Atari 2600 Review: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial on 7800 Avenue
By Brian Thomas Barnhart |
Hey what is going on everybody, welcome to a very special episode of 7800 Avenue! Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all! You know, the great thing about 7800 Avenue is that we can play 7800 games, and we can play 2600 games. Today I’m here in the lounge with Mason and we’re playing a doozy for Christmas. We’re playing E.T The Extra-Terrestrial for Atari 2600. Let’s check it out:
E.T. gets a bad rep as “the worst video game ever made”. There’s been a lot of controversy around it. Atari Game Designer Howard Scott Warshaw was famously given just weeks to turn around an E.T. game in time for Christmas. The end result was rushed. Customer returns and a desert dump stained Atari’s reputation and lead to the lore of urban legends.
We have a brand new sealed copy of E.T. for Christmas, and we’re opening it up with young Mason who is going to play it for the first time. We’re taking another look at E.T. with fresh eyes and shedding a new look at the trash-talk this game has had for years. Is E.T. really the worst game ever? We’ll let’s open it up and see.
Open up that gorgeous box and you’re going to find more packed inside that you’d usually get with an Atari game. This was Atari’s attempt to dazzle young minds on Christmas morning with all their best stuff. The E.T. instruction manual was vibrant. It’s in full color, printed on paper with a shiny metallic silver that jumps off the page. And because Atari knew they had some issues with the game, they also included a mini strategy guide with tips on “How To Get E.T. Home Fast!”. (Scroll down)
An Atari 2600 Catalog enticed you with 49 games and accessories. You could get lost for hours flipping through the pages looking at all the different games. And then there was a small insert advertising the Atari 2600 Raiders of the Lost Ark video game. Because if you liked E.T. you’d probably like Indiana Jones. E.T. didn’t come with a DC comic book like some other Atari games did, but a comic might’ve worked better as an instruction manual. Some kids don’t have that attention span needed to read instructions, but could be drawn into a comic book illustrating how to avoid those pits the way Ikea instructions show how to assemble that futon.
“I remember seeing this title screen for the first time, and it really blew me away. It was like ‘Wow…’ We’re playing on a whole new level here.”
– Brian Thomas Barnhart
Before you even peel open the box, it told you Atari wanted to make this something exciting and special. E.T. was one of the first games to come in the new silver and red Atari 2600 boxes. It looked sleek and handsome, with Hiro Kimura’s vibrant artwork depicting E.T. and Elliott staring with wonder at the stars. On top of the box was an Atari hologram seal indicating to the buyer that this was an authentic top-shelf Atari product. The hologram seals were a byproduct of the Atari Cosmos project and Atari’s Holoptics Lab, and a forerunner to the Nintendo Seal of Quality.
But what about that quality? Was this great artwork and marketing surrounding a mediocre game that had been rushed out in time for Christmas? Maybe. But it was exciting, and it felt like there was an Atari adventure waiting for you inside.
Okay, it’s Christmas, time to celebrate by popping open our sealed copy of E.T.! Smell that brand-spanking-new cartridge and instruction manual? This copy was purchased at Pixel Vault Games. You know Armando, owner of Pixel Vault Games, he was in the Donkey Kong episode.
I think we have everything we need to play this game. Let’s toss aside that Atari Catalog, our cheat sheet and the little advertisement for Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s time to play this game. We have our controller, we have the game, and I hope you all have your Atari Twists ready to drink this holiday season! Let’s play some E.T.!
This is Mason’s first time playing E.T. but he’s played some pretty bad Atari games before. Fishing Derby, Frog Pond, and 3-D Tic Tac Toe to name a few. Shh yeah, those are not the best games. So how does Mason think E.T. stacks up to the rest? Well let’s find out.
When you get out of the well STOP moving up! Move E.T. left, right, or down. If you move him up you might fall back into the well.
“I think a lot of people are saying E.T. is a bad game because they don’t have the instruction manual and they don’t know how to play.”
– Mason Barnhart
We have a sealed copy, never been opened, of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. And the good thing about that is it has the instructions. I remember picking E.T. up at the swap meet, you know, used with just the cartridge, getting home and going “How do you play this game?” So today we have the instructions, we know how to play.
It’s nearly impossible to play without the instructions, and most kids back in the day tore open the box on Christmas morning and threw it out with the instructions. I mean why not? Back then most video games didn’t really need instructions. You just shoot at stuff or gobbled dots. The result was a lot of frustrated Atari players who didn’t get the game.
