Atari Archeology

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Atari Archeology

Postby Capes (Optional) » Sat May 03, 2014 10:39 pm



Atari Archeology



Statistically speaking1, if you’re reading articles on a website like Capes (Optional), there’s a high possibility that you are what we affectionately call a “geek.” This means that you enjoy a wide range of pastimes considered marginally acceptable by modern society, including graphic forms of fiction, recorded action-plays boldly going to galaxies far, far away, adventures of bow-tied gentlemen in police boxes, and, of course, interactive electronic tests of skill, strategy, and brainpower (or as the masses tend to call them, “video games”).

And if you do find yourself drawn to these forms of entertainment, you have no doubt heard the recent news that the biggest urban myth in the short life of the video game hobby has been proven true: Atari really did dump thousands of copies of “the world’s worst video-game,” E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, in a landfill three decades ago. In discussing this with some of my (ahem) younger friends, they were unimpressed. I heard things like, “Yeah, they say E.T. was really bad,” “E.T. is the worst game ever,” “Pretty much all those old Atari games sucked anyway,” and “Who are you and why are you bothering me?”

These comments bothered me on several levels. First, “really bad” doesn’t quite cut it. Second, there were many, many excellent Atari games which are still highly playable today: if you can’t enjoy games like Yars’ Revenge, Space Invaders, River Raid, and Moonsweeper, then you clearly have no soul. And finally, I loved you since the first moment I saw and have watched you from afar and no let’s not use that stalking word because it’s an ugly thing that is far overshadowed by my passion and please don’t call the police.

See, here’s the thing: I was there. I was a tiny little boy at the time it came out, I loved the E.T. movie, and my only skill in the world was my uncanny knack for video games (seriously, my mom used to leave me at the local arcade in lieu of a babysitter, give me a dollar, come back an hour or two later, and I’d play the whole time and have change to give back to her). E.T. was a Very Big Deal. I was excited. I couldn’t wait. And so I got E.T. for the Atari 2600 for Christmas (or the day I would later refer to as “When I Learned Santa Hates Me”).

So I am uniquely qualified to tell you about this game – and let’s be honest, you’re never going to play it yourself. You won’t experience this… this near-essential part of World History. I played it for you. For hours. And hours. Because if Santa brought it to me, there must be some Fun in here somewhere. Somewhere. For hours.

Therefore, as a public service to the readers of Capes (Optional) (whatever that title’s supposed to mean – I voted for “The Yars Strike Back”), let me do you the dual favor of (a) running you through the E.T. experience, and (b) showing you at least two really good Atari 2600 games along the way.

I’ll never forget when I first turned on the E.T. game (after blowing in the cartridge first, of course; you don’t have to with new games, but it was kind of a habit, as dusty as my copy of Asteroids always seemed to get) how impressed I was by the title screen.

Because it had one. Seriously, this was a Big Deal – there were very few video games that had memory to spare for a flashy title screen2. It played the E.T. theme song (music in a video game?!?), and by Atari standards, that was an incredibly detailed shot of E.T.’s bulbous head. For reference, compare it to Atari’s graphic representation of a medieval adventurer here:



Adventure (1979)

(he’s the orange one in the middle, right underneath the sparkling golden urn).


So Tiny Little Toddler Me was bursting with excitement on Christmas day upon seeing that title screen. The hype about this game was amazing – an adventure game you could actually win (another rarity back then) with tons of different unique powers E.T. could use and appearances by Elliott, the FBI, and even Reese’s Pieces… this was going to be awesome!

Then the game started and I watched E.T. land in the forest.



E.T. in the forest


Or… maybe the surface of a tartan kilt. Or some warped green plaid… thing. I was never quite sure. And yes, I hear people say all the time, “Big deal, it was Atari 2600, all the graphics sucked.” No, no sir, they did not. For reference, compare the forest in E.T. to the forest in an Atari game out around the same time called Pitfall:



Pitfall (1982)


Which one looks like a forest?

I knew that if I walked to the edge of the screen, I could explore this new world, but I wanted to take my time and savor it. So I thought I might just walk around the forest and see what different powers I could discover (because each power only became available at random screen locations). Note I didn’t say that that’s what I did, I said that’s what I thought I’d do. Instead, some guy in a white coat, who the manual introduced as “The Scientist,” grabbed me and dragged me away, against my will, no matter how much I moved the joystick in other directions… to the city screen.

Okay, city in E.T.:



E.T. in the city


The city was composed of three buildings: the FBI headquarters (on the left), the U.S. science headquarters (on the right), and Elliott’s house. Hell of a nightlife there, I guess. The scientist dropped me off at his building and immediately disappeared, I assumed as part of a diabolical psychological experiment to disorient me and measure my reaction time. Confused, I looked around the screen, and the FBI agent (a guy in a bulky brown trench coat) appeared, touched me, returned to his building, and disappeared. I felt violated.

I didn’t see anything to on the city screen, so I walked off to the left (because that wasn’t the way you usually went in these games, so I thought it might be fun). As soon as I left the screen, I fell into a pit. This is what the pit looked like.



E.T. in a pit


Now, normally in video games (both then and today), falling in pits is a bad thing. But in E.T., it was kind of a good thing, because the only way to win the game was by falling into pits and finding the telephone pieces hidden within. Of course, you still lost points for falling in them, so the game punished you for doing what it wanted you to do, but hey, welcome to Christmas, you puny little E.T. gamer.

