Retro First Impressions: E.T. [Atari 2600 / Adventure]

Welcome, one and all, to the latest instalment of Retro First Impressions. Unlike my In Desperate Need Of Love feature, RFI focuses not on underappreciated games, but rather retro legends. Of course, not all games are legendary for the right reasons … so today I’m looking E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial on the Atari 2600.

ET the extra terretrial atari 2600
Gotta love that classic box art


I think that most people are probably aware of this game by reputation. However, for those that aren’t, here’s a run-down of the game’s history. Back in 1982, Howard Scott Warshaw was a well-known individual. He had adapted the arcade game Star Castle for the Atari 2600, rebranding it as Yar’s Revenge. While a little dated now in terms of progression – it’s essentially an infinitely looping task – it is widely considered a classic of the era. Having played it, I can confirm that it’s good fun. That there was even an Easter Egg in it is something that was pretty unusual for the time, I think.

Anyway, Atari wanted to capitalise on the popularity of the film and got Washaw on board to create the game. His intention had been for it to be an innovative adaption of said cinema classic … but there was a problem. Negotiations to secure the rights ended in July 1982, leaving Warshaw only five and a half weeks to make the game. This was long before tools like Multimedia Fusion came about, so he would be working with pure code. That made it all an uphill struggle from the get-go. To put this in perspective, it took him seven months to make Yar’s Revenge, and six to make Raiders of the Lost Ark.

ET the extra terretrial atari 2600 title screen
Graphically, this is actually not too bad for the era

So, Warshaw envisioned a three-dimensional cube world, with the player controlling E.T. as he tries to put together a special three-piece telephone to call home. There would be obstacles, pits, and a time limit. The idea was presented to Steven Spielberg, and the director was unenthused. Reports say that he recommended something more Pac-Man like be made. Warshaw went ahead with his vision anyway. But that was okay. The market was stable, and the movie was beloved by all, so it would make a fortune, right?

Not quite, at least not in the end. It was initially successful, eventually shifting 1.5 million copies, but Atari over-estimated the game’s success, and around 2.5 – 3.5 million produced copies went unsold. In the end, between unsold stock and customer returns, around 4 million cartridges were returned to Atari. But why the customer returns? Well, to put it bluntly, it was awful. Or so the story goes.

Now, despite the Atari 2600 being my first console, I had never played the game until recently. As with most of my Retro First Impression endeavours, I took on the challenge of this at AllGen, an awesome local centre where you can pay to play on almost every console to have a major release in the UK. The owner estimated I’d last about 90 seconds. I lasted 20 minutes, which I’m told is a record for the place. But … was it as bad its reputation would have you believe?

In a word, yes.

ET the extra terretrial atari 2600 gameplay
Look out E.T! Dick Tracy is after you!

For one, there is very little guidance as to how you’re supposed to play the thing, much less what the overall goal is. In fact, for my first attempt, I was running around the screen with no idea of what was going on other than that there were people that sometimes popped up and chased me, and I kept falling holes. Oh, the holes … if any of E.T.s pixels touch the hole, you go down. Then you have to walk along the bottom of the hole until you find where you can float back up again. Most of the time, you’d fly out of the hole, only to stop on the edge of it and immediately be whisked back to the bottom again. Oh, and sometimes, you’d float up and end up on a different screen than you fell in on. By the end of my first run, I was in hysterics at how frustrating it was, especially as each trip into a hole took steps off my total number, which were limited in the first place.

The screen itself is obviously set up to help you out on your quest, but I honestly don’t know how. I mean, there’s a purple bar at the top of the screen with an arrow on it, and the arrow changes once in a while. Does it point you to the next phone piece? Or to an incoming enemy? I have no idea. It all seemed very random to me. In the end, I ignored it and just kept walking. Sometimes, I found phone pieces at the bottom of random pits (one or two of which I swear weren’t even visible on screen). Then someone would come along, catch me, and steal them, all because I apparently couldn’t fit through a gap bigger than my character.

So, did it have any redeeming qualities? Well, when I ran out of steps and died, a little Elliott would run on screen and revive me, leading to a nice little rendition of a small part of the film’s theme. The graphics were fine for the era, too. Outside that … I’ve got nothing.

ET the extra terretrial atari 2600 gameplay hole
Ah the classic scene from the film where E.T. falls in a hole and uses his extendable neck to levitate out again …

No, E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial is more than worthy of its legendary status, and for all the reasons that it has the tag. Even when you take it in the context of the era that it was released, it still stands up as one of the worst games in history. While rumours that it was the main cause of the Video Game Crash of 1983 and that it was the only game buried in Atari Landfill are false, it definitely does deserve the bashing that it still gets to this day.

But what about all of you? Have you played this infamous cartridge? What did you think?

9 thoughts on “Retro First Impressions: E.T. [Atari 2600 / Adventure]

  1. I haven’t played this, but from the clips I have seen it does look awful. Perhaps the programmer should have tried to code something simpler, especially given the crazy deadline.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It really was quite poor. I think you’re right, a simpler set up would have made all the difference in this instance, especially as it needed actual programming. Had they had things like the game generators of today, it may not have been so much of an issue.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I own this and played it for the first time a couple years ago… I had NO CLUE what was going on, haha. Played it for 5 minutes and never looked at it again. My coworker likes it and says the instruction manual is required if you want to know what’s going on.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m still looking for the right therapy group for having owned and played this game when I was a kid. I would put it in every once in a while because, hey, there has to be a game SOMEWHERE in there, right? But no one would believe me or help me when I said I didn’t understand!!

    Yes, I am still bitter. I shall always be bitter.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. It was really a mistake to try something that was fairly ambitious for the time with a game that had to be made on such a short deadline.

    I’m also pretty sure that not even Pac-Man sold as many copies as they made of E.T.


    1. It’s not far off, actually. They produced 4 – 5 million copies, and Pac-Man sold 7 million. Oddly, when they ported Pac-Man, they made 12 million copies, despite less than 12 million consoles being sold at the time.


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