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"May god have mercy on the souls that bought this game for more than nine cents," reads a GameFaqs user review of the infamous E.T. the Extra Terrestrial for the Atari 2600. The review dates from 2000, and I can assure you that the intervening years have been just as cruel. This article ranks it as the worst video game of all time. GamesRadar+ puts it at two, with only the irredeemably broken Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing bumping it from the "top" slot.
I missed E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (or simply E.T. for short) the first time around. My initial foray into the world of video games was courtesy of the 2600's younger sibling, the 520ST, which my dad bought for our household in the late 1980s. We had stockpiles of games: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Sensible Soccer, Ikari Warriors, Lemmings, Pushover – even recounting a mere sliver of the extensive list in text form stirs wonderful impressions of nostalgia.
The early 1990s saw me graduate to the NES and the Master System, then the Mega Drive and the SNES. I've been playing games ever since, and now write about them professionally. My point? I've played a shit-ton of games over the years, but to my shame had never played one of the most discussed games in existence.
E.T. for the Atari 2600 is widely recognised as the biggest commercial failure of any video game in the medium's history. With anticipation at fever pitch pre-release (movie to video game conversions were few and far between in those days), Atari reportedly manufactured five million game cartridges. They only sold 1.5 million copies, though, and E.T. also bombed critically. Atari thereafter suffered one of its worst financial years to date – a return galvanised by a coinciding, and equally disappointing, 2600 Pac-Man port.
In late 1983, a sizeable portion of the unsellable, and therefore ultimately useless, E.T. cartridges were said to have been buried in a New Mexico landfill site – a fact confirmed last year following a site excavation ordered by Microsoft as part of its Atari: Game Over documentary, whereby thousands of cartridges were uncovered some three decades on.
The GameFaqs review continues: "There is absolutely no point in playing this game unless you need a good laugh."
I like a laugh, I do, but having heard that E.T. for the 2600 is one the most broken and frustrating games ever made, I had my doubts that it was capable of eliciting fun on any level. Quite the contrary, in fact, the Let's Plays and reviews I'd researched were pretty clear this game was shambles: "Is it an awful game? Definitely," decried one YouTuber. "The game is fucking impossible to follow without the manual," said another. "E.T. is stressful as hell."
Fuck, Cinemassacre's Angry Video Game Nerd series released a feature-length movie based on how badly the ill-fated 2600 title drove the titular character up the wall.
But it couldn't be that bad, could it? How could a video game evoke such high levels of stress?
I decided to give E.T. a go for myself. To best gauge how I handled the overall experience, I hooked myself up to a blood pressure and heart monitor, recorded the readings before and after playing, and presented them to my GP thereafter. In light of the comments above, I decided to embark on two playthroughs: one completely blind, and another while following a YouTube walkthrough. I allowed a 60-minute interval between each test.
Article continues, with spoilers, after this video...
PLAYTHROUGH 1 (BLIND)
Blood pressure at start: 99/72
Heart rate at start: 97 beats per minute (BPM)
Okay, so here comes E.T. being lowered from above in a pink, elevator-like structure – what I assume is so supposed to represent his spaceship. There's a lot of green in the landing area and what looks like trees. Various arrows flash on and off on the pink UI bar above the main screen as I move E.T. and... Oh. I fall down a ditch that I don't think I had any way of identifying. Hmm, bit irritating.
After wandering aimlessly from one end of the chasm to the next, I finally discover hitting the spacebar extends my alien hero's neck which, of course, makes me rise to the surface. I attempt to move upwards and fall straight into the same hole. What the fuck? This happens another three times before I discover I'm required to move left after surfacing—any other direction puts me straight back into the hole for some reason. Seconds later I've fallen into another pit and I'm sadly able to confirm there's no way of telegraphing these plunges. Fuck this.
The blue UI bar at the foot of the main screen has a timer which counts down from 9999, falling with my every move—which, coincidentally, is mostly falling. I wonder to myself what'll happen at zero. When I'm not stumbling down invisible holes every other fucking minute, two strange NPCs pop in and out of the screen: one wearing a trench coat, who looks like a flasher; the other a blue baseball cap and a white nighty. Whenever the latter catches up with me I'm carried off to what looks like a temple. The flasher simply bounces off me before heading in the opposite direction. Weird on both counts.
