Why E.T. wasn’t the worst game in history
Howard Scott Warshaw is a man with many achievements to his name: licensed psychotherapist, published author, award-winning documentarian, former real-estate broker and developer of the supposedly worst video game ever made: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600.
The quality of the E.T. video game has become an urban legend. It’s the worst game ever made for an Atari console. It’s the worst video game ever made, period. It is so bad, it caused the video game industry to crash in 1983. It is so bad, Atari buried 12 million unsold E.T. game cartridges in the Alamogordo desert of New Mexico, covered it with cement and tried to forget about it. Gosh, critics of the game say. It was truly the worst.
Speaking to Games4Life from Los Altos, CA, Warshaw can’t help but laugh. “It tickles me,” he says, referring to the phenomenon of E.T. being labelled the worst video game ever made, even by those who have never played it. “It became a bandwagon for people to jump on. I mean, it’s cool. I did Yars’ Revenge, and it’s thought of as one of the best games of all time, so it kind of thrilled me to think I have both the best and worst game. It makes me think I have the greatest range of any game designer in history, and that’s cool. That’s something.”
Warshaw laughs because he doesn’t actually believe E.T. is the worst video game ever made. As far as he’s concerned, he delivered what was asked of him. The game was by no means perfect and, if given more time, it could have been better. He’s happy with what he made. And there’s no shortage of game developers or Atari enthusiasts who are ready to defend both him and his controversial game.
For more than three decades, Warshaw maintained that there were no video game cartridges buried in a New Mexico landfill. It didn’t make sense to him. Why would Atari — a company that was already losing money — spend more money to transport games that it felt were completely worthless to the middle of a desert to bury them?
Earlier this year, a group of documentarians headed up a dig in New Mexico to find the cartridges. Warshaw was there. To his surprise, they unearthed thousands of video game cartridges — few of which were E.T. Atari had essentially dumped a warehouse full of games in the desert. There were some E.T. cartridges, but there were also lots of copies of Centipede, Defender, Yars’ Revenge, Raiders of the Lost Ark — some of Atari’s bestsellers.
“Several things went through my mind,” he says. “The first was I’d never been so happy to be wrong about something in my life. The second was I have never in my life seen a large line of people waiting to get into a dump.”
“I mean, this was it. It’s the reason we made games.”
The landfill was surrounded by camera crews. A long line of developers, Atari fans and video game enthusiasts pushed against the landfill’s fence hoping to catch a glimpse of the cartridges.
Mika and Cline were both there, excitedly watching pieces of their past emerge from the ground. And Warshaw, glad to be wrong and glad to be there admits he was a little overwhelmed.
“I really became very emotional in that moment,” he says. “I mean, this was it. It’s the reason we made games. The reason you do these things is to entertain people, to create magic in the moment, to create something special for people, and in that moment, when they found the games, and everyone was like wow, and they were so excited, and all this stuff was going on … I realized this piece of work, this code I wrote in five weeks 32 years ago is still doing it. It’s still generating excitement and attention and focus. I had this tremendous, overwhelming sense of satisfaction.”
E.T. The Extra-terrestrial for the Atari 2600 will likely continue to be cited as the worst video game of all time. There are people who will probably still blame it for the crash of 1983. And looking at history, it may be considered one of the game industry’s great failures.
Standing in the desert, watching cartridges being dug out of the ground, seeing the excitement on people’s faces, Warshaw wouldn’t consider any of it a failure, though. “It felt like a huge success,” he says. “That I was still entertaining people with my work, with what I did. That feels good.”