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Fixing E.T. / Rehabilitating E.T.
March 31, 2013 12:47 PM   Subscribe

We all know that E.T. for the Atari 2600 was a terrible no-good awful game (previously, previously-er). But could it be that our received wisdom about the cartridge is just wrong? Yeah, probably not ... But to be fair, follow this in-depth guide to hacking the ET ROM and you, too, can transform the game into something far more play-worthy (and don't worry, you can still turn ET into its ninja form).
posted by barnacles (66 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
Thanks for this. A long time ago I pitched Wired on a story where I would try to find the lost E.T. cartridges buried in the desert. They said, "We don't think you'll find them." (They are under a shopping center.)
posted by steinsaltz at 1:01 PM on March 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


Is there a video of someone playing the hacked rom?
posted by Buckt at 1:03 PM on March 31, 2013


Received wisdom? I played that cartridge. My friend had it. It sucked.
posted by cribcage at 1:08 PM on March 31, 2013 [5 favorites]


I probably wasn't cribcage's friend, but I had it, and it sucked. It instilled in me a hatred of pointlessness that has remained to this day.
posted by Etrigan at 1:13 PM on March 31, 2013


So, not having seen the movie in 25 years at least (and I was 7 when it came out), I read the Wikipedia article on the movie, and found an interesting nugget:

George Will panned E.T. the movie. That pretty much explains everything, dunnit?
posted by notsnot at 1:16 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wow, I couldn't get more than three screens into that game. I literally did not understand what the purpose was.
posted by odinsdream at 1:46 PM on March 31, 2013


It's strange looking back at these games now. When I was a young kid, it was not conceivable that games could be made poorly or had fatal bugs. If I couldn't solve a puzzle or finish a level, it was my own fault.
posted by Brocktoon at 1:47 PM on March 31, 2013 [9 favorites]


Even with the bugfixes, it's still a game about a backwards "L" enslaved by a pedometer to fall into pits in search of telephone parts.
posted by fifthrider at 1:49 PM on March 31, 2013 [9 favorites]


I love this kind of thing. Atari 2600 coding isn't just low level, it's way below hacking around with the 8-bit home computers of the early '80s. Resources are insanely scarce.

"(They are under a shopping center.)"
1. Rent shop on ground floor. 2. Rent pneumatic drill. 3....
posted by malevolent at 2:05 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


It instilled in me a hatred of pointlessness that has remained to this day.

I don't think that really needs instilling. It's factory standard, like fear of death and love of popsicles.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 2:10 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


It is indeed a terrible game, but at the same time, I kind of wonder if it might've been the main inspiration for The Legend of Zelda.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:13 PM on March 31, 2013


It instilled in me a hatred of pointlessness that has remained to this day.

I don't think that really needs instilling. It's factory standard, like fear of death and love of popsicles.


Most of 21st-Century Hollywood would disagree.
posted by Etrigan at 2:17 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Now do Raiders of the Lost Ark & Riddle of the Sphinx!
posted by radiosilents at 2:20 PM on March 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


If only the Spectrum game 'ETX - The Extra-Terrestrial Xargon' had been a bit more popular, it would have eaten this game for breakfast in any competition where unplayability was the main criterion. Imagine, if you will, having to load both sides of a cassette tape just to hear three crudely-synthesised phrases (the game's title, 'Ouch', and 'Phone home') whilst playing a game where you basically stumbled about and fell down some holes, and which appeared to have been tacked on as an afterthought. Unfortunately the game's awfulness was such that nobody even remembers it now.
posted by pipeski at 2:33 PM on March 31, 2013


Resources are insanely scarce.

We've talked about all this before, so I won't go into it much -- but getting any kind of coherent video output at all on an Atari 2600 took serious skill. They had to work desperately hard to do even the most trivial things.

A modern programmer of equivalent skill could probably have an entire basic Roguelike up and running, on multiple operating systems, even, in the amount of time it took to get a prototype of a game like Combat working. Programming on the 2600 must have felt like trying to climb Mount Everest with your fingernails.

So, you know, even though this game sucked, it was still a hell of an accomplishment.
posted by Malor at 2:37 PM on March 31, 2013 [8 favorites]


We've talked about all this before, so I won't go into it much -- but getting any kind of coherent video output at all on an Atari 2600 took serious skill. They had to work desperately hard to do even the most trivial things.

Can you link to that discussion? I find postmortems on the efforts required to make Atari 2600 games work endlessly fascinating, as it wasn't just programming skill, but problem solving with serious limitations on the hardware, including idiosyncrasies inherent in older TV sets (like refresh rates). That's about all I know about it, but I could read about it all day, because it was pretty amazing how they got it all to work.
posted by SpacemanStix at 2:51 PM on March 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


Ok, found the discussion, I think.
posted by SpacemanStix at 3:20 PM on March 31, 2013


One of the big things I remember hearing about the Atari is that it took it drew on the screen pixel by pixel, scanline by scanline, and it took all of the processing power of the machine to draw a pixel of a designated color. So you had to fit your entire actual game processing into the time that the machine was drawing black space.
posted by kafziel at 3:37 PM on March 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


Hey now, I actually liked Raiders of the Lost Ark. And it taught me about tsetse flies!
posted by cj_ at 3:37 PM on March 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


...weird. I had this game, and I even beat this game, but I honestly do not remember either any side quests nor the ability to beat the game without falling into a single pit. The article's interesting, but I'm kinda like "wait, what about that bit?"
posted by Rev. Syung Myung Me at 3:38 PM on March 31, 2013


I had ET for the 2600.

Yes, it sucked. But no, it didn't suck drastically more than any other games of the same period. People often forget that along with the few dozen classic greats, the 2600 had in the high-hundreds of distinct games, the vast majority of which really kinda sucked. Many worse than ET.

The point of ET - Fall in the hole. Get the phone(?) parts. Collect them all and make it back to the ship before it leaves without you. Don't get caught by the FBI.
posted by pla at 3:40 PM on March 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh, re-reading the manual, I guess you can just collect hell of candy and get Elliott to do the phone-finding for you. Huh.
posted by Rev. Syung Myung Me at 3:41 PM on March 31, 2013


SpacemanStix: "Ok, found the discussion, I think"

Link for the benefit of others?
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 3:42 PM on March 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


FWIW, I did an interview with a friend of mine who does home-brew Atari games, and he actually talks a bit about the techincal limitations. I thoguht that as pretty cool -- there's a lot of neat things that go into doing a game in such a small space - if you're curious, the interview is here.
posted by Rev. Syung Myung Me at 3:46 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


MetaFilter: even though this game sucked, it was still a hell of an accomplishment.
posted by petebest at 4:09 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


The OP in-depth guide link gives a good sense of what it's like to deal with Stella code.

Stella is a platform that rewards you for being Mel.
posted by localroger at 4:18 PM on March 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


Was there a version of E.T. for computers, not just the Atari? I distinctly remember playing a very similar game whereby you had to find parts for your spaceship on my very first computer (I don't recall the model, but it was neither an IBM nor an Apple II) in the early 1980s. What I remember is that there was a time limit, and that you had to find the parts of the right color.

Here's the kicker: The computer was connected to an old black-and-white television. So I could never know if I had the right-color parts! That still didn't deter 7-year-old me from playing it, but boy was it maddening. However, I don't recall any pits. So I'm wondering if this was in fact
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 4:19 PM on March 31, 2013


The Raiders of the Lost Ark game succeeded at pretty much everything ET tried to do, IMO. It had action, a storyline, an ending, cut scenes, side quests, puzzles, hidden rooms, etc..
posted by empath at 4:32 PM on March 31, 2013


Why did he fix the "bug" where the spaceship lands on Elliot? That wasn't a bug, that was awesome. When I was kid, we used to intentionally land the spaceship on Elliot!
posted by faster than a speeding bulette at 4:42 PM on March 31, 2013


Yes, it sucked. But no, it didn't suck drastically more than any other games of the same period.

Oh... oh hell no. ET and the original Pac-Man game were totally completely suck, even compared to other games.

I mean, there are the great games -- Chopper Command, River Raid, Indiana Jones, Pitfall and Pitfall 2, Robot Tank, maybe Megamania, the stuff for the Supercharger if you count that as still being a 2600. And there were okay but obviously competent games like Asteroids, Space War, Combat, etc, and games that were lesser things but still trying to capture the real version of a game with limited resources (Centipede, Ms. Pac Man).

