The Worst Video Game Ever Made [Kicking Back with Jersey Joe] Nov11

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The Worst Video Game Ever Made [Kicking Back with Jersey Joe]

With Halloween now safely past us, we’re officially into the holiday shopping season. Many Christmases ago, a big name video game was rushed to store shelves and officially became the biggest video game flop – ever! The production cost was so high; it nearly bankrupted the huge company behind it and ripped apart the video game world for years!

In June 1982, Steven Spielberg released his mega blockbuster hit, E.T. into theatres. The film was the first to surpass Star Wars as the highest grossing film at the time and is ranked as one of the greatest science fiction films ever made.

At the same time, the Atari Corporation was experiencing great success with their Atari 2600 video game console. The unit had been on sale since 1978, but now thanks to large demand lowering the cost, it was becoming more affordable for the masses. Millions of units had flown off of store shelves the previous Christmas. Americans were eager to plug this magic box into their TV and turn their home into an arcade!

The Atari was the officially known as a “video computer system.” Up to this point, only single novelty video games were available for the home, with the most famous being Pong. Players loved being able to play video table tennis without having to drop a ton of quarters at the arcade and were hungry for more. Atari answered with their new console, the Atari 2600.

It connected to a television set with a single cable that would be inserted to an exterior switch box, mounted on the back of the set. That switch box would change between the antenna and the game. If Atari would have included one of these in the box, it would have really saved a few trips to Radio Shack!

The Atari 2600 with the fake wood accents.

The player was required to insert a game cartridge into the Atari center slot and then flip the power switch. Most units were originally sold with the battle game Combat. Later, Atari replaced that free game with a horrible version of Pac-Man.

Sales started to build as word began to spread about the cool new game console and color graphics.

My family finally splurged and purchased ours at the Montgomery Ward in Indiana, PA’s Regency Mall in 1980. We were one of the first to purchase the new version which featured fake wood accents. I can still remember that day and being so excited when my mother picked it up from their layaway department.

As did most American families at the time, our family would play the Atari quite often, picking up new games as they were rolled out. Within two years, we had quite a library built up. But, like everyone else – we demanded more!

In June 1982, Atari executives took note of the big bucks the E.T. movie was raking in at the box office and decided it would be a great game to sell for Christmas, but the timing would be incredibly tight.

Steve Ross, the CEO of Warner Communications (who was Atari’s parent company at the time), began negotiations with Steven Spielberg and Universal Pictures to create the official video game version of his film. After a few weeks of talks, Atari slapped down $20 – 25 million for the rights, which was one of the highest prices to ever pay for licensing at the time.

Spielberg had asked for Howard Scott Warshaw to be in charge of the development and Atari went right to him. He was told, on July 27th that he must have the game ready by September 1st in order to get copies in stores for Christmas. He was to receive $200,000 and a trip to Hawaii for his efforts. He was told to arrive at the San Jose airport a few days later to meet with Spielberg,

Warshaw got to work and adapted the plot of the movie into the game. The player would have to assemble pieces of a phone, call the home planet, then arrive at a special drop zone to have a ship pick him up. To make this task more difficult, Warshaw would add pits E.T. would fall in, candy for him to pick up as bonus points, and an FBI agent and scientist that would take E.T. away if he couldn’t outrun them.

Still wanting more challenge, Warshaw also added a game clock that would require all of the tasks to be completed in a certain amount of time. The clock would wind backwards only when E.T. moved.

Warshaw brought his design ideas to Spielberg a few days later, who was less than impressed. Spielberg wanted something similar to Pac-Man, but Warshaw largely ignored his notes. He wasn’t out to make another version of Pac-Man and felt his game would be better tied to the film.  With the meeting over, he had only a few short weeks to finish the game (whereas most games required months to perfect).

He continued working as Atari started to ramp up their advertising buzz. Commercials were shot to introduce the game for the holiday season.

An E.T. Atari game ad hanging in a Clifton, New Jersey video store.

Atari predicted sales would go through the roof and ordered an estimated 4 – 5 million copies. They had experienced so much success with gamers buying up their consoles and with a few other popular game releases, they felt had a solid winner on their hands. They made the major mistake of skipping audience testing.

