The original 3rd-party video game maker for the Atari 2600, Activision apparently saw the writing on the wall in 1983. That was the year they made their move from consoles onto computer platforms, such as porting Kaboom! and River Raid to the Atari 8-bit XL line as seen in this ad. Moving to computer platforms helped the storied company survive the big video game crash of 1983-84, allowing them to become one of the biggest video game companies still around today.
The only thing “defective” about E.T. was its inscrutable and endlessly frustrating gameplay. Atari mother corporation Warner Communications paid Steven Spielberg 21 million dollars for the home console and arcade game rights to the movie, and programmer Howard Scott Warshaw hammered out the game in a breakneck six week deadline to get it out in stores for Christmas 1982. Warshaw was present today among spectators viewing the excavation of his most infamous creation.
Box art for the dreaded Atari E.T. game
A run of five million cartridges were released to stores: only one million eventually sold, becoming a well-publicised flop that tarnished Atari’s reputation with retail game buyers and furnished another nail in the company’s coffin. Along with surplus cartridges for other games, as well as various hardware prototypes, a convoy of tractor-trailer trucks shipped the unsold copies of E.T. to the landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico where they were literally swept under the rug.
E.T. wasn’t solely responsible for the video game market cratering in 1983 – 1984, as a lack of technical innovation and the booming home computer market also took their toll. But it remains a touchstone of the hubris and failure that helped bury the greatest video game company in the world, and with it an entire industry.
Tonight’s the big night! Overly primped celebrities engage in vapid self-congratulatory masturbation. Still… we’re excited! Wrapping up this series of articles covering games based on movies either nominated for or winners of Best Picture, we have perhaps the most infamous: Atari’s adaptation of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Released in 1982, the movie concerned itself about the story of a young boy who befriends a lost space alien and attempts to return him home. It was an immediate hit, and through various re-releases the movie ended up taking around $435 million over its box-office lifetime. It was nominated for an Academy Award in 1983, but lost to Richard Attenborough’s epic biopic Gandhi.
Atari saw E.T. as a natural video game hit. Steve Ross, head of Atari owners Warner Communications, negotiated a 21 million dollar deal for the home video game rights to the movie. The problem was that negotiations took so long that Atari game designer Howard Scott Warshaw was left with only six weeks to get a game for the VCS/2600 out the door in time for Christmas 1982. Within that crushing deadline he attempted to create an involved adventure game featuring the lovable little alien, but the result is confusing and endlessly frustrating. Players strive to guide E.T. around an abstract landscape, searching for the three pieces of the interplanetary telephone that he can use to phone home. With only a certain amount of energy to complete this task, E.T. is chased by government agents and scientists, who will delay his progress. Also on hand is young Elliott to lend assistance during the mission.
The game is at least interesting, with invisible power zones positioned around the different screens giving E.T. special powers, such as teleportation and the ability to scatter his pursuers. The real problems are the holes that are scattered about, into which the alien falls over and over and over and over and over again. My gosh, the holes. Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote “When you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” Atari’s E.T. cartridge has so many, many eyes to gaze so very, very long into you.
George Lucas’ movie Star Wars doesn’t require much of an introduction. The science fiction epic was released in 1977 and forever changed the film industry. The fact that it didn’t snag the Best Picture oscar at the Academy Awards ceremony (that honour went to Woody Allen’s Annie Hall) the following year is often considered a bit of a robbery. Star Wars buffs can take consolation that John Williams won for Best Score, which also features prominently in the arcade game.
It’s to the great credit of Atari’s Star Wars arcade game that it lives up to the original material. Designed by Mike Hally, it was based off an earlier unfinished game by Battlezone creator Ed Rotberg. Utilizing Atari’s colour Quadrascan vector graphics hardware, the game totally immersed players in a galaxy far, far away… especially if they were playing the sit-down cockpit version. The game covered the action that takes place in the film’s final reel: Luke Skywalker as Red Five, joining the attack against the dreaded Imperial Death Star. Controlling Luke’s X-Wing fighter, gamers fended off a wave of enemy TIE fighters, then swooped down into the famous Star Wars trench scene in a race to deliver the final shot into the exhaust port, then out in time to watch the great conflagration as the deadly technological terror explodes. Then rinse and repeat, as the TIE fighters became more numerous and active, and the surface defenses of the Death Star increased in complexity and difficulty.
Not only did we have detailed and fluid vector graphics, we also got snippets Williams’ aforementioned rousing music score, as well as well-done and dramatic voice synthesis straight from the film. Add to that famed Atari controller engineer Jerry Liachek’s great-feeling flight yolk controller, and you had the makings of an undisputed classic. Atari’s Star Wars arcade game deserves its place as one of the greatest games of all time.
Here are the rest of the Oscar Week articles on TDE:
30 years ago, in January of 1984, Steve Jobs and Apple presented the Macintosh computer to an astounded public. Utilizing such exotic technology as a mouse and a 3.5″ floppy drive, the Mac helped transform the personal computer landscape, from arcane commands to easy-to-use point-and-click interfaces. While it didn’t exactly fly off the shelves when first introduced, the Mac design would forever influence how computers were made, sold, and perceived by the public.
10 years before unveiling the Macintosh, Jobs got his start in 1974 as the 40th employee at Atari, as a $5 an hour technician refining the design of video games developed at the company. After returning from India on an Atari service call, in 1976 Jobs was tasked by Nolan Bushnell to build a new game the Atari boss had designed, based on the company’s premiere game PONG. In it, gamers would hit the ball up against a wall of disappearing blocks, as opposed to batting it back and forth with another player. Offering an insane deadline of just four days to get the job done, Jobs enlisted the help of his friend Steve Wozniak to engineer the game. It was called Breakout, and was a major hit for Atari.
