Let’s Cast Curaga! E.T. 2600, aka The Telephone Game

So we’ve gone from some absolving mediocre Super Nintendo games, to taking on the egregious sins one of the most maligned games in human history.

escalatedthis is a BRAND NEW MEME I just invented

It’s not as bad you think. Just stick with me and take a knee, younglings. Pop-pop’s got stories.

TheSin

E.T., you are guilty of the Sins of Overly Cryptic Design, Crass Underdevelopment, Ill Repute, and the Near-Annihilation of an Entire Industry.

Ouch.

It’s almost too much, isn’t it? Actually, it is, and by a fair measure. Lemme ‘splain.

TheConfession

 I’ve never owned an Atari 2600… we were an Intellivision family.…(SFX:Haughty Chortle) But I certainly put in my time with the wood-paneled wonder, in the homes of friends, relatives and “friends,” or those who I hung out with just because they had games I didn’t.  That sounds bad, but back then, we all did it. Video games weren’t anywhere near as cheap or plentiful as they are now. No 99-cent apps, no emulation, no Amazon, no pre-owned Gamestop discounts… no Gamestop. You might own 5 or 6 games if you were well off and fortunate.

RichieRichEllen Degeneres Junior here probably has a Coleco, too

 Sure, you knew you weren’t having the arcade experience, but you didn’t really care. Arcade machines were strange and powerful, and this was just what you had to work with. My best friend Norm was from a lower middle-class family, and when his parents got him E.T. for Christmas 1982 – a big gift, mind you – and we had no reason to be cynical. We huddled around a CRT set on the floor of his bedroom for hours, trying to unravel the mystery of this game. We weren’t adults, jaded by years of gaming plenty. We didn’t have a backlog… that was a ludicrous concept. (In a way, it still is) …And not only did we not think E.T. was bad – it was downright intriguing.  A puzzle to be unraveled… a magic trick to marvel and speculate over. In fact, next to the Empire Strikes Back, E.T. was our favorite game on the system. No Youtubers told us how horrible it was. No angry forum posts were read about the lack of overworld detail or inadequate tutorial. It was our adventure. This was our Legend of Zelda, before we knew that Legend of Zelda was what we really wanted.

TheSalvation

Okay, show of hands, how many of you have actually played E.T.? Keep your hands up if it was on genuine Atari hardware… Not an emulator, on a cartridge with a rubber, one-button joystick. A few less hands? Keep them up if it’s not within the past decade or so… I mean in the mid-80’s, without GameFAQS, and without your experience colored by hundreds of other games?

onehandupYES I KNOW MY AUDIENCE AND THERE ARE PROBABLY STILL MANY HANDS UP

What I’m trying illustrate, is that perspective MATTERS. A lot.

Doubtless, those of you with your hands down still have an opinion of E.T. and that’s perfectly fine. (you can all put your hands down now, just keep them where I can see them) I mean, you’re not stupid, you know a bad game from a good one, even through your periphery..  but several of you may not even have been alive in 1983, and no matter what you say, that definitely affects your perspective. E.T. has been the biggest victim of the telephone game in gaming history. You know the telephone game, right?

angrybirdsNo, not THAT telephone game

You line up a bunch of people and whisper something in the first person’s ear. Let’s say it’s “Let’s Cast Curaga is hung like a Sasquatch.” They whisper this possibly totally true yet unverifiable  fact to the next person, that person to the next, and so on. By the time you get to the last person in the line, they will say something like “Let’s mask Hyundai, Nuns punching a sandwich.” The meaning is almost always completely lost, and it gets more distorted the longer the chain of people.

telephonegameDontReferenceHumanCentipede,DontReferenceHumanCentipede,DontReferenceHumanCentipede

In this case, one critic may recall the game wasn’t very good, with come caveats.  That opinion spreads, is added to, embellished for sensationalism and entertainment,  morphed slightly for uniqueness of perspective and clicks, and before you know it, you’re remembering it as the worst game in history. But that’s not how it was. What’s been lost over time is this: believe me or not, the actual quality of E.T., given the time period in which it existed, wasn’t. that. bad.

Let’s check in with one of E.T.’s peers. Look at Raiders of the Lost Ark on the 2600. It’s basically the exact same thing. It’s incredibly vague and cryptic to the point of unplayability. It has a multi-screen world-map. Like E.T., it controls terribly, and barely serves the license it’s based on. And not only was it NOT slammed at the time, it was praised as a “complex adventure game” by Video Game magazine. (Kids, Magazines were the internet on paper.) It hasn’t been nearly as dogged by history. but why? I mean by all empirical merits, it’s a worse game, or at least just AS bad.  E.T. was released in December 1982, Raiders in November ’82, so they’re basically development twins.  Should Indy not have taken some of this mountain of blame?

raidersIndiana Jones and the Temple of OH GOD WHAT AM I DOING WHAT IN THE NAME OF SIMON’S QUEST IS HAPPENING

 

There’s a lot of history tied in with this, but books have been written by smarter, better-looking, more virile gamers than I, so let’s just touch this briefly.

