Gameplay Reflection on E.T. the Extra-terrestrial by Vijay Reddy


April 11, 2012 by vreddy92


Playing E.T. the Extra-terrestrial for the Atari 2600 was for sure one of the most memorable experiences of this class. As someone who has always been interested in the history of video games, I had always heard many things about this game and its permanent place in infamy as the “worst video game ever”, and the video game that was one of the largest contributing factors to the early 80’s video game crash.

I had played E.T. once before on an emulator for the Atari 2600 simply because I was extremely interested in playing a game that is so deeply engrained in the minds of nostalgic gamers and fearful game companies alike. This game has had much impact on the video game industry as exactly “what not to do”. However, playing it that first time, I didn’t feel that. Probably due to the combination of not having to have paid for the game in either case (on the emulator or in class), and never having to play it more than once, I found it to be a very interesting game. Maybe my expectations had been lowered sufficiently by the harsh rhetoric directed toward the game? Maybe I didn’t let it numb my mind enough? Either way, I kind of enjoyed it.

Playing it in class was a very strange experience, mostly because of the Atari 2600’s controller. It’s a controller that I am not particularly used to at all. The square box with a joystick on top was far more evocative of an arcade controller than a console controller (likely indicative of the time when the console was released). It was very different playing with such an unusual peripheral in comparison with playing with my keyboard on the emulator. However, I sat there as the worst video game in history began.

Playing E.T. is a very simple concept. You, as the titular character, navigate a poorly-rendered world to fall into pits and collect items that can come in handy. You have a counter at the bottom of the screen representing energy, which goes down as you move around the map. Collecting Reese’s pieces will help you recover that energy. The goal in the game is to collect three pieces of a telephone to “call home” without being captured by the police or scientists. When this happens, then you can go to a certain area where you can board the space ship and return home. This is how you win the game.

Reflecting on the game, it is possible to see how it can be frustrating and boring in the long term. The game rewards perseverance above all else. It is the goal of the player to go into various pits in the map to retrieve the Reese’s pieces and the telephone pieces. When you go into the well, you either find something or you don’t, and then you levitate out of the well (in a very clunky fashion in which it is very easy to miss getting out and then just fall back in). The overall objective of the game is simply to go into each well and find items until you get the three telephone pieces, then leave. After you do this, the game starts over. It can easily become repetitive, frustrating, and altogether pointless, especially when you’re captured and the police confiscates one of your telephone pieces. Then you have to go look for it all over again. The lack of novelty in the game, coupled with the fact that there is really only one objective that is in no way fun to perform can make it a very pointless experience.

When I played it, I found that it wasn’t that bad of a game. All of the Atari 2600 games we played were very simple and had little to offer in terms of graphics, sound effects, and gameplay compared to what the average player in 2012 is used to. The graphics are rather terrible, the sound effects rather primitive, and the ludological aspects rather pointless. However, I must question what makes E.T. the game that nearly killed video games, while Namco’s Pac-Man was (and remains) one of the most popular arcade games of all time despite its equally repetitive premise. The difference causing Pac-Man’s success is likely due to it having a clear and non-mind-numbing goal (to eat the dots and avoid the enemies). This coupled with the actual consequences of meeting with enemies (the loss of a life) and the presence of a more consequential scoring mechanism probably made the game much more appealing to the audience of that time (because it actually has a point and actually has consequences). Also, Pac-Man had much better graphics and a much better soundtrack than did E.T. (it’s worth noting that the worse graphics and gameplay changes of Pac-Man’s Atari 2600 port are also considered a factor in the video game crash). The ludological and graphical differences between E.T. and Pac-Man are probably what cause their differences in popularity, given the similarity of their ludonarratives: E.T.’s being to collect pieces of the telephone while avoiding authorites, and Pac-Man’s being to collect dots to clear the level while avoiding ghosts.

Knowing that the game is considered so terrible and that a very short five-week development timeframe went into producing it probably skewed my view of the E.T. the Extra-terrestrial in the times that I had played it. Also a contributing factor was likely the fact that I wasn’t a part of the hype in the 80’s surrounding the game, and that I didn’t purchase or have an obligation to play it. Given these multiple ways in which I am able to detach myself from the game that people in that era were unable to, I am experiencing the game through a different lens than those people. E.T. the Extra-terrestrial is a prime example of the notion that ludology matters in video game analysis, primarily because its ludological aspects are rather terrible. Also, the graphics aren’t great, and the sound effects are very pointless. It’s somewhat difficult to control E.T. (getting him out of holes), and there is very little to do in the game other than to repeat the same tasks over and over again to little end. As such, it really does make sense that this game caused the video game crash, as it really is a game where there’s nothing to do. Unless I actually buy an Atari 2600 and play E.T. for an hour or so, I will likely be unable to replicate the purely awful experience of playing it, but given my reflection on this game’s deficiencies, I am completely fine with that never happening.

Just to drive the point home, this is video of a player reviewing E.T. as one of the worst video games of all time by playing the game:


2 thoughts on “Gameplay Reflection on E.T. the Extra-terrestrial by Vijay Reddy

  1. aakang says:

    I strongly agree that E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial fails as a video game. I also had a difficult time playing the video game in the lab. First of all, I can attribute my frustration with playing the game to the lack of clear rules. I believe that for a video game to have some positive reception, its rules need to be at least somewhat clear. However, this video game does not give the players many clues on how to win or how to progress. It is really up to the players to decipher what needs to be done through the constant struggles of falling into pits and not knowing the purpose of the abstract objects. Another attribute of the video game that stands out to me is its abstract nature. Abstract video games can be visually appealing in many instances such as in Rez. However, the abstract visuals of E.T. fail in that they make the video game harder to play; for example, it is hard to discern which areas have holes in the ground. At the same time, I do understand that graphics were more primitive during that era. My question to you is do you think that E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial could have been more successful if the designers had tweaked the graphics/rules by even a little?

    -Andy Kang

    • vreddy92 says:

      I think that the main problem that faced E.T. lies in its conception. Atari wanted a game and they wanted it before the Christmas rush, so they gave the designers 5 weeks to make the game. I think if they gave the designers a few months (some games now take years, right?) they could have come up with a much better game. I know Atari 2600’s weren’t a very advanced system. They were much better suited for arcade style games, not story-based games, as E.T. tried to be. As such, I think E.T. would have been better suited as an arcade game. You made good points about the abstract graphics as well, but I think that can be chalked up mostly to the limitations of the technology in the early 80’s. Also, I agree about the rules. I only learned how to play E.T. through reading about it on Wikipedia. If I hadn’t done that, I probably wouldn’t know how to play. However, I didn’t comment on that in my paper because I was unsure as to whether or not there was an instruction manual that came with the game to explain it. It could have simply been something we didn’t have access to. Either way though, I think it’s a game that would have been wildly successful if it waited until, say, the N64 came out and you could make a 3-D world game with a decent plot and good rules. However, I think that the short timeframe plus the decision to make it a non-arcade game were its downfall.

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