Nick DeMarco

TURN TO CHANNEL 3: While ‘E.T.’ was an infamous flop, it isn’t the worst Atari game

TURN TO CHANNEL 3: While ‘E.T.’ was an infamous flop, it isn’t the worst Atari game
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This month will be quite an interesting one for Turn to Channel 3 as we take a look at some games that can be enjoyed (or not) on various Atari consoles. With the mysterious Ataribox marking the return of that brand to the video game business, I thought that now would be a great time to take a look back at some Atari memories we may all share as gamers.

Today, I begin with one of the brand’s most infamous games and, with it, an opinion I give freely to customers who come into my shop in Mayfield and give this game so much hate, declaring it, by popular opinion, “the worst video game ever made.”

Yes, we’re starting “August Atari” in 1982 with the game that put more than a dent in the video game market, creating an urban myth and a documentary that would further the legends of both Atari and those involved in the game’s production.

While the Steven Spielberg movie is a beloved classic, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” ended up being quite the opposite for the Atari 2600, but is it really that bad or simply misunderstood like our titular hero? You don’t have to phone home to find out – just keep reading!

“E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (Atari 2600)


For a game that is 35 years old on a console that is usually pretty limited in the audio department, “E.T.” has a nice intro pulled from the signature motion picture soundtrack that is always a joy to hear. From there, while severely limited, the sound effects keep the game going, as no other music is heard past the intro screen.

While a true soundtrack in the purest sense makes “E.T.” appear quite sparse, for a game using what is now highly antiquated hardware, this is more than one could expect on most Atari 2600 games.


I have to note that the graphics here at just slightly above average. While the actual screens in the game are mainly crudely created trees and sparse houses, E.T. both looks awesome on the title screen and as the playable character. In fact, this depiction of him has become an iconic Atari 2600 sprite over the years, albeit for all the wrong reasons.

You can tell who Elliott is, as well as the investigator and doctor who are trying to kidnap E.T. Once again, this is more than one can expect from an average Atari 2600 game, to actually be able to tell, for the most part, what it is you’re looking at.


“E.T.” is not the most enjoyable game you can play on the Atari 2600, and while a hacked homebrew version has fixed many of the issues present in the original release, the two things that hinder this game the most are the lack of direction as to what you’re supposed to do when you first sit down to play and, of course, those damn holes that keep sucking you up even after you levitate out. For many, the latter renders this game virtually unplayable, and it’s hard for me to argue that point.

“E.T.” tasks you with locating pieces of a broken telephone so our alien friend can do as he proudly proclaims in the film – phone home to his home planet. As he does this, Reese’s Pieces are collected for points, and E.T. has to lift and lower his head in order to find hidden pieces; the directions overhead can help assist him in his quest as well. Piecing them all together and finding the spot where E.T. can be rescued by his alien buddies ends the game, but be careful because, if E.T. is captured by a doctor or investigator, that ends the game, too.

In these scenarios, one could say that “E.T.” isn’t a very long game either, which can also be a deal breaker for some despite the fact that many Atari 2600 games were short, focusing more on attaining a high score than finishing a quest, as it were.


Call me crazy, but I see “E.T.” more as a barometer for games on the Atari 2600. Yes, there are many, many games on the console that are far greater and more enjoyable experiences, but there are also some far worse. Whether it’s the high expectations of gamers of the time, the lack of time given to program it, or just the mystique created through the now-proven urban legend that unsold copies were buried in a landfill that has scarred this game’s reputation, “E.T.” gets a bad rap that I don’t feel is totally deserved.

If you want to play a horrible game on the Atari 2600 that still baffles me to this day with how programmers managed to mess it up, just give “Pac-Man” on the Atari 2600 a whirl because that’s what I’m reviewing next week!

Until then, please, don’t bury your copy of “E.T.,” just appreciate it for what it is – one man’s vain attempt to satisfy Spielberg and work within a huge time crunch in order to entertain the children who would receive it as a Christmas gift in 1982.

If you were one of them, don’t let that discourage you – game on!

Tune in to NEPA Scene’s gaming column, Turn to Channel 3, every Thursday for new perspectives on retro gaming as well as fresh twists on the classics. All ratings for Turn to Channel 3 are based on a scale of 1-10.