thatswhatshesaidDon’t make me say it

When Atari hauled all those games out to the landfill, E.T.was (eventually) the poster child for the whole event. It was more of a recent flop, slightly worse reviewed, vastly more overprinted than Indy, and that’s about it. Just like Raiders, and just like Pac-Man, E.T. DIDN’T crash the games industry. It and Pac-Man’s lousy 2600 conversions have taken a lot of heat over the years, some of it fair, some it ludicrously, wildly, misinformed and conspiratorial. Even back then, It took more than two or three games bombing to topple an industry. So what really caused video games to almost disappear? Atari’s colossal, balls-to-the wall hubris. They envisioned themselves as being Too Big to Fail. In the case of both E.T. and Pac-Man, they printed an insane amount of copies, bigger than their install base.. it didn’t matter how good the games were if they couldn’t sell them.  They’d spent much of the past year pumping out shovelware… games much worse then the crop of Xmas ’82.  They were also facing legitimate competition from Mattel’s Intellivion, as well as the Colecovision… not to mention home computers were experiencing a huge boom with the popular Commodore 64 and Apple IIe systems. It was less about the quality and fan reaction to these games, (though that didn’t help,) and much more about extremely poor business acumen. Something the company continued to demonstrate repeatedly.

I’m not good at math, but I think the answer is bad haircut

There was virtually zero quality control in place in any regard…  the inmates were running the asylum. The preceding material has been a huge oversimplification, (like I said, books have been written,) but I think that inly helps my point. There were many more factors at play than E.T. Not being able to get out of a hole. (insert landfill joke)

 

ralphatariPictured: Atari, circa November 1982

TheJudgement

Was E.T. a great game? No, of course not. but it wasn’t awful. It was just a C student, who got caught running with a bad crowd.

badet“I just want a FAIR REVIEW! …and a chance to phone home!  …and some Reese’s Pieces. Oh, and not to look like a scrotum”

Honestly, not only is it not terrible… it’s one of the better games of the era, and was actually ahead of its time is a few ways. It has a free-roam map, a title screen, (this was rare on the 2600) inventory system, sorta-logical puzzles, and some of the first video game Easter Eggs (following Adventure, of course) But that’s just  my opinion, shaped by my perspective and experiences…  And to me, it’s right. That doesn’t mean it’s right for you, or anybody else. But you need to make your own, and not just be another person standing in line, playing the Telephone Game.

I mean, people say Superman 64 is one of the worst games ever made. But I can’t honestly say that.., because I’ve never played it. I do have an opinion on it, but it’s by no means authoritative, and I wouldn’t dare review it as such without experiencing it. My perspective would be highly skewed, and couldn’t possibly be positive, as I can only base it on second-hand knowledge and viewings. But I guarantee you, Superman 64 was somebody’s first game. And they may not LOVE it today.. but I’ll bet you a kryptonite buttplug they don’t hate it.

Perspective matters. Reviews are not metered. They’re opinions, entirely… skewed by personal experience, time, and  worldview. Just like salvation.

E.T, in my church, you are absolved. But the sanctuary you enjoy here… you may not find it elsewhere. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Do come back soon. Sports are involved, sorta… but you should come back anyway.

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About LetsCastCuraga

Let's weave our retro-loving fellowship and pixelated memories to cast a healing spell on gaming. There's good in every game, we just have to get dirty, dig in up to our elbows, and let the light pour out. Better Living through retrogaming! Way-back-retro. Gamecube and Dreamcast are still those NEW systems.

3 Comments

  1. I owned this game in the early to mid 80s (I mean, I still do, but I owned it then, too). I loved it. It was weird. It was fun. I didn’t know what I was doing, but it didn’t matter. You said a lot fo stuff I’ve been saying for years. The game was ahead of its time. I totally see it as a precursor to games like The Legend of Zelda. I think it is also important to note that Howard Scott Warshaw apparently only had 5 weeks to create this unique-for-its-time game. This game is far from terrible.

    • yeah, the development on this game is a fascinating story unto itself and I could talk a great deal about it, but I try not to make these too long… people tend to get TL;DR-itis, and there’s tons of info on it out there already. There’s a great documentary on Netflix (if it’s still there) called “Atari: Game Over” that I can’t recommend enough to anyone who’s into retro gaming.

  2. Excellent write-up, and I agree in almost every sense. I had tons of fun with E.T. in the mid-late 80’s when my next door neighbor and I used to sit and play his 2600 and NES for hours. We got lots of enjoyment from Raiders of the Lost Ark, as well. These didn’t seem like games that were poorly designed, they were just simplistic and somewhat obtuse because of the limitations of the platform they were designed for and released upon. But they were still fun, albeit limited, adventures. I tended to gravitate toward more linear games, so ultimately the arcade conversions and stuff like Chopper Command or Pitfall got most of the love at that time from us, but we had fun with the game. It has its flaws, as you say, including the somewhat dubious collision detection, which means you fall into the pits if a single pixel of E.T.’s body touches the pit, but at that time, in that context, you dealt with that, because the rules of hit detection, along with many other standard game conventions we take for granted today, were still being written, and still very malleable at that time. I like the way Adam Koralik put it in a recent video: “The 2nd generation of consoles was the wild west.” It’s absolutely true, and I don’t think anyone who didn’t grow up with these games as nearly ALL they had to play until the 3rd generation came around, truly has room to do anything else other than look at the game and understand it was a different time. Without context, and understanding the era those games were developed in, you can’t really understand that, as you said, E.T. really was one of the better games of that year.

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