E.T. was a new kind of game though. At least it tried to be. I mean, how many Atari games at the time had an ending? E.T. was really one of the first video games to take a stab at telling an adventure story. It’s a lot easier to do, say, with Zelda on the NES, where you have two fire buttons, a select button, a bag full of selectable objects, and text on the screen to tell the story as you go along.
Howard Scott Warshaw’s vision for E.T. was ahead of its time, but insurmountable to do on the 2600 with that deadline. You can see where he was going with this, it’s like he was trying to create a Zelda-style adventure game for the 2600 but didn’t have the resources or the time.
Think about it. How much better would this game be if you could enter Elliott’s house, the FBI Building or the Science Lab and interact with characters and objects like you do in Legend of Zelda? Or falling into a pit only to find Elliott telling E.T. “It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this.” and handing him a Speak & Spell.
Well one thing I always thought was cool about E.T. is this was one of the few games at the time for Atari 2600 to have a title screen. That’s right. With music, followed by a cut scene of E.T. landing in his space ship. I remember seeing this title screen for the first time and it really blew me away. It was like “Wow… We’re playing on a whole new level here.” Not only was it the most popular movie at the time, but it had a title screen and you got to play it on your Atari.
Power Zone indicators tell you what powers you have where you are. They’re at the top of your screen and important to pay attention to.
Alright, great, so this is what you would’ve been playing Christmas morning. Elliott looks like Ernie from Sesame Street. I gotta phone home, and I gotta give Elliott the candy. Where’s that landing zone at? Is that the one that looks like a scope? Alright, so I gave him the candy, and the “Call Ship Zone” looks like a space invader. I gotta look for the meatball with legs. And that shouting “e!” at the top of the screen, does that stand for E.T. or Elliott? Hold on, where’s that cheat sheet again? E.T. you better call home because your friends are waiting for you.
Start with Game 3. Learn to play E.T. by playing Game 3 – the easiest game variation – first. Set both difficulty switches to B. Advance to Game 1 for a bigger challenge.
So E.T. gives you like little cut scenes, different screens, different characters. It’s not all one screen with a black background like a lot of other games. It gives you a little world to explore and things to do. It’s a pretty literal in its translation from the movie with scientists and FBI agents trying to get you, but it really tries to bring you into the story of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial as best as the Atari 2600 could do.
Alright, well we just got done playing E.T. on Atari 2600. Mason played it for the first time and had some thoughts:
“It wasn’t as bad as everybody said.”
– Mason Barnhart
Yeah, I think he’s right. I still think it’s a great game. I think it’s a lot of fun, and you know maybe there’s a part of me that, there’s a nostalgia factor that plays into it. You know, I mean E.T. was everywhere. It was like Star Wars. Star Wars was everywhere, E.T. was everywhere. These were the movie adventures that we had growing up that we wanted to continue off-screen. That meant action figures, video games, the works.
So Mason got to see what a lot of ’80s kids played on Christmas morning. What did Mason think of E.T. over all? Mason’s Final Verdict: “It was pretty good.”
It was very cool to play this game. And not only was it cool to play this game, but it was cool to actually open it up from the box and see everything that came with it. This is like a time machine right here. Like unearthing a time capsule and experiencing what it was like to open up that present on Christmas morning, you know, looking at this stuff, looking at the artwork on the box and flipping through everything that came inside. Hiro Kimura’s artwork on this game is beautiful. The whole thing captures not only the E.T. adventure, but the Atari adventure.
Well Mason, it was awesome to share E.T. with you. I really enjoy playing these old games with you. We had a great time. Of course, Dig Dug is Mason’s favorite game, and we’re gonna make sure that Mason is back on show when we do the 7800 version of Dig Dug, which is excellent. Until then, MERRY CHRISTMAS! HAPPY NEW YEAR! I hope everybody gets what they want this year! Sounds like a good wish. Alright, Merry Christmas, we’ll see you guys next time on 7800 Avenue, or Lynx Lounge or The Jag Bar!
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial was programmed by Howard Scott Warshaw. Graphics by Jerome Domurat. Art by Hiro Kimora. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial was released for the Atari 2600 by Atari in 1982, and was officially licensed by Amblin Entertainment and Universal City Studios.
Brian Thomas Barnhart is a classic gaming aficionado, retro pop culture connoisseur, and a Senior Fellow at Atari I/O. He is host of The Jag Bar, Lynx Lounge, 7800 Avenue, and the Atari I/O After Hours Podcast. Brian is a Moderator in the Atari I/O Forums under the name btbfilms76. You can follow him on Instagram and at his YouTube channel.
HOWARD SCOTT WARSHAW