But ET and Pac-Man... man, those were shitburgers through and through. I mean, "Nobody loved them" levels of suck.

Funny to think how really kick-ass Activision used to be.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:51 PM on March 31, 2013 [6 favorites]


I liked the 2600 ET game. I'd never seen the movie, so on its own merits it was a fun game. I got reaaaaaaally good at transitioning out of those pits.
posted by BeeDo at 5:11 PM on March 31, 2013


I was 13 when this game was released, and I played pretty much any game I could get my hands on to the end... and I quit ET after a couple of hours. It really did suck.
posted by Huck500 at 5:12 PM on March 31, 2013


Apparently I am the only person who will say this, but I liked the E.T. game. Granted, I was 7 at the time, and granted, I also really liked that Journey game, but still. Staying away from the FBI guys and getting out of those blasted pits was good fun.

I remember being mildly surprised the first time I found out how reviled it was. Ah well, what are you gonna do?
posted by DingoMutt at 5:28 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Okay, a bit off topic, but I have seen videos of people beat the game "Mystery Quest" for the NES on youtube, but my mother & I tried for years to be able to jump to a crucial spot to complete the game. I have no idea how the youtubers did it. We even tried Game Genie on it, & nope. I wish somebody would do something similar for "Mystery Quest."
posted by broken wheelchair at 5:38 PM on March 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


One of the big things I remember hearing about the Atari is that it took it drew on the screen pixel by pixel, scanline by scanline, and it took all of the processing power of the machine to draw a pixel of a designated color. So you had to fit your entire actual game processing into the time that the machine was drawing black space.

That's mostly right, but what's really happening in the black space is that you are setting up the graphics processor (the TIA) for the next scanline. If you want the next line to be exactly the same as the last, you don't have to do anything. You can program the TIA before the scanline, or during (if you feel lucky).
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 5:44 PM on March 31, 2013


1. Rent shop on ground floor. 2. Rent pneumatic drill. 3....

Pfft.

1. Turn up with Con Ed hard hats and start digging. Yo!
posted by obiwanwasabi at 5:57 PM on March 31, 2013


Link for the benefit of others?

I'm not sure if it's what Malor is referencing, but there's a discussion of the hardware limitations in the first previously thread from above.
posted by SpacemanStix at 6:22 PM on March 31, 2013


I don't remember ever playing the ET game. But I loved the Raiders game. Somehow my memory of playing Raiders is inextrictably linked with memories of watching Rio videos on MTV.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:35 PM on March 31, 2013


Okay, a bit off topic, but I have seen videos of people beat the game "Mystery Quest" for the NES on youtube, but my mother & I tried for years to be able to jump to a crucial spot to complete the game. I have no idea how the youtubers did it. We even tried Game Genie on it, & nope. I wish somebody would do something similar for "Mystery Quest."
posted by broken wheelchair at 10:38 AM on 4/1


OH MY GOODNESS ANYONE ELSE HAS HEARD OF THIS GAME
posted by DoctorFedora at 6:37 PM on March 31, 2013


I find postmortems on the efforts required to make Atari 2600 games work endlessly fascinating

Have you seen distellamap?
posted by radwolf76 at 7:37 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


On ET:
pla is correct, the game is underrated, a victim of the internet tendency for everyone to pile on the easiest target. It's obtuse, yes, but there are lots of obtuse 2600 games. You have to read the manual to understand it, just like you do with some other classic games like Riddle of the Sphinx.

On the VCS hardware:
They had to work desperately hard to do even the most trivial things.

A modern programmer of equivalent skill could probably have an entire basic Roguelike up and running, on multiple operating systems, even, in the amount of time it took to get a prototype of a game like Combat working.

Oh, doing that would take much less time. Don't forget there exists the 7DRL contest, where they make a game of it, and getting it to run on multiple OSes is simply a matter of using the right development language and libraries.

Programming on the 2600 must have felt like trying to climb Mount Everest with your fingernails.

Well, it's not that bad. It is assembly though, and you don't get interrupts either (which would mess up the timing of the display kernel in any case).

What's forgotten these days is that the 2600 is the last vestige of a whole class of video games that showed up on the market shortly after Pong came out, of "dedicated" game consoles that played a single game or group of games. I think many of those had similarly simplistic hardware, but of course they were hardcoded to play a single game. I'm surprised those devices are so obscure these days.

