Saturday, June 5, 2010

Defending the Alleged Worst Video Game of All Time

by Chris McGinty

It’s almost keeping in theme with yesterday’s post to bring up yet another discussion my brother and I had as he was down for the weekend. I don’t think my brother has been stuck in the 80’s all these years, but he seems to have become stuck there recently.

He brought up a belief that I’ve heard a number of times over the last year or so. He didn’t say whether he agreed with it or not. The belief is that “ET: The Extraterrestrial” for the Atari 2600 is the worst video game ever.

My issue with this notion is that I can think of five games just off the top of my head that were worse, and I’m only talking Atari 2600 games. If I branched out into other systems I’m sure the possibilities are endless.

One thing that may contribute to this belief is the fact that ET was one of Atari’s worst commercial investments. They overproduced the game anticipating sales based on the “ET” brand name. The ironic part is that it is on the top ten list of highest number of sales of an Atari 2600 game. In other words, had they made an initial production run of one million instead of five million, the game may still be remembered as a disappointment for playability, but Atari could have claimed a profit on it.

Another factor is perception. Based on playability “Pong” isn’t such a great game. If it came out as a casual game on Yahoo! or for a phone app, it wouldn’t be played much. But as innovation goes, it is one of the most important games to the gaming industry. If you re-released ET on either platform, maybe fixing two minor issues, I bet it would see some amount of play.

The two issues the game had were both based on slowness. ET would stroll along at a leisurely pace, probably intended to expand game play time, and when ET would fall down into pits (sometimes necessary to elude capture or to find pieces of the phone) it was a slow process getting him back out. If you sped ET up just a little bit to make him cross the TV screens at the same pace as the protagonist in Berserk, and made levitating out of the pits quick and automatic you suddenly have a very playable game.

ET was merely a more involved version of “Adventure.” You travel from screen to screen gathering objects to take to the final screen and win the game. Instead of dragons you avoid FBI agents. Oddly, “Adventure” is considered to be one of the greatest games. Again, I believe this is perception based on years of game play improvement. If ET had come out in 1979 along with “Adventure” people would have been blown away by what was really possible in a video game, but it was released in late 1982 after people already knew what was possible, and they expected better from ET.

Raiders of the Lost Ark – Reading the description of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” at Wikipedia it sounds like such an easy game, but unlike ET which you couldn’t play through the game based solely on information given in the guidebook. You had to figure shit out. During a time in which walkthrough books weren’t readily available, this made for frustrating game play if you didn’t immediately figure out what it was you were supposed to be doing. If the game had been challenging on another level I might not have become so bored so quickly and actually figured it out.

Swordquest: Earthworld – I could practically say the same thing about this game as I just said about “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” It was a puzzle game and the only challenges presented were actually just irritating as you tried to figure out the puzzle. My mom, my brother, and I pulled out a piece of paper and tried combination of object placement after combination of object placement. We still only ever worked out two of the clues. We spent a lot of time on this game thinking we would eventually get it, and we never did. I would rather levitate ET out of a pit any day over running through the stupid waterfall room again.

Star Wars: Jedi Arena – We did figure out what we were supposed to be doing with this one, but it was just boring. After successes with “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” I think they just wanted to get something out quickly to keep the momentum. Unlike “Empire” and “Return” which are games that I can still play for hours on those all too rare occasions that I hook up my 2600, I’m not sure I ever played “Jedi Arena” for an hour at a sitting. Somehow I did with ET though.

Home Run and Football – The “Real Sports” Baseball and Football were good games, and maybe my issue with these two earlier versions was comparing them to the better releases. Nonetheless, I’d still prefer to play ET.

These are five games I can think of off the top of my head. I never played the other two Swordquest titles, but as I understand it the game play was so smilar that I’m sure they could easily go on this list as well. “Combat” was a frustratingly limited game, but was pretty amazing for a starter game, and had so many game options that we got hours out of it. “Freeway” was a “Frogger” knock off that wasn’t very dynamic. It may even be on this list, but I do remember getting some play out of it. And who knows how many more I could point to if I looked at lists of titles.

I’m just limiting myself to Atari 2600 games. Anyone who owned a Commodore 64 and had the opportunity to try to figure out “The Human Race” knows that it’s only a matter of having played a number of games to find games that were worse than ET.

The only reason I’m stepping up to defend ET is because I actually enjoyed the hours upon hours that I spent playing it. And yes, I do realize that saying something is the worst of all time is merely opinion, but it’s an opinion that is being touted as fact based on the accompanying facts of its commercial sales failure. The problem is that somebody said it somewhere, and it is being echoed over and over again to me by people who are simply telling me what they read, not what they know from years of experience with video games. There is a difference between uninformed opinion and expert opinion. Perhaps you folks should consider that difference before you spout off yet another thing that you read and blindly agreed with.

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