Atari Game Over- the myth and mystery of the E.T. Game

The documentary Atari – Game Over on Showtime is a fascinating look at  the urban legend of Atari’s “E.T. game” which is considered to be the worst video game ever made. The E.T. game was supposedly so bad that it destroyed Atari and almost the entire video game industry with it. Part of the legend is that Atari was so ashamed of the E.T. Game that it buried millions of copies of it in the desert outside Almagordo New Mexico

Atari E.T. Game considered the worst game of all time

Atari E.T. Game considered the worst game of all tim

Atari started in the coin operated video game industry.  The founders Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney changed the world when they came up with a method to bring games onto your home T.V. set. “Changed the world” may sound like complete hyperbole, but it is not. This was in the early 1970s and people did not have home computers and iPhones were still decades in the future. The Atari system made an ordinary television set an interactive medium.  It gave kids a glimpse into what the future could be. Thousands of geeky kids who played the early Atari games went on to become computer programmers, game and web designers and internet entrepreneurs. The Atari games were not great, but they stimulated the imaginations of kids who envisioned a universe of great computer applications.

Like many companies, Atari was actually destroyed by its own success. Early in its history it became part of Warner Communications, which saw Atari as a never ending cash cow. At one point Atari had 80% of the computer game market world wide.

Howard Warshaw - creater of Atari's E.T.

Howard Warshaw – creator of Atari’s E.T.

One of the top game designers at Atari was Howard Warshaw. He pioneered features that are part of all computer games today. He invented the use of “Easter Eggs” which are hidden levels inside games where you can find secret messages if you unlock something. He also gave games backstories. He made a hit game Yar’s Revenge about intelligent ants attacking from outer space. Before the game was released he wrote an entire comic book explaining who the ants were, where they were from and how they had come to power.

Atari E.T. Yes, that square green thing is supposed to be E.T.

Atari E.T. Yes, that square green thing is supposed to be E.T.

Then in 1982, Howard Warshaw was given an impossible task. Atari paid $22 million for the rights to use E.T. in a video game. But the deal had been finalized so late in the year that making the Christmas season was ridiculously tight. Atari gave Howard Warshaw only 5 weeks to design, program and complete E.T. the video game.

To Warshaw’s credit he actually came up with a game. The problem was it was awful. Basically the little E.T. character did nothing but wander around a mostly blank landscape, and occasionally fell down holes that were hard to get out of.  A little FBI agent and a scientist tried to capture him. E.T. could “phone” Elliott to help get him out of the holes. That’s the whole game.

The game had a beautiful picture of E.T. on the cover and millions of people who had loved the movie E.T. bought them. Then people played the actual game and hated it. Hated it like they had never hated a game before. Millions and millions of games were returned to stores for refunds.

Atari games at the Almagordo dump

Atari games at the Almagordo dump

Atari -Game Over focuses much of its running time on the search for the dumped games in the New Mexico landfill. This is actually the least interesting part of the film. Watching a bunch of machines dig in a dump is not exciting.  However, the interviews with the people who worked at Atari during its heyday are great. They tell stories of the wild times and drugs that were a part of the everyday scene.

Howard Warshaw himself comes across as a very likable person.  He had a rough time after the failure of E.T. He became a pariah  in the industry and left it completely. He tried being a real estate agent, and eventually got a masters in Psychology and became a clinical psychologist.

The truth is that the senior officers at Warner Communications, which owned Atari, made a strategic mistake and then blamed the failure on the young game designer. They should never have spent  $22 million to get the rights to use the E.T. name, and then ordered 1 guy to whip up a game in 5 weeks. Instead, they should have used $5 and spent a year having an entire team of people develop something original, even if it was not based on a movie.  The executives at Warner had no respect for the Atari  customers and failure was the result. Warner did not understand that the “geeks” buying Atari products expected value for their money the same as any other customer.

Atari Game Over is an interesting look at a bygone era when computer technology was just beginning its leap to the future.

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