Following the success of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, in July 1982 Warner Communications, Atari's parent company, paid an unprecedented $21 million (almost 65 million in 2022 adjusted for inflation) for the rights to do a video game adaptation. Programmer Howard Scott Warshaw was given just six weeks to write it in order to meet the Christmas deadline. In comparison, Warshaw's previous 2600 games, Yars' Revenge and Raiders of the Lost Ark, both highly regarded, took seven months and six months respectively.
The game itself is a Three-Quarters View Action-Adventure game. You play E.T., and at the beginning, you are dropped off by the phonebooth-looking spaceship. You then have to find three pieces of an intergalactic telephone so E.T. can "phone home." You wander around six screens, and perform various actions by pressing the fire button; different actions are available depending on where E.T. is standing. The most important screens are the ones with wells; the phone pieces are in the wells. You can try falling into well after well to check them, or (the intended way) you can find the part of the screen where you can use an action that shows which well has a phone piece. Once you assemble all the phone pieces, you head to one spot on one screen where the available action is phoning home. Phone home, then head to the landing site for a pick-up before a timer runs out.
Standing in your way are an FBI agent who steals your phone pieces if he touches you and puts them back in the wells, and a scientist who drags you off to study you. Also, every time you move or do an action, you use energy. Run out of energy, and E.T. dies, though Elliott will revive him.
The screens with wells also have Reese's Pieces, represented by green dots, lying on the ground. Pick them up, and a part of the screen will let you eat them for more energy. The FBI agent will steal these too. Another part of the screen will let you call Elliott, and if you have nine Reese's, he will take them, and in return, chase away the FBI agent and scientist, and return a moment later with a phone piece. If you have less than nine Reese's, Elliott will take them and go home.
If you succeed in getting home, you will see Elliott walking around his house, and you'll see the number of Reese's you've given him. These will add to your score. The game then restarts, with the phone pieces once again in random wells.
Atari produced over 4 million units, presumably expecting that over a million people would buy Ataris just to play this game. Although one and a half million were sold, most of these were sent back. In fact, Atari's licensing deal with Spielberg would have required selling at least five million copies to recoup their costs, which is another factor in their overproduction. Warner Communications' stock price took a 35% hit, and the huge financial blow the company took is widely regarded as a major contributing factor to The Great Video Game Crash of 1983. Because the game sold so many copies, you can find E.T. cartridges with relative ease even today.
In September 1983, Atari buried a bunch of stuff in a New Mexico landfill. An excavation project (helmed by a documentary crew surrounding the old urban legend about the landfill) was approved in 2013 to find out what was dumped there; in 2014, the project hit paydirt. On April 26, 2014, NBC Nightly News and others reported that the crew had found the cartridges (though they only found 179 E.T. cartridges total, not the millions of copies that were supposedly buried there).
The game is considered by the mainstream to be the worst video game ever made, though that's up for debate by actual Atari 2600 fans (and most are really sick of talking about it). It does, however, undoubtedly remain one of the biggest financial disasters in video game history, and definitely helped to sink Atari.
The E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial video game provides examples of:
- Action-Adventure: Collect phone pieces while avoiding the FBI agent and scientist. Once you've called home, get back to the landing site, again while avoiding capture.
- Adaptational Badass: Elliott, who will scare away the agent and scientist.
- Anti-Frustration Feature: Attempted. If you stand in the right spot, you can send the scientist and FBI agent back to their starting points, or check if any of the wells have a telephone part. The frustration comes back when you're frantically searching for either spot on the screen, since both are randomized per game.
- Context-Sensitive Button: Pressing the fire button while standing still will do different things depending on where you're standing. Symbols at the top of the screen tell you what will happen. Pressing and holding the fire button while moving will speed up your movement drastically at the cost of spending proportionately more energy.
- Difficulty Levels: Three, getting easier as you go up. Level 1 has both enemies, level 2 removes the scientist, and level 3 removes all the enemies. Some hacks add a fourth variation that has the scientist but not the FBI agent.
