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1. It Was Made By One Man
These days, video games are developed by small armies of designers, programmers, writers, actors, and more. But in the days of the Atari 2600, it was common for games to be made by a single person who had to wear multiple hats.
And that was the case with E.T. The unenviable task of bringing the movie to a game was given to one man: Howard Scott Warshaw.
2. The Game Designer Was Really Good
Given how bad E.T. was, you might expect that the man behind it was just bad at his job. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Warshaw had previous experience creating Raiders of the Lost Ark, so he knew a bit about adapting movies to games. And he also created Yar’s Revenge, widely considered one of the best Atari games ever made.
3. The Game Was Made In Five Weeks
Almost everyone agrees that E.T. is one of the worst (if not the worst) games ever made. But there is a single fact that might make you stop blaming Warshaw for its design.
He had only five weeks to create this game from the ground up. This was necessary so that Atari could create the game cartridges and get the title out for the holiday season of 1982.
4. Paid Well For the Game
Having to make a game in five weeks is already brutal. And it’s even worse when you think about how this game forever sullied Warshaw’s reputation.
However, he was at least paid very well for his efforts. In exchange for making this game, he received $200,000 (accounting for inflation, this would be about $558,000 in today’s dollars). On top of that, Atari threw in a vacation to Hawaii!
5. It Needed Steven Spielberg’s Blessing
You might think Steven Spielberg would be upset with such a terrible game adaptation of one of his movies. However, Spielberg is largely to blame because he specifically requested Warshaw make this game after the success of Warshaw’s Raiders of the Lost Ark.
But Spielberg did have misgivings about the initial ideas for the game and wondered if it could be more like Pac-Man. In those Wild West days of game design, it wasn’t uncommon for “new” games to be borderline clones of others, so this idea isn’t as weird as it may sound.
6. Good Initial Sales
In the long run, E.T. did not sell well. And while this wasn’t the only nail, it was certainly one of the biggest nails in the coffin for Atari as a company.
However, many are surprised to learn the game had good sales for its initial holiday release. But this soon led to many people trying to return the game and bad word-of-mouth intended to keep others from buying it in the first place.
7. Atari Paid At Least $20 Million For the Rights
Atari had a lot riding on E.T. and they were basically banking on this game for their financial future.
Towards this end, they paid at least $20 million for the rights to make the game. That’s quite a bit to pay for a game that will soon put you out of business!
8. The Atari CEO Had a Bad Feeling About This
Obviously, he eventually got on board with the idea of making an E.T. game. But Atari’s CEO offered a blunt assessment of the idea at first that ended up being very accurate.
CEO Ray Kassar thought it was a “dumb idea” and pointed out that Atari had never made an action game out of a movie. While this wasn’t necessarily true (do we consider Raiders of the Lost Ark an “action game?”), his misgivings of a movie adaptation were right on the money.
9. A Preview of Things To Come
Atari wasn’t simply hoping E.T. would be successful. They were hoping it would lead to a series of successful game adaptations of popular movies. Unfortunately, the sheer poor quality of E.T. killed their hopes.
Eventually, more game adaptations would come out for computers and consoles. But the vast majority of these games were terrible, and E.T. helped set the standard as low as it could be.
10. No Audience Testing
Most people hated E.T. within a minute or two of playing it. This happens so often that you might be curious: what did test audiences say about this game?
They said nothing because, due to the short development time, this game had no audience testing. Kind of explains a lot, doesn’t it?
11. Popular With Grandma
While sales of E.T. were worse than Atari hoped, it still sold plenty of copies. Who, you might be asking, was actually buying this crap?
When interviewed, one retailer at the time claimed it was mostly grandmothers scooping this game up for their kids based on the quality of the movie. When kids got to pick the game, they opted for better titles like Pitfall.
12. More Cartridges Than Ataris?
One of the most popular stories about E.T. is that there were more cartridges made than Atari 2600 consoles. But is there any truth to this?
At this point, it’s tough to say. Many Atari employees assumed the company had sold about 20 million consoles and produced more cartridges than systems. But this was never been confirmed as anything more than a rumor (probably because the people involved don’t want to talk about it).
13. The Secret Behind Those Dumb Holes
What’s the worst part of playing E.T.? If you ask anyone who picked up the Atari controller, they’ll tell you “those dumb freaking holes.”
E.T. must explore these pits for pieces of the telephone (so he can “phone home”), but most have nothing in them, and it’s easy to fall in by accident and lose valuable time. Warshaw later admitted that in addition to hiding phone pieces, all these holes and forced exploration were a way to make the game feel longer than it was.
14. Pac-Man Set Atari Up For Failure
When it comes to the video game crash of 1983, E.T. gets the most blame. However, Atari was effectively set up for failure by another game: Pac-Man.
The Atari 2600 adaptation of Pac-Man was completely awful. However, it still sold very well despite bad critical reception. Atari initially thought this might happen with E.T. as well, but gamers weren’t afraid to return E.T. and tell all their friends not to buy this stinker of a game.
15. Burial and Discovery
For the longest time, the biggest rumor surrounding this game was that Atari ended up burying most of the unsold copies of E.T. in a landfill in New Mexico. However, skeptics spent many years maintaining that this was too strange to be true.
However, in 2014, a documentary crew dug into the landfill and found the buried E.T. cartridges. And one such buried cartridge now belongs to the Smithsonian!