The extremely short development time, and skipping the testing, was a recipe for disaster. Even with those red flags, no one realized how big of a disaster it was about to be.

The game hit stores with a price tag of $49.95 right on time and the initial sales were great. Gamers bit the bait Atari had thrown out. By December, the game was on Billboard’s Top 15 Video Games sales list. A million and a half cartridges were sold that Christmas season to become one of the top selling Atari titles.

Unfortunately, that left around 3 million more unsold and sitting in stores (the exact figure is listed in online reports as anywhere from 2 – 4 million). Atari had seriously overproduced the cartridges. While the game was a best seller during the holidays; both Atari marketing and retailers expected even higher sales and were now left with a mega surplus. Stuck with all the extra copies, stores began slashing prices. Millions of unsold copies were returned to the company. The game earned $25 million in sales. After the licensing and production costs, Atari was left $200 million in the hole.

On December 3, Atari was forced to announce its missed projections and their parent company’s stock plummeted. A minor insider trading scandal erupted when the CEO traded 5,000 shares of his Warner stock less than a half hour before the announcement.

Atari’s trouble with the game continued as critics began to pan the horrible game play. The graphics were poor in comparison to their other games already released. The game play was hard to grasp, with little icons that would appear to describe the actions E.T. could do. The concept was beyond difficult at times. Just as you would assemble the pieces of the phone, the FBI agent would quickly capture and return one, leading to such a loss of time that completing the round was impossible. Also, escaping the holes became mundane after falling in over and over, often for no reason.

Honestly, it just plain sucked.

My family was one of the unlucky ones who purchased the game shortly after its release. I never beat it, although I did try out of shear frustration a ton of times. While it is possible to complete, the aggravation factor, and what little reward you got at the end wasn’t worth it. It just felt like there was no point.

Following the icons at the top of the screen was mundane. The icon would change as E.T. walked, giving you an extra option for the character. You had to simply walk all around the various screens hoping you would find the one little spot where the icon would change to where you called the ship and find the landing zone. It was basically luck if you were able to find it in time. You had to walk over every square inch of the screens, staring at the top bar, hoping to find the icon… yawn!

Unable to unload the vast quantity of cartridges, according to the local paper, Atari paid the Alamogordo, New Mexico landfill to shred, bury, and destroy between ten and twenty truckloads of cartridges and game units. That landfill was chosen since the garbage was crushed and buried nightly and did not allow for scavengers to enter the property. An online report says the area where the remains were buried was also sealed over with concrete. There are no official reports of this happening; leading to the incident becoming an urban legend. But, if they weren’t buried – where did they all go?

The loss of revenue and a market over-saturated with games from other companies led to what is called ‘The Video Game Crash of 1983′. Atari lost approximately $536 million and the company was divided up and sold. Warner Communications, who was the owner, saw their stock fall from $60 to $20 a share and unloaded the troubled division (which at one point raked in a third of Warner’s cash). Thirty percent of Atari’s work force was also immediately laid off.

E.T. was not the only official factor to the company’s failure. The bad reception to their Pac-Man game and reported company in-fighting were also factors. But, the E.T. game was the final nail in the coffin.

American’s also became tired of playing Atari and most games went by the wayside, until Nintendo began importing their bigger and better game units a few years later.

Copies of the E.T. game can still be found for sale online at Amazon and EBay for as little as 99 cents.

THE 411

Name: E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial

What: Atari 2600 video game based on the hit movie

Release Date: September 1982

Release Cost: $49.99

JERSEY JOE RECOMMENDS – I’ve been trying to find someplace online that has the game to play, but haven’t been able to. There are dozens of websites where you can play vintage Atari and Nintendo games which have been converted to flash. I have no idea if they’re legal or not, so you’ll have to do your own search.

As for the game cartridges, they don’t appear to be worth that much, not even today. Maybe at some point decades down the road, a serious gamer might drop some cash to own one. I still have my copy. The last time I played it well over a decade ago. It still worked, still had me baffled, and was still no fun! I have about 50 other vintage games just sitting in the box that I’m now kind of itching to play. Space Invaders, anyone?

So, for the bad graphics, horrible game play, and for being mundane – I crown E.T. for the Atari the worst video game, ever!

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Image credits: nickstone333, PopCultureGeek.com, and goodrob13