- Easter Egg: Doing certain things will make the flower turn into a Yar or Indiana Jones, and eventually reveals the initials "HSW3" (for Howard Scott Warshaw, and "3" because it was his third game). A stylized "JD" (for Jerome M. Domurat, the graphic designer) is also hidden in the game.
- Empty Room Psych: Most of the wells are empty. However, activating the "?" symbol at the top of the screen reveals whether there are any phone pieces in any wells on the current screen, so you don't need to dive into every one of them unless you're looking for the hidden flower.
- Endless Game: Make it back to your ship and the game starts over after tallying your score.
- Flip-Screen Scrolling: when you move off the edge of the screen in the overworld, it flips to the next screen.
- Follow the Money: The Reese's Pieces lying around for you to pick up.
- Gotta Catch Them All: The telephone pieces. They're randomly scattered, and even if you manage to find them, a "Phone Home" zone needs to be found elsewhere on the map. (You can run across it while searching for the phone pieces, but it's still not easy to find)The Angry Video Game Nerd: Even if you find the pieces, it's Jack and Shit — and Jack left town.
- Hitbox Dissonance: E.T. actually has pixel perfect hit detection. Unfortunately, in a Three-Quarters View game, that means his head can cause you to fall into a well. Several hacks fix this issue by specifically requiring E.T.'s feet to touch a well, rather than anywhere on his body.
- Instant 180-Degree Turn: You, the FBI agent, and the scientist reverse direction instantly. If you're moving right, though, E.T. will flip back to face left when you let go of the joystick — which can be a problem when getting out of the wells.
- Jerkass: The FBI agent will take away your phone pieces (if you have any) or Reese's Pieces (if you don't).
- Kill Screen: Subverted. If you give Elliott at least 33 Reese's Pieces the score count will be glitched up, ET will turn black and the Scientist and the FBI Agent will never appearnote . You can still go on. It's just boring with no enemies around.
- Non-Player Character: Elliott helps you out, chasing the bad guys away and finding a phone piece for you if you give him 9 Reese's Pieces. He also revives you if you die, but only a certain number of times.
- Pixel Hunt: You have to wander all over the map to find areas of certain screens where important things will happen when you press fire, such as calling Elliott or calling your ship. Most zones (as they're called) are on most screens, however. Only the Call Ship and Landing Pad zones are unique (and the Landing Pad is always in the Forest screen), and all the zones are far larger than a single pixel.
- Plot Coupon: The telephone. You need to find its shattered remains so you can call home.
- Press X to Not Die: When falling in a well, if you hit the joystick button in mid-fall, you can trigger ET's levitation ability and avoid damage.
- Product Placement: Reese's Pieces are scattered around the game world, and come in handy. However, due to technical limitationsnote they're depicted as a single dark-green pixel, instead of the brown, orange, or yellow of real Pieces.
- Read the Freaking Manual: Nearly all of the gameplay (like the symbols at the top of the screen) is explained in the manual. Without it, the game is way more confusing than it actually is. The game also came with a hint sheet explaining exactly how to handle the wells.
- Roadrunner PC: Hold down the fire button to run away from the FBI agent and scientist. This does, however, burn your energy more quickly.
- Scoring Points: Once you go home, you'll see Elliott running around his house and your score. You earn points for getting on the ship, and bonus points for how much energy you had left when you did so, how many Reese's Pieces you were carrying at the time, and a larger bonus for every Reese's Piece you gave to Elliott during the run. Then you can press the button and start again, and your score accumulates until you die. Even after you die, you still get bonus points for any Reese's pieces carried and given to Elliott.
- Side View: Graphics and gameplay down in the wells is from the side.
- Three-Quarters View: The surface. Gameplay is Top-Down View, and the wells are seen from above, but the characters are shown in Side View. The buildings are also in side view, even though gameplay there is still in top view.
- Timed Mission: Getting back to your ship once you've called it.
- Video Game Geography: A cube-shaped world, with the landing zone at the top, the wells along the sides, and the buildings (Elliott's house, the Institute of Science, and the FBI building) at the bottom.