfill, but so were games like Yar’s Revenge and many other great titles from Atari.  The truth is that a warehouse was closed and disposing of the inventory was the most cost effective path.  It wasn’t because there were trying to hide the evidence of the E.T. games, but because they couldn’t afford to keep a warehouse in operation.  E.T. didn’t even cause the game crash.  The over saturation of bad, meaningless games and the inability to adapt to the market they had created lead to Atari’s downfall.  Even in its death, the legacy of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is held to unrealistic expectations.

Is it really as bad as they say?

I’d heard the rumors and legends.  I’d seen E.T. at the top of every Top Worst Games lists since I was a child, but I’d never played the game.  I’d just assumed, like everyone else, that if it was that bad to have this hype 20-30 years after its demise, then it MUST be bad… why would I play it?  But I bit the bullet and played it for the Nerd Bacon Plays! Twitch show last weekend.

You play as E.T. and are dropped off in the forest.  If you want to leave, build a phone and call for your pickup.

You play as E.T. and are dropped off in the forest. If you want to leave, build a phone and call for your pickup.

I loaded up my Atari emulator (Stella), and loaded the ROM for the first time while Twitch viewers watched.  I was expecting my fingers to gnarl, my teeth to grind, and my eyes to burn… but none of that happened.  What I found was a game that was actually fairly well put together, a fully realized concept that is made all the more impressive when given the incredibly abbreviated development time (I’ve developed games in 4-5 weeks. It’s TOUGH to do, and that’s with using modern programs to assist in the development).  Even the graphics were pretty good for the time, even if E.T. looks like he’s got a nub hanging out between his legs throughout the game.

So is it really bad?  Yes, it’s a bad and aggravating game.  However, it’s not the worst game I’ve played, nor was it making me want to start bashing the controller (keyboard).  In fact, the game was just one groan after another.  It was just annoying and made me rather just walk away than rage.  And I think that’s one of the mortal sins of a game is to leave the player with an experience so lackluster they would rather just walk away than celebrate or curse it.

There were some issues that I feel that, given more time to play-test the game, could have been solved.  Chief among these would be the inability to escape the holes, or the ease in which you fall in them.  The lack of any real direction for the player to follow, which was most likely taken care of in the game booklet, also gave me several issues.  I would often teleport into a hole without knowing what I was doing, and would, once again, just groan at my frustration of not understanding how to play rather than the game being broken.

There is also the idea that the game was being held to the unrealistic standards of arguable greatness that the movie had set; an issue that to this day perpetuates the trend of movie games being shit.  The game had almost nothing to do with the movie, but then again, most titles of the time had little to do with the movie.  In my opinion, this is a good thing since most of today’s movie games attempt to just recreate the movie, and don’t offer and real depth to the story or even unique gameplay.

The Blame Game

Touching the wells with your head still counts as falling in.  This was a bit jarring for me.

Touching the wells with your head still counts as falling in. This was a bit jarring for me.

The game was not great.  I’m a 30 year old, above-average gamer and found the game unforgiving and frustrating.  So I can only imagine how a 10 year old would react to this game when they first put it into their console.  But after playing it for myself with my reviewers’ glasses on, I in no way believe that this game deserves the title worst game ever.  In fact, in some way I actually enjoyed it.  Once I knew how to play, I found it challenging and actually fun trying to dodge those frakkin’ FBI agents and scientists – though they can be dicks.

I believe this game suffered from its own notoriety.  Howard Warshaw had made two of the top selling games of the era with Yar’s Revenge and Raiders of the Lost Ark, so a lot of expectations were placed on his mild celebrity.  And he was working with one of the most notable IPs of all time, so even more focus was placed on its game adaptation.  Atari definitely publicized the hell out of it.  Let this be a lesson:  if you’re going to stumble, don’t do it while everyone is watching you.  However, Atari was already starting to stumble, and this trip up was just the violent flailing in everyone’s sight.

In closing, E.T. is a rough game.  It’s difficult, frustrating, and often times unfair, but so were a lot of games back then, and so are a lot of games today.  But even with these character flaws, it’s still not the worst game I’ve ever played, and I don’t think it’ll be the worst game anyone else has ever played either.  Once again E.T. is being held to unrealistic expectations of being the worst game ever, and I think it’s unfair to continue this myth.

While so many others would have jumped on the bandwagon and given E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial a 1/10, I’ve given it a deserved 3.75.


Play the games before you trash them.  Either verbally in conversation or literally in a landfill.

Written by Variand


Agree or Disagree with something? Want to request a review a specific game? Just want to troll? Leave a comment, Twitter @Variand, or email me at Or feel free to find and frag me on Xbox Live (GT: Rukhan), PSN (Variand), or Steam(Variand99).

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  1. Space Invader
    Space Invader says:

    Not to sound like a go-along, but I’m with everyone else on this one — congratulations for not sinking to the lowest common denominator. To take into account limitations of the times and come at this with a clear head shows real some journalistic integrity. It’s not always easy to sympathize with older games, but you hit this right on the head.

  2. Great to finally see an actual analysis of this game, instead of the hugely common “WORST GAME EVER” article people associate with Atari’s crash.

  3. Really solid review. And I totally agree with what you wrote. I’ve seen gameplay of this before and always thought to myself that it didn’t look as bad as people say.

  4. Sarus Vakarian
    Sarus Vakarian says:

    It’s nice to see someone take a different point of view on this game. Everyone bashes it mercilessly. I’m kind of curious about playing it now.

  5. Really well put Variand!


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