The Xmas season is big bucks in the video game world and pre-1983, this was doubly so. When veteran video game designer Howard Scott Warshaw, gets handed a blockbuster movie franchise, it’s a match made in heaven. But when the deadline is six weeks away every second counts. Much like the gameplay element that allegedly broke the video game industry. A game based on the story of an alien trying to find his way home, the game of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
For as much plot that could be expected for the time, the player surmises that they are E.T. the eponymous and lovable critter from a galaxy far far away. Your task as the intergalactic tourist is to traverse the world, collecting parts to build an interstellar phone to call home and return. This would be a snap if it wasn’t for the pesky government agents wanting to capture and experiment on you.
This sounds ambitious for a console that only has 128 bytes of R.A.M. to work with (and even fewer pixels) and it really does feel like that. But in doing so feels different to games of the time, despite its limitations, the open world exploration has the sense of freedom that The Legend of Zelda would invoke only a couple of years later. E.T’s skill set is limited, he can walk, and levitate when he falls down a hole (and he’ll be doing that a lot) but this presents a simplicity, that lends itself to repeat pick-up-and-play sessions.
The constant ticking clock of life at the bottom adds copious amounts of tension to the game, much like in the BBC’s 1997 Doctor Who, tie-in pc game, Destiny of the Doctors, E.T.’s time is limited, with keen obstacles like the many pits littering the landscape can cost you precious seconds. Putting a sense of urgency and gravitas to a single joystick movement. A perfect combination of risk and reward that makes every decision count.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial presents the player with a courageous vision, delivered quickly, to a system with well-defined boundaries and limitations… And warts and all manages to deliver a repayable and enjoyable arcade experience. The expectations of E.T. was enormous, up even to the point where Steven Spielberg himself was critical of the ambition. Nothing could deliver on the mountain of expectation, and ultimately E.T. flopped. It didn’t live on as the striving swan-song of the Atari but as a cautionary tale of what happens when the hype of your product, is literally out of this world.
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