Putting right E.T. for the Atari 2600

Last Updated on July 9, 2017 by Dave Farquhar

Hacking vintage video games has been a popular trend this year, so I suppose it was only a matter of time before I saw this: A hobbyist spent a few weeks this year fixing the infamous E.T. cartridge for the Atari 2600, and kept a detailed analysis of the project. I found it interesting.

E.T. was everywhere in 1982. I was one of those weird people who only saw it in the theaters once. Most people went and saw it multiple times, just like Star Wars. Everyone saw it and everyone talked about it. The merchandising didn’t quite get as out of hand as Star Wars, but there was no shortage of companies licensing the name and trying to cash in on the craze. Atari was no exception, and they rushed a video game to market.

I tried to play it. I tried several times. I couldn’t do it. The gameplay was clumsy, the story didn’t make a lot of sense, and after a few minutes of trying to get out of holes after falling into them, my friends and I always just gave up and went back to one of the old standby cartridges like Pitfall.

E.T. is widely blamed for the videogame crash of 1983. I think that’s a little too simple, but it definitely contributed. The market was flooded with games that cost $25 or $30 and were very low quality–E.T. was one of many–and people decided to buy computers instead, which promised the capability of doing more than playing games. It did hurt Atari–they produced far more copies of the game than they could hope to sell, tying up money at a time when they were facing stiffer competition than they had in the past.

Reading the Neocomputer.org analysis, it appears they tried to be too ambitious with the game for the amount of time they had to finish it. Given a few weeks’ worth of hacking, they were able to make the game playable. Had Atari taken the same amount of time and effort to do the same, E.T. might not have been such a colossal failure.

The effort was 30 years too late, but it’s better late than never, right? Break out your copy of Stella and grab the patched E.T. ROM, and give it a look.

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