Saturday, October 23, 2010

Top Games of All Time #1: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Atari 2600)

The unforgettable label art,
complete with cartridge!
The greatest game of all time is really out of this world.

In 1982, Atari was the undisputed champion of the video game industry. The Atari 2600 console held approximately 80 percent of the market share, and according to Wall Street speculation at the time, their $2 billion profits were expected to jump at least 50 percent in 1983. But before Atari could rocket to further stardom, they needed to finish out the 1982 holiday season with a stellar knock-out punch.

And that smaaash hit came in the form of Stephen Spielberg’s little alien that could, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

Everyone knows the story of the movie E.T.: A cute alien finds himself earthbound, and after befriending a small boy named El-ee-ot, he eats hundreds of Reese’s Pieces (not M&Ms; they bowed out of the advertising opportunity) and finally decides that to get home, he needs to contact his father – and his mother, too. All the fun and heartwarming excitement of the film is reproduced flawlessly in the Atari 2600 E.T. game. Even by today’s demanding standards, it’s hard to believe that this game was programmed in a mere six weeks by a single man. What's more believable is that E.T.'s production costs, after obtaining the movie licence, were an estimated $125 million.

E.T.'s looking to phone home, and it's up to YOU to help him!

The goal of E.T. is crystal clear from the start, and even a novice player should have no trouble jumping right into the action. Just like the movie, it’s up to E.T. to find three parts of his intergalactic telephone, strewn about Eliot’s neighborhood (and his neighborhood’s many open holes), and use it to “phone home.” There is no indication as to which pits hold the coveted transceiver parts, so it's up to the player to jump into each of them, one at a time, until he or she discovers the items in question. Then it's time to phone home and waddle to the waiting space craft within the allocated time limit, before E.T.'s parents get tired of waiting and whizz home to their own part of the galaxy without him.

At the time of E.T.’s release, never had a game provided users with such a bewilderingly accurate hole simulator, complete with what are presumably rocks and dirt. It wasn’t until 2008’s PS3 title Dynamite Diggers – more than 25 years later – that hole simulation in video games achieved its next great leap forward.

E.T.'s secondary objective, of course, was to seek out as much delicious Reese's candy as possible. After all, what else would a cuddly alien consume to raise his ailing health gauge?

Are those Reese’s Pieces on the ground in between E.T. and Freddy Kruger, or is it just turds? In a game this good, does it even matter?

Despite mind-blowing graphics, control and gameplay, E.T.’s success was a double edged sword. The only reason the Atari 2600 was replaced with the NES, Genesis and eventually the current crop of Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii consoles is because Atari simply couldn’t meet customer demand for the game. The crash of the North American video game market in 1983 and 1984 is wildly attributed to the title’s critical underproduction. With an installed user base of ten million Atari 2600 consoles in late 1982, the five million E.T. cartridges Atari manufactured were quickly snatched by players – one for their home and an extra copy for their boat houses – leaving store shelves woefully understocked for many customers to buy a third copy, presumably for their summer mansions. That same year, the perfectly reasonable assumption that most of their user base would purchase the same game more than once had worked to Atari’s advantage with their delightful port of Namco’s famous quarter cruncher, Pac-man: 12 million copies of Pac-man were produced for 10 million consoles, and had more people known that the game was ready and awaiting their purchase, I’m sure the five million carts that were sent back to Atari would have been snapped up in an instant.
Here's the top-label art; I haven't seen it around the Internet, so I took a picture of my own cart.

Gaming historians believe that Atari wasn’t “thinking big enough” and should have produced closer to 30 million E.T. cartridges instead of the measly 5 million they manufactured. Unfortunately, E.T. himself was blamed for Atari’s shortsightedness, and as punishment, Stephen Spielberg and then-Atari president and CEO Ray Kassar brought him to landfill in New Mexico, where the lovable alien was crushed, encased in concrete and buried three feet underground.

The other thing that got buried around that time was Atari's stock prices, but don't worry: Kassar was able to unload his 5,000 shares a mere 23 minutes before personally making the announcement that would devalue Atari's stock by more than 30 percent, thereby saving him thousands of dollars.

Ray Kassar
Despite Atari’s poor marketing decisions, those lucky enough to get their hands on a copy of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial have no doubt cherished the game for the last 28 years, especially with eBay prices approaching $500 for a boxed copy complete with strategy guide and scratch ‘n sniff cards. With millions of players considering it the crowned jewel of their gaming collections, it’s no wonder that Atari’s masterwork sits atop many “greatest games of all time” lists. At the risk of being cliché, I proudly award E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600 top billing in Matt’s top games of all time list.

To everyone involved in E.T.’s production: Thanks for everything and in my eyes, each and everyone one of you will always be a star, men.

* * *

That might do it for my top games list, but many of you have yet to tell me about YOUR favorite games of all time! If you haven’t, take a minute to post your top three games as a comment to this post. I’ll reveal the results in a future article here on Wordsmith VG!


  1. Ehhhh, Relm... Grandpa's a little worried about your taste in video games. Perhaps you got hit on the head a little too hard when we were farming for an Economizer... or maybe it was when you got hit by Grandpa's-- well, nevermind that. If you're feeling dizzy or feverish, Grandpa's hidden an Elixir for you somewhere on his body!

  2. I'm not your granddaughter old man, and for the last time, I'm not spending my entire paycheck on the awful things you told me to buy.

    And damnit old man, tell me your favorite games of all time!

  3. Listen here you young whelp, when you're old and arthritic like Grandpa, you'll be happy that you saved up your pennies for a sex swing.

    Grandpa doesn't have much time these days to play video games, but he's rather fond of the eccentric tone of Earthbound. Also, seeing children run through the streets without a parent or guardian in sight fills Grandpa's mythril rod with joy!

  4. 3. Star wars Knights of the Old Republic
    2. Mortal Kombat 1, or UMK 3
    1. Legend of Zelda Occorina of Time

    Thats the list as it is right now, not surprising and not that original. Goldeneye 64 just missed the cut loseing out to Star Wars, but the other two were more clear cut.

  5. 3. Final Fantasy X-2
    2. Superman 64
    1. Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing