Thursday 23 June 2011

E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial

Dun dun duuun.

Atari 2600 time! And what better way to go than to pick one of the supposedly worst Atari 2600 games out there - E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, released in 1982 by Atari. This one almost killed an industry, in the process making sure the likes of Quaker Oats never strayed from making breakfast cereal again. But is it really as mind-bogglingly terrible as they say?

Avid gamers will already know the story of E.T.. Atari had this built within a few weeks in 1982, hyped it up to no end despite the questionable quality, watched it fail to sell and proceeded to physically bury the unsold stock. Not too long after, the industry began to collapse due to the accumulation of similar stupid ideas.

Of course, it should be stressed that it was the North American video game industry in difficulty. E.T. among other offenders caused consumers to wake up and see what they had before them - an over-saturated, under-regulated market of badly made video games for badly made video game consoles, sporting extremely primitive graphics and the high price points. It was inevitable that people would eventually grow tired and move on to the next big fad. And they did.

But unlike what Wikipedia used to dictate, this wasn't a worldwide thing. Europe and Japan had their own things going on, the home computer market wasn't destroyed as much as it was simplified, and arcade gaming wasn't hurt at all from what I can see. In a sense then, the 1983 video game crash wasn't a big, or indeed a bad thing for the industry as a whole. Yes it put people out of work, but some of those people designed the Atari 5200's controller, so they should have already been fired. It also paved a way for Nintendo and their quality control mechanisms, some of which still exist today.

However, for a while some people were concerned. But is it entirely E.T.'s fault? I... don't think so. E.T. had the Atari marketing machine behind it, but so did the 5200, and the numerous other stupid projects they put forward around this time (and many later ones). America still spews out half-assed games based on movie licenses, so in a sense, nothing was really learnt from this E.T.'s failings. It's just the figurehead of the problems because it performed poorly at retail, and of course, the movie is a timeless classic... even if I'm not personally a fan.

But thankfully the game isn't much like the movie. It has you play as the alien, tasked with collecting golden things (supposedly pieces of a telephone) to spell out your name at the top of the screen and "call home". The telephone pieces lie in holes, meaning half the game involves E.T. walking about in a ditch in the hopes a piece will lie at the bottom.

Because E.T. sucks, his life meter at the bottom of the screen decreases if he moves, so the key is to achieve your goal in as few steps as possible. You can collect green dots to boost your life meter a bit, and even if this doesn't appear to help much (which it doesn't), you'll need a certain amount of them for that annoying child to come along and give you the last part of the phone. Cryptic is the best word to describe the events that take place, and the lousy map system doesn't help matters.

Along the way, you'll be chased by members of the medical profession, who want to capture you to spite Andrew Lansley for those controversial health reforms... or something. This is because, as we all know, Conservatives in government have an irrational fear of harmless aliens. You'll also be pursued by comic book detective Dick Tracy, out to rob you of telephone pieces in a desperate attempt to seem relevant to a 1982 audience. Both characters are bigger, stronger and much more entertaining than E.T. himself, but they're sadly not playable.

I'm not sure what the instructions at the top of the screen are supposed to be telling me, and I'm not sure how you're supposed to play the game from beginning to end without either dying or turning off your console. Predictably, it likely relies on instruction manual, and as the whole old Atari 2600 game package is already making me ill, I'm perhaps not the best person to describe what's going on here. Supposedly if you spell out your name you'll be allowed to beam aboard your space ship at the pick up point. Do that, and shock horror, you win, and you'll get the chance to repeat this endeavour until you eventually run out of health.

Sadly the controls are whacked, thanks to the decision to keep switching from a top-down view to side-on perspective depending on whether E.T. has fallen down a hole. Pressing the button has E.T. extend his neck - imperative for some reason if you wish to climb out of a hole. Once you then climb out the hole via the power of levitation, more often than not you'll fall back in, because you instinctively keep holding up once the view changes.

The other issue with the game is that it forces you to check every hole, and if Dick Tracy has his way with the alien... you have to check every hole again. It's not so much entertaining as it is tedious, and generally it's not an experience to recommend. At the same time, however, I can't really see how you could improve things that much - E.T. doesn't strike me as a movie that lends itself well to video games, though that being said, there are seven other games... so chances are one of them is better.

But to be honest, the gameplay is the only real concern here. Sure, the graphics are a bit dodgy, but it's running on the Atari 2600 - the same can be said for most games on the platform. In fact, with all things considered, E.T.'s visuals aren't too shabby - the scenery is a bit dull, but E.T., the NHS workforce and Dick Tracy all look like you would expect them to on the console. The only things you're left guessing about are the bits of telephone... and to be honest, I don't think better graphics would fix that.

In some ways, it's fascinating to see health workers fighting the UK government's plans twenty-nine years in the past within a video game intended for North America. It's like they have every base covered. If only they had put this much attention into improving the service in the first place.

But anyway, E.T. is not a good game. It's not something that should be bought but at the same time, it doesn't strike me as being infinitely worse than the competition. And it has high points - an unintentional Dick Tracy cameo, a graphical representation of a dead E.T. which in my mind is the best sort of E.T., and for some, that much needed opposition against the government's health reforms. You won't get this sort of thing from Ed Milliband!

E.T. is too much "game" for the Atari 2600 to handle - that much can be deduced, but it still doesn't stand out from the crowd. Complicated and confusing games were the style at the time, and the 2600 is an extraordinarily weak piece of hardware. E.T. demonstrates the system's flaws quite nicely, but again - the Atari 2600 is a console designed for Pong - it's a miracle anything else can run on the thing.

If I did scores, I'd give E.T. a three or four out of ten. Coincidentally, a lot of other critics seem to agree, with the exceptions being those who like to get on the "worst game ever" bandwagon. E.T. is bad, but it's not worth a burial, and there are many worse 2600 games still living and breathing on land. An example - Raiders of the Lost Ark - that must surely be less fun due to its confusing nature. And I'm sure some of the really old stuff like Basic Math classes as less of a game than this.

In short, it's tat. Not the tattiest of the tat, but still pretty tatty tat.

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