Jobs eventually left Atari, and along with Wozniak founded Apple Computer. With the release of their Apple II computer, they helped establish the personal computer industry. With the release of the Macintosh, Jobs would further popularize and refine computers. As a bombastic carnival barker and charismatic distorter of reality, you can see more than just a bit of Bushnell in the man.
There’s certain movies that immediately tickle my memory of those days of my youth, hunched over in front of the TV, tightly gripping the joystick of my Atari. Sure, there’s the ones from the early 80′s dedicated directly to the subject of video games, such as Tron or WarGames, which I’ve covered in my series of Games on Film articles. And there’s some that are simply of that era. Then there are some that cause a deeper itch in my psyche.
I was a teenager when I first watched Videodrome, which actually celebrated its 30th anniversary this year. It wasn’t my first film by Canadian writer and director David Cronenberg; Scanners had come out a couple of years earlier and had definitely made an impression on me. Videodrome, however, changed something inside of me. It wasn’t some earth-shaking epiphany, though, where you crane your neck and cry “Eureka!”. The movie is like the video virus portrayed in its story. It doesn’t influence you, it infects you. It literalized viral videos before anyone ever heard of Internet memes. Before most had ever heard of the Internet, even.
McLuhan, 1966 photo by Henri Dauman
The movie is itself heavily influenced by the works of Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian media analyst and philosopher who famously coined the term “The medium is the message”. McLuhan’s warnings of the invasive power of television to shape reality in its own images, of how it was becoming a complete electronic extension of man, so impacted Cronenberg that the character of Brian O’blivion in the film is based on the media critic. The film is more viscerally prescient than McLuhan’s casual statements of dehumanization. Videodrome is about the first “reality” television show.
It is also about the battle of hearts and minds fought through the arena of the television set, so it’s no wonder that protagonist Max Renn, played by James Woods, has an Atari 2600 setup plugged into his TV. What more literally represents a battle through the TV more than a video game? They have a place in the New Flesh, as shown in this iconic scene from the film:
Cronenberg would again probe the idea of the mating of reality and fantasy, of technology and the flesh, in eXistenZ (1999). Dealing directly with video games and virtual reality, the movie would not be quite so prescient this time; its thunder would be stolen by the mind-bending, time-stopping pyrotechnics of The Matrix, released earlier the same year.
With crushing casualness, McLuhan said “The medium is the message”. Cronenberg has a rejoinder: “The medium is the flesh”. Long live the New Flesh.
For anyone interested in director David Cronenberg and his wonderfully weird body of work, I highly recommend picking up the book Cronenberg On Cronenberg.
Back in the heady days of 2011 I posted about a movie version of the classic Atari coin-op Asteroids, being developed by Universal as a project for Master of Disaster Roland Emmerich. I haven’t heard much about that project since, but I’m thinking it ought to be just scuttled right now, because THIS version looks way better:
These days, mountainous-haired carrot-top Conan O’Brien seems to be taking a lead from Jimmy Fallon, who replaced O’Brien on NBC’s Late Night back in 2009. Conan went on to host the vaunted late night talk show The Tonight Show, a run that only lasted months. Fallon himself has since been tasked to take over The Tonight Show when current host Jay Leno steps down, perhaps even permanently this time.
Anyway, this post isn’t meant to dwell on the revolving-door morass that is late night television in America. It is meant to point out that O’Brien himself has started to mine video games for comedic value, much like Fallon has pretty much from day one. Fallon played Wii games on his show when Nintendo’s revolutionary console came out, and has featured other popular games in front of the camera.
This focus on video game playing by late night hosts seems on the whole to be tapping the popularity of “Let’s Play” videos of game play that litter YouTube and twitch.tv these days. Germain to this site, O’Brien featured a “Throwback Edition” of his Clueless Gamer segment last week, playing games from the Atari 2600 library. Among the savaged product was the big kahuna of awful classic games, the impenetrable E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, a game so dense and confusing, and with such high-hopes pinned upon it at release in 1982, that its abject failure was one of the reasons the entire video game industry cratered in 1983-84.
Gaze upon the spectacle of Conan O’Brien sampling the best (and worst) games from one of the most popular video game systems of all time:
The event will run from 6:00pm to 8:00pm. There will be classic video game stations set up to play, including Mattel’s Intellivision and the Coleco ColecoVision. We will also be running a game tournament, playing Atari’s infamous 2600 version of Pac-Man. Here’s how the prizes will break down:
1st Prize: a $50 dollar EB Games gift card
2nd Prize: a pair of tickets to the Game On exhibit currently running at the Ontario Science Centre. This is an amazing exhibit of the history of video games, from PONG right up to modern systems and games.
3rd Prize: a $20 dollar gift card for A & C Games, a video game store specializing in retro games and systems.
In addition, each winner will receive a retro video game T-Shirt from Chop Shop Goods. As well, there are 50 discounted tickets to the Ontario Science Centre for everyone, first come first served.
The event is free to attend, and there is a $5 registration fee to enter the Pac-Man competition. There is a cash bar, and appetizers will be served. To RSVP for the event, please shoot an email to email@example.com or use the contact form on this site on the Contact Us page.
Nolan Bushnell founded Atari in 1972, sold it to Warner Communications in 1976, and was eventually ushered out of the company in 1978. The writing had been on the wall for awhile, for the man who had kept Atari alive by constantly innovating, by constantly swimming forward in a sea of ravenous competitors. By then, Atari had gone from a company about innovating to a company about marketing past successes, and that attitude eventually helped sink the entire industry in 1983-84. What Nolan Said: