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How hacking fixed the worst video game of all time

Alex Cocilova | April 17, 2013
'E.T.' is the most reviled game in history, but a group of dedicated fans hacked its ROM, and turned the title around.

According to urban legend, a landfill somewhere in the small city of Alamogordo, New Mexico, bulges with millions of copies of the worst game ever made--a game that many observers blamed for the North American video-game sales crash of 1983. Atari's bubble burst because of a little alien.

In December 1982, Atari released E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600, and critics quickly labeled it the worst game of all time. In light of many more-recent debacles--I'm looking at you Aliens: Colonial Marines and SimCity--granting "worst game ever" status to E.T. in perpetuity seems somewhat unfair. Nonetheless, this primordial Atari 2600 title continues to top "worst of" charts, including our own, time and time again.

So why should you give it another chance? Because code hackers managed to fix some of the games most glaring problems, and now it's actually fun to play.

What went wrong?

When Atari finally got the rights to the E.T. name in late July 1982, it wanted to make the game a holiday-season sales hit. Steven Spielberg chose Howard Scott Warshaw (designer of both Yars' Revenge and Raiders of the Lost Ark, two of the best Atari games ever) to design the game, and Atari established a schedule that gave him just five weeks to do the job.

"I was either the golden child selected to do the project, or I was the only one stupid enough to take on the challenge," Warshaw says. Regrettably, due to the short development cycle, the game never received a proper fine-tuning. Atari rushed it out the door, and the product that hit store shelves was raw to a debilitating fault.


Behold the wildly popular Atari 2600-once synonymous with 'video games.'

Players immediately began denouncing E.T. as confusing and frustrating. Gameplay was inscrutable, and nothing that appeared on-screen made intuitive sense. Vague symbols would occasionally pop up at the top of the screen, but they made no sense unless you dove deep into the manual to ferret out their meaning. Walking to the edge of the screen would jump you to an entirely new map with no clear objective to pursue. And occasionally characters would appear and, without giving any indication of their purpose or intent, summarily carry E.T. off to yet another screen.

The graphics were bad, even by the standards of early '80s game design. And E.T. was tragically susceptible to falling into any of the multitude of "wells"--diamonds, circles, and arrows--that dotted the gamescape like burrows in a vast prairie-dog metropolis, whenever even a single pixel of his sprite collided with one of those shapes. Tumbling into these pointless holes, and then laboriously climbing back out, time and time again, made for seriously annoying and monotonous gameplay.

 

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