How, exactly, do we quantify quality?
Despite the prevalence of lists on the internet purporting to rank the best or worst of any given category, it’s a question one rarely sees asked. While I have no problem with list making as a fun diversion, I do wish that we could drop the facade of objectively ranking creative works in terms of quality, because it leads to obvious nonsense like E.T. for the Atari 2600 being declared the worst game ever made.
The story of E.T.’s creation contains a perfect recipe for failure. Atari paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million for the license, in negotiations that dragged on until perilously close to the 1982 Christmas shopping season. Programmer Howard Scott Warshaw was then left with just five weeks to conceive and develop the game that Atari expected to be one of their biggest selling titles yet. Because their port of Pac-Man had sold spectacularly despite poor critical reception, Atari made the call to send E.T. to market without first play-testing it. They also produced nearly twice as many copies as they needed to fulfill the initial shipment, predicting a run on the game due to the film’s success. Atari had placed almost every conceivable stumbling block in front of E.T., and it managed to hit them all.
Yes, E.T. is a bad game. However, I’ve always found much of the criticism it receives unfair. Its worst sin is deeply unforgiving controls that result in players spending most of their time fighting to lift the eponymous alien out of pits that litter the game’s world. However, other common criticisms could be levied against nearly any game on the 2600. It does have primitive graphics and monotonous gameplay, but Asteroids is worse on both counts, and it’s considered a classic. And despite E.T.’s reputation as a massive flop at retail, it actually stands as one of the best-selling games in Atari’s history. If not for the licensing costs and excessive print run, E.T. might have ended up a minor financial success.
Circumstances aside, E.T. remains an unpleasant game that played an undeniable role in bringing the American video game industry to its knees in the early 1980s. So why not call it the worst game of all time? For starters, it’s easy to find games that, judged by the standards of their time, look and play far worse than E.T. 2003’s Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing was a PC game that made it onto store shelves, despite being so far from finished that your truck would at times literally fall through the road, or go shooting off into the sky. Ganso Saiyuuki: Super Monkey Daibouken was a 1986 Famicom RPG that combines incomprehensible gameplay, hideously ugly visuals, and a droning suicide note of a soundtrack into what would easily be the worst game on Nintendo’s fledgling console, had the equally hateful Hoshi wo Miru Hito not been released for the same platform the following year.
Fair enough, you might say, but none of those games brought down an entire industry with their dreadfulness. True, but I would argue that the tale of E.T.’s destructive power has grown in the telling. At worst, it was a particularly large meteor in a much wider extinction event. Unlike 2012’s Kingdoms Of Amalur: Reckoning, it didn’t destroy the studio that created it and end with the state of Rhode Island seizing its developer’s assets in a desperate bid to recoup its losses. And as far as games that sold over a million copies but were still considered commercial flops, it has good company in 2013’s Tomb Raider and Hitman: Absolution, which both sold over 3 million copies but still failed to meet publisher expectations. Does that put them up for Worst Game Ever consideration?
Of course I realize that last point is unfair, but it does show just how arbitrary we are in declaring any game objectively the worst ever made. Kingdoms Of Amalur’s financial circumstances were so dire that it became a political scandal in the state where it was made, but should that play any role in how we judge it as a creative work? If not, then E.T.’s effects on the game business should be off the table when considering its quality. In that case, it’s little more than another rushed movie tie-in game, of which we see numerous examples every year. Its controls are unforgiving, but unlike Big Rigs, it can be played to completion. And contrary to popular opinion, it actually looks pretty good for a 2600 game.
At worst, E.T. is an interesting failure. Calling it the worst game ever made is like calling Plan 9 From Outer Space the worst movie ever made. Decades after its release, fans of the medium still have fun picking over all the ways it went wrong, telling its stories, and arguing about its rightful place in the pantheon of crap. If E.T. was really The Worst Game Ever, it would be buried under the catalogs of forgotten kusoge barons like Micronics and Color Dreams, not in its own dedicated wing of an Alamogordo landfill.