Cautionary Tale: E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial

Storyteller Matt Holohan shares a cautionary tale of video games adapted from films…



Holohan prior to the purchase of E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial.


My first video game console was the Atari 2600, which I bought used from a friend when he got an NES for his birthday. The importance of the Atari 2600 in the history of gaming cannot be overstated. It was the hardware equivalent of Super Mario Bros.

But this isn’t a story about how great the 2600 was. This is a story about the worst video game ever made, for any console. A game that I bought at the tender age of ten, with a dragon’s hoard of saved allowance and lunch money. This is a story about E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.


To say that E.T. is a bad video game is an affront to the word “bad.” And the word “game” for that matter. The fact is that E.T. is barely a game at all. There are enemies (which can be disabled by difficulty settings), but all you can do is run away from them. There is, nominally, a plot, but the only way to play the game is by randomly falling into pits. It’s like Minesweeper without the mines. There is no combat. There is no strategy. There is no beginning and no end. There is only a middle. An endless middle.


A pit.


At the time I was naive enough to be enthralled with the game, at least for a time. I was young enough to think that playing video games AT MY HOUSE was an amazing privilege, regardless of the quality of the game. And, of course, like all children of the 80s, I thought E.T. was great. I played the game for hours, convincing myself that I was having fun, that if I varied the mundane gameplay thusly and suchly I could make it interesting.

But eventually even I realized what a dud the game was. And when I had other, more fun (meaning more-than-zero fun, or even exactly-zero fun, as opposed to the negative fun of E.T.) games to play like Missile Command, Space Invaders, and the graphically atrocious yet serviceable ports of Kung Fu and Jungle Hunt, my copy of E.T. eventually found its place under a permanent layer of dust on my shelf, much as Atari’s legendary extra copies of the game became buried in landfills.

The lessons of E.T. were stark and enduring:

1. There are good video games and bad video games. This may seem elementary but it’s not necessarily obvious to a child, or at least it wasn’t in the salad days of gaming before kids started playing video games before potty training (as my kids have).

2. A video game adapted from a popular entertainment property is not necessarily good and, in fact, many game designers of the 80s and 90s were notorious for cutting corners on adaptations because the underlying property was a sales booster regardless of the quality of the game.

3. Spend your allowance wisely.

Matt Holohan is an attorney living in Denver, Colorado. He specializes in intellectual property and is a fan of retro gaming.

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