To get out of the pit, you pushed the big red button on your joystick, levitated out… and then you fell back in. Confused, you wondered if you’d done something wrong, so you pushed the button, levitated out again, saw the top of the bit for the briefest of seconds, and promptly fell back in. Again and again. It took pinpoint precision to get E.T. out of the pit and safely onto solid ground, because E.T. stopped levitating as soon as he left the pit’s area, but not before he was out of the pit’s collision detection area. Why would it be designed this way? Because Reasons. Also, because Santa hates me.

I’m trying to think of another Atari game where you constantly had to get out of pits, and the only one I can think of is Porky’s. To my little five-year-old mind, this was a surreal game about a guy running away from Petunia in a strange shower context and trying to blow up Porky Pig’s bar. My parents encouraged that viewpoint, since it was actually an odd licensed affair based on an old R-rated sex comedy. To this day, I still haven’t seen the movie, but I’m assuming there wasn’t a scene where the main character fell into a pit, pole-vaulted across the lake at the bottom, and built a ladder brick by brick to escape… all of which was still less frustrating (and oddly more attractive) than the pits in E.T.



Porky's (1983)


As soon as I finally got out of that pit, about ten minutes later (and I mentioned it was Christmas, right?), my old friend the Scientist was waiting for me. He picked me up and brought me back to the science headquarters, after which he disappeared again. The FBI guy promptly showed up, touched me again, and returned to his building. I was confused, but thought that maybe this time I would go up instead of left, because hey, you couldn’t fall into a pit by going up, right? So I went up… and I fell into a pit.

This pit, however, had a strange collection of orange lines in it, which it turned out was one of three pieces of the intergalactic phone that I could use to win the game. So maybe there was a bright spot to all this pit-falling and kidnapping and strange touching. Hooray! So I picked it up, levitated out of the pit, fell back down, levitated out, fell again, levitated out, fell one more time, levitated out, fell yet again, levitated out, and was immediately grabbed by the scientist and returned to the city screen.

The FBI agent showed up again and came to touch me – at this point I didn’t even mind, as I was starting to develop a Stockholm Syndrome about his fetishes. As he left, I noticed that my phone piece was gone.

He took it.

On Christmas.

Checking the manual, it confirmed my suspicions, and informed me that he’d hidden it… in one of the game’s twenty pits.

On Christmas.

Discouraged, I went down (instead of up or left) out of the city, and did not immediately fall into a pit. At first I was happy with this, until I realized that I needed to fall into a pit to find the phone piece. While trying to decide which one to fall into, that damn scientist showed up again and dragged me back to the city screen.

I soon learned that if I held the big red button down while I moved, I could outrun the scientist. At that speed I could not, however, avoid the pits, because in the world of E.T., the world is composed of a single city, a green plaid foresty thing, and a pockmarked wasteland of pits. Here’s the E.T. graphic of the verdant pitted countryside,



E.T.: The Countryside


compared to a graphic of that same countryside from the concurrent Atari release Air-Sea Battle.



Air-Sea Battle (1977) 3


So I fell into a pit. When I managed to levitate out, the scientist grabbed me, took me to the city, and the FBI guy would take my phone piece again. Soon I ran out of energy and died. Best part of the game since the title screen.

There are other game mechanics I’ve failed to mention: the candy pieces. There were little pieces of candy sprinkled liberally throughout the wasteland, which E.T. could pick up and carry. And then there was Elliott, the young boy who befriended E.T. in the movie. You’d think he’d be a helpful presence in the game, wouldn’t you? Nope, not this game. In this game, the BASTICH just stole all your candy whenever he showed up. And while you were wondering at why he would ever do that, the scientist would grab you.

E.T. was a terrible game (although I did manage to eventually beat it, because honestly, what else was I going to do on a Christmas with just one new game to play? It’s not like Santa took returns). E.T. was not, however, the worst game ever, or even the worst on the Atari 2600. That honor fell easily to a game called Custer’s Revenge, marketed primarily toward adult males with a hankering for heavily pixilated pornography. Here’s a screenshot:



Custer's Revenge (1982)


Yes, that’s exactly what you think it is.

Worst Christmas ever.



1 Bearing in mind that surveys have found that 86.9% of statistics are fabricated.
2 Although in hind-sight, the fact that the cartridge only held 2 kb of data or so, and it looked like the title-screen took up at least 1.5 kb, should have been the first hint of the game’s overall quality.
3 Alright, not really. The screenshot is actually from Fallout: New Vegas (2010).


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Michael Regan
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Re: Atari Archeology

Postby Michael Regan » Sat May 03, 2014 10:54 pm

I am happy to say that I did not have a copy of this "game" but I did experience it somewhere, likely at an unfortunate friend's house.

I also loved Pitfall... and I did see Custer's Revenge in action as some point as well. Oh, the horror!
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Re: Atari Archeology

Postby AdamDestine » Sun May 04, 2014 3:06 am

Custards Revenge! I laughed out loud at that. I'd never heard of it before. That's hilarious.
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Re: Atari Archeology

Postby Michael Regan » Sun May 04, 2014 3:34 am

AdamDestine wrote:Custards Revenge! I laughed out loud at that. I'd never heard of it before. That's hilarious.


Certainly rude and hardly playable... hard to believe it was soo long ago that graphics were at such an unrefined level. Now my watch has more computing power.

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