On Mystery Quest:
I have heard of it. It's actually a cut-down version of a Japanese game, Hao's Wonderful Journey. It has no real ending; it just loops. The ads for it describe something that's supposed to happen when you reach some huge score, like 10M. But because the game contains items that double your score, it's not particularly hard to reach that point and find out the game's score maxes out right before it, a fact I discovered on a single rental. What a gyp.

Anyway, I don't remember the jump in question.
posted by JHarris at 7:38 PM on March 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


From the page: The problem, of course, is that the game punishes you for exploring. Every step you take uses precious energy. Rather than a fun activity, exploration is something to avoid whenever possible.

This is actually good design. If you weren't punished for exploring it'd be make work.

E.T. has a reputation for being loaded with bugs. Bugs that make the game "virtually unplayable".

Yeah, that's the nature of the internet. A widely derided thing picks up flaws that aren't actually in the original, because who really bothers to check?
posted by JHarris at 9:17 PM on March 31, 2013


Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell: Was there a version of E.T. for computers, not just the Atari? I distinctly remember playing a very similar game whereby you had to find parts for your spaceship on my very first computer (I don't recall the model, but it was neither an IBM nor an Apple II) in the early 1980s.

There were Atari computers, like the 400 and 800. There was an ET game for them, and it's much different from the 2600 version. Maybe that's it?
posted by Pronoiac at 9:42 PM on March 31, 2013


the game is underrated, a victim of the internet tendency for everyone to pile on the easiest target

I'm pretty sure we had this back in the 80s, and remember it being really bad. Not as bad as the 2600 version of Pac-Man, which is basically disappointment distilled into a physical form. And not as bad as Math Grand Prix, but that wasn't really trying to be fun. Much worse than a lot of what-we'd-now-call-shovelware games from Imagic and the like.

*shrug* Say what you like about ET, it was completely free of rape.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:42 PM on March 31, 2013


obiwanwasabi: "Pfft. 1. Turn up with Con Ed hard hats and start digging. Yo!"

Con Ed might stand out a bit in New Mexico ...
posted by barnacles at 10:44 PM on March 31, 2013


ROU_Xenophobe: "the game is underrated, a victim of the internet tendency for everyone to pile on the easiest target

I'm pretty sure we had this back in the 80s, and remember it being really bad. Not as bad as the 2600 version of Pac-Man, which is basically disappointment distilled into a physical form. And not as bad as Math Grand Prix, but that wasn't really trying to be fun. Much worse than a lot of what-we'd-now-call-shovelware games from Imagic and the like.
"

I put this post together in part because I think that E.T. gets piled on a bit too much. It seems to always be at the top of any "worst game ever" list, and I thought the clever cartridge hacking revealed that there were at least the nuggets of good design (given the constraints of the system) in there, though they needed serious mining to find.

I remember getting the E.T. and Pac-Man catridges when they came out, as a young kid. Pac-Man was a disappointment, but young me found E.T. absolutely baffling, and I've wondered if that might be because it was trying out a few new things and breaking out of some of the typical Atari game paradigms. Not that it did so successfully, mind you, but I've wondered if perhaps also part of why it's so reviled stems from other people remembering the same sort of bewilderment I experienced.

Also, it kinda sucked.
posted by barnacles at 10:50 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


SpacemanStix: "I'm not sure if it's what Malor is referencing, but there's a discussion of the hardware limitations in the first previously thread from above."

SpacemanStix (and other interested folks), here are a few more exceptional comments in older discussions: JHarris, jcreigh, and JHarris again.

Lots of awesome 2600 hacking going on out there, we've covered a lot of it before. It was great going back through those threads when I was thinking of doing this post, and worth your time if you have a lazy April 1st ahead of you!
posted by barnacles at 11:01 PM on March 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


Something to keep in mind when contemplating this game: It was written in an incredibly short amount of time.

From Wkipedia:
After negotiations completed, [Atari CEO] Kassar called Howard Scott Warshaw on July 27, 1982 to commission him as developer of the video game. Kassar informed him that Spielberg asked for Warshaw specifically and that development needed to be completed by September 1 to meet a production schedule for the Christmas holiday. Though Warshaw had spent over a year working on consecutive development schedules for games (seven months working on Yars' Revenge and then six months on Raiders of the Lost Ark), he accepted the offer based on the challenge of completing a game in a short time frame and at Spielberg's request.

