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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.

Atari wildly overestimated the game's sales volume, produced vastly too many copies, and ended up taking a major financial hit, suffering a reported loss of $100 million on the endeavor. But Warshaw modestly declines to shoulder all the blame for the 1983 video game depression, citing the failed Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man as a contributing factor. "I'd like to think I'm capable of toppling a billion-dollar industry myself, but I doubt it," he says.

This game has fans?

Members of a small community of contrarians insist that the 1982 version of E.T. was a good, enjoyable, entertaining game. They say that people simply (and grossly) misunderstood it. The kids didn't read the included instructions, they argue. Sure the game was difficult, they concede, but the game's mechanics--featuring elements like open-ended worlds and side quests--were ahead of their time.

The game's instructions answered all the questions regarding its objective, its point system, its enemies, the purpose of the wells, and the meaning of the strange symbols. Unfortunately, the instructions were also long and complicated, and about as likely to serve as reading material for a kid on Christmas morning--or really any time--as a terms-of-service agreement. The instructions did provide answers, but much as they would today, gamers in 1982 expected to hit Start and begin figuring out gameplay in real time.

The game's unique open environment posed some issues of its own. Today, open worlds are common in video games. But when E.T. debuted, a world described by a three-dimensional cube (as illustrated above) was beyond ambitious. You'd reach a screen's perimeter, and find yourself whisked away to an entirely different environment. The relocation was "correct" within the context of the game--but unless you understood the logic, you'd quickly become disoriented and be left grasping for answers.


E.T. lands and starts the game.

Duane Alan Hahn makes persuasive arguments in defense of the original E.T. on RandomTerrain, but there's no denying that the game was a bad match for the younger audience that bought and played most games in 1982. E.T.'s gameplay, strategies, and style were unfamiliar to the infant gaming industry, and wouldn't be appreciated until many years later.

A solution appears

To make the game more appealing to its many critics, Neocomputer.org launched a project to explain and address E.T.'s most widely recognized problems. Precisely who "fixed" the game remains unclear, though an AtariAge member named Recompile certainly played a major role, but the bottom line is that the project yielded new ROM code that dramatically improves E.T.


E.T. is safely on the edge.

The number-one user complaint about the original game involves the frustrating issue of continually (and inadvertently) falling into wells. The original problem stemmed from pixel collisions between the E.T. sprite and the pits themselves. If a single pixel of E.T. collided with a single pixel from a well, down the alien went, even if his feet were firmly planted on the ground. A couple of adjustments to the code, and now E.T. doesn't spend inordinate amounts of time plummeting into crevasses (unless you're very uncoordinated).

 

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