I spend the next 20 minutes wandering around aimlessly, spying the odd collectable here and there with little idea of its purpose, and falling into pits more often than walking above ground until the counter winds down. I then appear to die, falling over before a kid floats from beyond the main screen—presumably Elliott—and (unfortunately) revives me. A life down, I can start again until I've expended all four. Bloody hell, this is tiring.
I decide to stop after just two lives because I really have no idea what I'm doing. As the YouTuber noted above says, it does seem "fucking impossible without the manual." I've really not enjoyed my time with E.T. so far at all, but perhaps this will change with some direction.
Blood pressure at end: 103/74
Heart rate at end: 99 BPM
PLAYTHROUGH 2 (WITH WALKTHROUGH)
Blood pressure at start: 98/71
Heart rate at start: 96 BPM
With assistance, I finally learn the premise of the game: E.T. has been abandoned by his spacecraft on planet Earth and is searching for three missing parts of a phone to call home. The mysterious icons at the top of the screen are prompts E.T. will act out if I do the neck extension thing—so if the prompt is an arrow, E.T. will teleport to that screen, if it's a phone he'll attempt to call home etc. I also discover that the flasher is in fact an FBI agent, and the guy in the nighty is actually a scientist in a white coat; the temple he keeps returning me to is his laboratory.
Right, so, grab these phone parts then and get out. Easier said than done it seems, as the phone pieces are located exclusively in the fucking googol of invisible ditches. Stumbling down them by accident when I was blissfully unaware was bad enough, but now I need to actively make my way into each hole to locate the only thing that's going to help me beat the game? Come on!
To make thing slightly easier, I can collect nine Reese's Pieces—signified by black dots on-screen—before calling Elliott from a marked location and he'll bring me one phone piece at a time to save me the hassle of searching. Nice one. But it turns out that when the FBI guy bounces off me, he's actually stealing my Reese's Pieces! Oh, and he'll take any phone parts you might already have to boot. To think, an extraterrestrial from a foreign planet arrives on Earth and the FBI's sole concern is swiping mobile phones and sugary goods from the interstellar immigrant.
I spend the next half an hour or so finally getting the three parts together. I call the spaceship and then have a limited time to locate the launch pad on the forest screen where I first landed. But I can't find it! I panic. I fumble around. I run out of time. It's game over.
It turns out, should you manage to successfully find the launch pad, that the game offers another two identical levels before calling it quits and you've beat it. This is something I'll never discover for myself. I now don't give a shit if E.T. gets home or not.
Blood pressure at end: 109/76
Heart rate at end: 100 BPM
"Blood pressure fluctuations throughout the day are completely normal," explains Dr. Stewart McMenemin, my general practitioner. During a routine check-up I mention my post-E.T. blood pressure results, but I decide to at first withhold mentioning video games at all.
He continues: "What you have to understand is that there are good fluctuations and bad ones. Your results are within the recommended systolic and diastolic range for a healthy adult male your age, so ultimately there's nothing to worry about. That's not to say you shouldn't keep an eye on future readings—it's important to stay on top of things if you have any reservations or feel ill following or whilst engaging in certain activities."
Dr. McMenemin goes on to explain that pursuits such as high-endurance sport can vastly alter blood pressure. Sexual intercourse is another activity capable of spiking readings, and even bouts of laughter can see blood pressure jump as many as ten to 15 points in a healthy person with normal heart function.
"Where and when did you record these readings?" he asks.
"Actually, I was playing a video game," I reply.
"Ah, I see. Well, video games can be similar to sports but on a lesser scale, given that you're actively engaging something. How it makes you react can impact your blood pressure, certainly. The jump here, your last reading, though, is perhaps a little higher than you might expect given the activity. Try to take breaks if you find yourself getting worked up whilst sitting in front of the computer. But again, [the reading] is well within the recommended range."
I explain to my doctor that I was actually playing a video game conversion of the revered whimsical 80s movie E.T., and he laughs. We both laugh, albeit me through gritted teeth. The thought of those perilous pits, I'm sure, is ramping up my blood pressure as we speak.
"I can't believe a game about E.T. would have you worried," he says, after I explain how stressful the experience was for me. Is he mocking me? "There must be worse video games out there than that, surely?"
He's wrong. Granted, I had my doubts at first. But he's wrong. Don't believe me? See for yourself. Good luck getting home.
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