...so that's about FIVE WEEKS to create the game, when it normally took about HALF A YEAR. That was the first error of judgement. The second one was making enough cartridges for about 30% of all VCSs ever sold to have a copy. The third one was thinking that nobody would remember being burned by their shitty version of Pac-Man. (which, as it turns out, had more copies manufactured than there were VCSs sold)

I had this game, and a bunch of other games for the VCS. The most amazing thing about this game was the title screen, which had a very recognizable picture of E.T. and played a polyphonic rendition of the theme music. Everything else was crap. I could avoid the pits, yeah, but it just wasn't any fun. I was very disappointed - long before any gaming press told me I should be disappointed. It was just not a good game. Years later, when I heard that it was written in a matter of weeks, my respect for it as a technical achievement rose - but I still wasn't about to try to PLAY the damn thing.
posted by egypturnash at 1:44 AM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


It was written in an incredibly short amount of time.

It was written in an incredibly short amount of time, had gameplay issues, was produced in truly legendary numbers, and shipped basically at the start of the videogame collapse in 1983, when a $3.2B market dropped to a $100M market. Yes, a factor of 32, or 97%, drop.

When you put all of those -- rushed game, massive investment, and almost no returns, you get a legendary flop. There were plenty of bad games, but they were made cheap and had little marketing. True flops cost money and get tons of marketing before they fail.

But really the problem was the production numbers. They made almost six million of the damn things when no game, ever, had sold that many. Total costs were supposedly on the order of $125M. You basically had one game that cost 4% *of the entire videogame market*.

Basically, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial was doomed to fail before copy #1 was sold. It did sell a large number of copies, but most of those sales were on heavily discounted overstock, which made nobody much money.

A factor may have been the success of the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man, which despite horrific reviews ended up selling well and being quite profitable. This may have led Atari to ignore signs of failure, though I've seen that because of time pressures, they didn't even beta test the thing in front of potential buyers, so they may not have even understood the potential fail involved.

And, well, they paid for it. Atari lost over $500M in 1983, and the failure of E.T. led directly to the breakup of Atari in 1984.

I will give Atari credit for that. They didn't fail quietly.

posted by eriko at 5:58 AM on April 1, 2013


barnacles: I remember getting the E.T. and Pac-Man catridges when they came out, as a young kid. Pac-Man was a disappointment, but young me found E.T. absolutely baffling, and I've wondered if that might be because it was trying out a few new things and breaking out of some of the typical Atari game paradigms. Not that it did so successfully, mind you, but I've wondered if perhaps also part of why it's so reviled stems from other people remembering the same sort of bewilderment I experienced.

Agree completely. I played E.T. when it came out, and (as I think I've said before in these discussions) it barely registered as a game at all in my mind. It was just a series of impossible tasks with arbitrary reasons for failure. I played many 2600 games, and while I generally sucked at hard games back then (and still do, really), at least I could understand them and understand the reasons I was failing. I had absolutely no sense of that with E.T.

I do agree that it is maybe not the worst Atari 2600 game of all time, but it is certainly the most prominent awful game for the console.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:16 AM on April 1, 2013


Since it hasn't been mentioned yet, Racing the Beam is a well-regarded book all about the 2600.
posted by JoeZydeco at 7:12 AM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


I thought the clever cartridge hacking revealed that there were at least the nuggets of good design (given the constraints of the system) in there, though they needed serious mining to find.

For me this is the kicker. When it came out there was no way to hack it into something usable, unlike say, taking a Chevy Small Block and horning it into a Monza to get a really neat thing out of a mediocre thing, you were stuck with what they sold you. And what they sold you, in this case, was deeply flawed and frustrating.

I will say this has convinced me to get Stella running on my Wii just so I can go back and revisit these old games and lord my skills at River Raid over my wife, who will sigh and play along and remind me that video games all sucked back in my day compared to her NES childhood. Then I'm gonna show her MAME and things will get real.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 7:15 AM on April 1, 2013


Funny to think how really kick-ass Activision used to be.

