There seems to be a common consensus among gaming critics and avid long-time gamers of what the worst video game ever made is. The overall resounding answer—and what most people are made to believe who are casual gamers like myself—is Atari’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, released in December of 1982.
Originally slated as the first episode of a six part documentary series, Atari: Game Over was instead released as a full documentary when Microsoft was apparently going to shutdown Xbox Entertainment Studios, the studio responsible for the original release. The documentary does a great job on interviewing the key players who were there at the rise and fall of the once gaming giant, and the avid gamers that grew up on the Atari 2600 (like Ernest Cline, who was letting George R.R. Martin borrow his DeLorean, which was already in New Mexico—that’s just too awesome for words). The history and transitions are well done and informative providing just the right amount of information that is needed to get the point across.
Among those interviewed was the once Software Engineer/Game Developer, turned Silicon Valley therapist, Howard Scott Warshaw. Responsible for some of Atari’s best selling games (Yars’ Revenge and Raiders of the Lost Ark) he is also the developer for one of Atari’s “worst games”—E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Warshaw recalls his first days at Atari working as a young engineer and along side other game developers in what seems to be a work environment synonymous with Silicon Valley in its early days. These were the pioneers of an industry in its infancy and they would lay the ground work for future video game companies and game developers. Warshaw was the first person to put Easter eggs into video games and also the first to create a back story for one of the games he developed. He was tasked with developing and programming E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, to be released during the Christmas shopping season of 1982, and was given the limited window of just five weeks! Just thinking about the amount of concept work and programming needed to be done to accomplish this in such a short amount of time is stressing enough. Not to mention that he would need the final approval of Spielberg himself! Howard talks about what visiting the site in Alamogordo, New Mexico means to him and how it would literally be like “digging up his past.” I personally believe he went to the site and event as a form of catharsis. A way of confronting those past demons that have had a definite impact on his life. But, what he ultimately found may have pleasantly surprised him.
So, was the negative reaction for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial really the cause of Atari’s demise? Making Atari—the once gaming giant—forever close its doors, and responsible for the literal attempt to bury all of the games in the desert landfill as a way of covering up an embarrassing mistake? Like any good mystery where digging up the past is involved our imagination takes flight into what could possibly be unearthed. Though, what we might find may sometimes be more than whats buried just beneath the surface.