Why the Worst Game Ever Won't Stay Buried
'E.T.' is a beloved movie, but its game adaptation was not as good.
CREDIT: Universal Studios
It's hard to imagine a video game so terrible that it could single-handedly crash an entire market, but in 1982, Atari released one. "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial"was such an ignominious failure that Atari buried all unsold copies of the game — almost 4 million of them — in the New Mexico desert, or so gaming's most famous urban legend goes. Now a documentary team wants to find the resting place of Atari's greatest shame.
What made the game so horrible to earn the ignominy of an anonymous mass grave?
"E.T.,"based on the movie of the same name (about as much as "Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter" is based on American history), managed to forge new territory in awful movie tie-in games. This is an especially impressive feat, given that games based on movies already tend to exist near the bottom of the gaming barrel.
Although the game cost tens of millions of dollars to make (The New York Times estimated that Atari had to spend $20 million to $25 million for the licensing rights alone), Atari had only five weeks to work on it: The game developer secured the movie rights in July, and the game had to ship for the lucrative Christmas season.
In comparison, analysts estimate that 2012's "Halo 4," which took four years to make, cost somewhere between $80 million and $100 million, including marketing. Furthermore, the movie "E.T." cost just about$10 million to make in 1982 (about $23 million today).
The resulting game was spectacular only in its ability to disappoint. The game casts the player as E.T., who must navigate a two-dimensional map as he searches for three pieces of an intergalactic communicator (to "phone home"). The pieces are randomly scattered throughout a series of puke-green pits.
Upon falling into a pit (and losing a chunk of E.T.'s life bar, to boot), the player occasionally finds a phone piece — although, more often, he'll find nothing and have to expend more life to leave the pit again. A government agent shows up periodically to catch the titular extraterrestrial and take away his collected phone parts, while E.T. can consume Reese's Pieces candy (no, really) to restore his life bar.
If you think that this game sounds simplistic and boring — even by 1982 standards — you're not alone. Atari printed 5 million copies of this monstrosity, and sold only 1.5 million — not nearly enough to recoup the massive development cost.
The game effectively dismantled Atari and, given Atari's staggering market presence, made it seem as though the time of the household video-game console had come to an end. Only the surprise success of the Nintendo Entertainment System one year later could prove home consoles' viability.
With millions of unwanted copies of "E.T.," Atari crushed the remaining cartridges and buried them near Alamogordo, N.M. They likely would have remained there, unperturbed until the end of days, save for the intervention of Fuel Industries. [See also: 5 Hit Games Made on a Shoestring]
The Ontario-based production company is hard at work on a documentary about the infamous game and its aftermath. The film crew sought permission from the Alamogordo government to journey into the desert and dig for the gaming equivalent of fool's gold.
Today (June 4), the city commissioner agreed, according to the Associated Press. This may be less an act of charity and more one of revenge, though: The commissioner recalled playing "E.T." in his youth and despising it.
With the modern console industry fracturing at the seams, the lesson of "E.T." is more salient than ever. Bloated development costs will sink a studio, and a recognizable franchise is not enough to cover a bad game. Today's console market is too diversified for one single game to sink it, but playing a terrible game is punishment on its own.