Yeah, back in those days Activision was the shit. Their little block people even wore pants, for chrissake! Pants!

(I was about to mention the game Atlantis, too, but then I realized that wasn't actually an Activison game, but an Imagic game. Either way, E.T. really was a big bag of suck compared to what some other studios were putting out at the time. For a couple of years, I kept going back to it, wanting to believe I was just missing something. But nope. It just sucked.)
posted by saulgoodman at 8:06 AM on April 1, 2013


Activision

So what did Activision do that increased the quality of their games so dramatically? While some games were battling with sprite numbers and flickering, Pitfall was pretty awesome in comparison. Are their tricks documented anywhere?
posted by SpacemanStix at 8:55 AM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


They made almost six million of the damn things when no game, ever, had sold that many.

False: They made 12 million Pac-Man cartridges, and sold seven million.

And, well, they paid for it. Atari lost over $500M in 1983, and the failure of E.T. led directly to the breakup of Atari in 1984.

That's a strong assertion. The breakup may have been indirectly due to E.T. But it's worth noting that the breakup split the company into a home console and computer company and an arcade game company, and their paths diverged pretty widely from there. Atari Games made some of the best arcade games ever made, designs that I'd put up against Nintendo's best, while Atari Corp got bought by Commodore's Jack Tramiel and had a checkered history, but still made the Atari ST computer. The part they kept, however, was the part that was responsible for making E.T.

my wife, who will sigh and play along and remind me that video games all sucked back in my day compared to her NES childhood.

I've been doing a survey of 2600 games looking for hidden gems for a (cancelled) article, and have found a few. Off the top of my head, look for Mountain King (although you have to get used to tricky controls), Dragonstomper and the Starpath version of Frogger. Or, of course, Adventure or Pitfall II.

So what did Activision do that increased the quality of their games so dramatically? While some games were battling with sprite numbers and flickering, Pitfall was pretty awesome in comparison. Are their tricks documented anywhere?

1. Many of Atari's best programmers jumped ship to form it, so they had sheer skill on their side.

2. I think a lot of it was just branding and quality control. Their logo was in every game in a prominent place, for example, and they had a series of consistent rules regarding how it was displayed. They brooked no flicker in their games at all. And they just generally tried to stick to things that the system was good at.
posted by JHarris at 9:14 AM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


They brooked no flicker in their games at all.

It's hard to overstate how important that was in making their games seem polished and arcade-like.
posted by Rock Steady at 9:32 AM on April 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


The thing about that, however, is that the platform is limited to the degree that, if you don't allow any flicker, you are severely limited in what you can do. All of Activision's games are designed around the necessity of having zero flicker, which means the couldn't do something like Ms. Pac-Man, Atari's much better second go at the series, or Jr. Pac-Man, one of the best games for the system. Both of those games have considerable flicker, but they manage it much better than Pac-Man. And on the NES, flicker is everywhere because of that platform's per-line sprite limitation, and it still did pretty well.
posted by JHarris at 9:47 AM on April 1, 2013


The need to read the manual probably played a big role in ET's terrible legacy. In the thirty years since its release, I'd imagine there were quite a few people like me who got the game second hand as a bare cartridge (or a bare ROM image). Without instructions, it's totally impenetrable.
posted by wotsac at 1:10 PM on April 1, 2013


So what did Activision do that increased the quality of their games so dramatically?

The same thing that leads to dramatically higher quality today: Activision attracted top-notch talent, and made sure to keep it.

It was a company founded by, run by, and built for talented game programmers who happened to have an entrepreneurial streak, instead of by a talented entrepreneur who happened to recognize the value of commercializing Spacewar. You almost don't need to go any further than that to recognize why the Activision programmers (and thus, games) were so much better than Atari's.

In the Warner-Communications era of Atari, game programmers were considered almost interchangeable, treated as assembly-line workers. It didn't matter whether you wrote Yar's Revenge or E.T., you got paid your flat salary (and none of your users knew your name). Activision considered programmers to be artists, and modeled a lot of their personnel policies on the music industry's treatment of popular musicians. They also encouraged programmers to put their name on their games, and offered direct financial incentive for successful titles.

So basically, if you were good enough to pull off a successful title, Activision would let you claim it as your own, and give you a fair share of the profits. Atari kept its successes for itself. What this does to top-tier programmers is obvious.

