Sunday, June 28, 2015

Shades of Resonance: Emotional Scars - Memory Log #36

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

Oh yeah--we owned this one, too.

You've all heard about E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, right? You know--the game frequently credited with sinking the Atari 2600 and the entire North American console scene? The game that allegedly destroyed the industry and left behind a legacy so toxic that retailers staunchly rejected the notion of ever again selling video-game products? The game that bombed so hard commercially that stores had to send millions of copies worth of unsold inventory (the sum total of units far exceeding the number of actual 2600 users thanks to a brilliant projection made by some knucklehead executive) back to Atari, which had no choice but to bury them in a landfill in New Mexico, where they remained for 31 years until excavated by documentarians?

Yeah--that one.

Now, I can't deny that E.T.'s creative and commercial failures combined to strike a mighty blow to the industry's already-dwindling reputation, but I'll never subscribe to the theory that E.T., on its own, was responsible for the demise of the 2600 and consoles in general, nor do I give credibility to any of the other brainless revisionism I see parroted daily on the usual online forums. 

I'd honestly love to rebut Internet popular opinion with a factual account of Atari's day-to-day dealings in 1983, but I can't because I was only 5 years old at the time and had no concept of industry or business; there's no way I could have known about--or cared to know about--the direct correlation between game and hardware sales or the reality that institutions could collapse so suddenly.

To me, E.T. was nothing more than another in a long line of inexplicable 2600 games.

Mine was, I imagine, the typical E.T. experience: I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing, why I was supposed to be doing it, or what any of this had to do with the movie. There was no apparent goal, no obvious means of progression, and not a single hint as to what the game wanted from me--not the first time I played it and not ever. If I returned to E.T. dozens of times in the span of a five-year period, my only achievement was to procure the record for most time spent accomplishing absolutely nothing.

I'm sure someone would like to argue that the game's manual might have helped my cause (had my brother not thrown it away), but I'd disagree after seeing scans of it online. Oh, no--the five-year-old me might have had a better chance at understanding something less complicated-sounding, like Stephen Hawking's multiverse theory.

Every session was essentially the same: I'd spend a minute or two collecting randomly placed "rocks" (Reese's Pieces, as I'd discover years later), whose purpose was lost on me, and then, oh, another forty agonizingly working my way out of those pits.

Oh, those horrible pits.

Here's how it would go: I'd traipse about the game's confusingly plotted terrain, trying earnestly to avoid the numerous pits, but somehow wind up falling into every single one of them, anyway, because the game wouldn't allow for as much as a pixel of E.T. to brush up against one without triggering a drop. After plummeting into the depths, I'd extend E.T.'s neck, doot-doot-doot my way up and out of there, and then, of course, immediately fall back in. I mean, I understood that there was more to the process--that I'd have finish the escape by shifting the still-buoyant E.T. either left or right and onto safe ground--but the controls were too unreliable; his neck would often contract before I could hover past that final sliver of pit, which was usually enough to drop me back in. Worse yet, there were times when I'd fall into a pit simply by accessing a new screen from a particular section of the screen border, which added the inconvenience of having to find and memorize the viable entry points.

Falling into certain pits seemed to be a requirement, but I wasn't completely sure about that. Sometimes, that is, pits would contain artifacts whose procurement would prompt the appearance of unidentifiable symbols in the bar atop the screen, and you'll be shocked to learn that I was clueless as to what they conveying (if you collect all of the items, the symbols construct to form the image of a phone, but I obviously never accomplished as much; more on that in a moment); other times, a pit's bottom would be home to a wilted flower, which I could revive using E.T.'s healing power; I could find no real significance in doing this and figured that reviving the flower was its own reward (it affords you an extra life, actually).

I certainly wasn't lacking for opportunities to find those artifacts, because I practically lived in these pits. I hadn't been playing games very long, but I could say that E.T.'s escape mechanic was by far the most irritating, frustrating thing I'd ever experienced in a 2600 game--particularly in the beginning, when controlling games with a stick was still an alien concept to me. Those black and gray pits--their roughly hewn contour and indeed the very geometry of their cup-shaped appearance--represent an image that has been permanently, painfully, burned into my memory.

I said "alien."

None of my struggles would account for much, anyway, since any object I'd acquire would be quickly repossessed by one of two unrelenting scoundrels; I identified the trench-coated goon as an "FBI agent," who I figured was the game's analog for the scary authority figures from the movie, and the gray-appareled fellow as either a cop or an angry construction worker who was upset with me for trespassing upon his cavernous territory (he's instead a scientist who naturally wants to experiment on E.T.). I'd naturally bolt upon catching sight of either antagonist, but I'd do so by walking, since I was afraid to dash due to an increased risk of falling into a pit, especially when entering a new screen; this was a particularly perilous predicament because the authority figures would wait near the pits' openings and have their way with me before I could complete the escape.

I found no value in the items, so the FBI agent's constant snatching of my goods didn't bother me too much, but I definitely didn't want to get caught by the gray fellow, who would pick me up and carry me off to what I thought was a prison in Rome (I associated columned structures with Roman landmarks like the Parthenon, which I probably saw in one of my school history books)! "Rome" might have been only one or two screens away from where I just was, but the idea of being carted away to a far-off prison was disturbing to me.

There were all kinds of symbols cycling across the top portion of the screen, but hell if I could guess as to what most of them were signifying; I figured out that extending E.T.'s neck in conjunction with the appearance of an arrow would warp him one screen over in that direction, but the purpose of the other symbols remained a mystery to me until the era of Youtube, a mere quarter-century later.

And that'd be it. After about five minutes of aimless exploration and exhilarating pit-diving, E.T.'s numbered life meter would find itself exhausted, signaling the end of his life; Elliot would then come along to scoop up the corpse and drop it off in his backyard, where E.T. would rest in peace forever or at least until the gardeners showed up. I gave it many an honest effort, but the story would always conclude with an undignified dirt-nap. I was never able to finish E.T.

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial isn't the worst game I've ever played, nor is it what I'd consider the worst game on the 2600. It's just one from a great number of incomprehensible games on a console whose library is absolutely filled with them. I'd play it for a while, toss it aside, and then simply move on to the next game, never sensing that E.T. was a destroyer of mediums.

Looking at it objectively, E.T. is actually pretty good for a game created within the unreasonable deadline of only five weeks; really, I feel bad its creator, Howard Scott Warshaw, who couldn't possibly have succeeded in creating a high quality game under those conditions. Coming off the release of Yar's Revenge, which was one of the 2600's best games, Warshaw looked to have a bright future as a game designer, but E.T.'s failure unfairly tarnished his name and ultimately drove him out of the industry. It shouldn't have happened that way (though, Warshaw was also the man behind Raiders of the Lost Ark, for which he should, at least, be beaten with a dislodged turkey wing).

It's cruel happenstance that E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial wound up being buried in a pit from which it couldn't escape for what felt like centuries. It probably didn't deserve a fate so dire, but, then again, neither did we.

Fortunately, I can continue to find comfort in the fact that I never have to play it again if I don't want to. Rather, I can use what's left of my time on this planet to enjoy life's superior alternatives, like being buried alive in New Mexico.

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