Activision on the console side, and EA on the home computer side, more or less built the "programmer as rockstar" motif. As it turns out, good programmers are more like artists or musicians than they are like assembly-line workers. Activision knew this. Atari didn't.
posted by toxic at 1:17 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


JHarris: All of Activision's games are designed around the necessity of having zero flicker, which means the couldn't do something like Ms. Pac-Man, Atari's much better second go at the series, or Jr. Pac-Man, one of the best games for the system

Oh sure, I get that there was a trade-off, but as a little kid playing video games, I felt like all of Activision's games were rock solid REAL VIDEO GAMES, while many other games were just... I don't know, Atari-ish? Hard to explain, especially at such a remove, after so much time and change.

And it's funny, I don't remember flicker in NES games at all. I guess thinking back, I can remember some in Mega Man, and maybe some of the brawlers (like Double Dragon), but it certainly didn't color my feelings about the game like it did on the 2600. Maybe because the games were so advanced from what I was used to I was willing to overlook it?
posted by Rock Steady at 1:36 PM on April 1, 2013


Pronoiac: "There were Atari computers, like the 400 and 800. There was an ET game for them, and it's much different from the 2600 version. Maybe that's it?"

Yes! That sounds very much like it. I recall that my mom returned that computer to get what, back in the day, was called an "IBM compatible" (it was from Sanyo) because she wanted something more work-oriented. So we only had that (presumably) Atari for a short while, which is why I could never remember the make.

I had a hard time finding any links to other versions of the game, though, for these Atari computers. Any ideas?
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 4:53 PM on April 1, 2013


Ah, your tip was enough! It was called "E.T. Phone Home," and Wikipedia's description is exactly as I remember: "You have to search your neighborhood for pieces that E.T. wants to build his transmitter." Yep!

Also, you helped me figure out what kind of computer we must have had, an Atari 8-bit of one flavor or another. Thank you so much, Pronoiac. You solved two long-standing mysteries for me at once!
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 4:59 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


You know what? I loved the hell out of E.T. when I was a 5 year old kid. We only had a few Atari cartridges, and I'd never seen or heard about the movie so I had no frame of reference for what the game was supposed to represent. As its own thing, it held my interest more than any other game I had. It was an exploration game, and a horror game, and esoteric and very mysterious and more than a little frightening. And it was a little different every time you played. I had no idea how to play it properly and it took a long time of exploring the game before I uncovered its secrets (why is this a bad thing? More mystery and bewilderment in gaming, please.) It made me feel like a trapped, powerless creature, isolated and very alone in a cruel world, and that's a powerful emotion to have when you're playing a game. To a young pre-internet kid playing a primitive gaming system, this was "the art game" that many consider titles like Shadow of the Collosus to be. As I obsessively played games growing up, there were many titles that captured this weird mystery - the Ultima titles, Ween: The Prophecy, etc. - and now most games don't really have any mystery or esoteric feeling to them at all, they hold your hand and explain things to you relentlessly.

I also accidentally uncovered those easter eggs without realizing how, in the course of many hours of playing, and it's hard to describe how mindblowing that sort of experience was at the time. So yeah, E.T. was one of the most memorable pre-NES games ever. I feel sorry for you haters!
posted by naju at 5:09 PM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


I learned to play it in a similar way naju. I don't remember if I had a manual for it, but I did manage to piece together how to play it. I've forgotten a lot of that now, but I remember that I did end up enjoying it, and that proves there's something there.
posted by JHarris at 6:08 PM on April 1, 2013


Maybe I did just give up too soon then. My big problem with the game at the time was that I couldn't tell if the game was even working properly or not, so I was never quite sure if any further effort would be rewarded. (Also the environment just seemed so--disjointed and weird. I couldn't quite figure out what I was supposed to imagine I was looking at more than half the time.)
posted by saulgoodman at 7:33 AM on April 2, 2013


Now do Raiders of the Lost Ark & Riddle of the Sphinx!

What?! Looks like I am not the only one who feels this way, but Raiders of the Lost Ark is incredibly awesome. In fact, I would even go as far as to say that it is also my favorite Atari 2600 game.
posted by mysterpigg at 2:40 PM on April 2, 2013


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