Thursday, August 12, 2010

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, an Atari 2600 experience

I dedicate this post to Wil Wheaton, who posted a brief interlude about E.T. on his blog. After reading his blog post, I decided I would play E.T., and determine if it was truly that bad or if it was simply a victim of the times, as the 2600 fell out of favor as it became less and less able to even make a rudimentary approximation of the video games showing up in arcades.

In 1982, I was an 11-year old in Jasper, Alabama. One of the hobbies of me and my friends was, of course, playing Atari 2600 games when we should be doing our homework, or sleeping, or whatever. I have fond memories of many games... Beamrider, Robot Tank, River Raid, Pitfall.

However, my childhood memories of playing E.T. consist entirely of playing it one time at Walter's house for about 5 minutes before we said 'this sucks' and went to play LEGO Wars (a game of our own devising), jump on the trampoline, watch MTV, or play D&D.

Having no real memory of the gameplay, I was unsure what I'd find when I played the game today, over 25 years later. This was all of the impetus I needed to fire up the game and see what it was about.

The entry screen isn't horrible. You can even recognize E.T.

I found an instruction manual here.

Now, once I was a teenager, instruction manuals were for pussies, and no one read them. Ever. But when I was a kid of 10-11, the instruction manual was what you read in the car on the ride home from the store when you got a new game. So, let's read the instructions. It says to start with game three... screw this, let's play. I'm clearly still in my post-adolescent mode, where instructions are for the weak, and the bold start playing.

I have just enough knowledge of the game to be dangerous... I remember that the point of the game was to pick up telephone pieces and phone home, but I honestly don't recall any details, just fuzzy memories of pits, Reese's Pieces candies, FBI Agents and Scientists, and inscrutable icons.

Ok, I start playing. I am picking up candy. I'm falling down pits. Jesus Christ
this is frustrating... the pits seem to have a much larger 'drop' zone than expected, and as soon as you get out of them you fall into them again. And again. And again. And I can't remember what any of those icons mean. I'll press 'fire' and see what happens... wait, now I'm teleporting. Ok, that's what that icon means, I guess.

There don't seem to be any FBI guys. I guess that's good. I keep picking up the little 'dots' which I know to be Reese's Pieces. I see a new icon, a mouth screaming. I press fire. Hey, Elliot! Woo! Wait, bastard! He stole my candy. I had seven pieces.

Ok, let's keep going. I keep falling in pits. I fall in one, and see a phone piece. I walk over and pick it up. I keep wandering the screens, and find a flower in a pit. When I press fire I make it grow and I smile. I levitate out of the pit. getting better. I only fall back in 2 or 3 times before getting out now.

I find a new icon, a question mark, and press it. A pit flashes and I drop into it. Ok there's a phone piece. Awesome. I'm two-thirds done with the stupid telephone.

I realize I have no idea how the endgame plays out. In a moment of weakness, I read the instructions. I learn that once you've completed the phone, you have to find a 'space invader' icon, that will call the mothership. You then have to run to the woods and find the landing site before time runs out on a timer that starts as soon as you call them. I ignore all the rest about scoring and lives and get back to the game.

I can't find the third phone piece. Still can't. Can't. FUCK fell into a hole
changing screens. Who in the hell puts pits at screen junctions? Hey, never been here before. Let's look for a question mark ... fuck fell into a another hole... wait, it's got the phone piece! I feel a brief moment of elation as I realize I've been wandering around the same few screens, endlessly falling into pits, and that now I'm done with the pits and can get on with the game.

I hope you like this screen, because you see it constantly. 


Ok, now to call home. Umm. Hrm. Wander wander wander. Shit, I'm nearly out of energy. Wait, I remember I can eat candy. Ok, now, just look for the space invader
piece, or the candy icon. Which looks like a mouth, arguably? Candy! Ok, I'm back up in energy after eating a bunch of candy.

Wander, wander, wander, fuck this sucks. This is the worst type of 'find the right freaking pixel' WAIT there's the space invader! Call home ET!

Ok, now the timer. Gotta find the woods. Let's use teleporters! Look at me, I'm strategizing. I bounce around and appear in the woods. WOODS! Ok, it's here somewhere... shit... I need more time! Jesus, how long can it take to find the stupid spot? I move frantically, trying to explore. I should have done this BEFORE giving myself a time limit... if I have to find all three phone pieces again...

AUGH... WAIT found it. Just in time. Literally, the timer was flashing and almost done. A phone booth comes down and gets me, and I appear at Elliot's house, and scored 7640 points.

Fuck you game. Even without the FBI agents kicking you in the balls and taking your shit, this game is painful. I suppose I should play it for 'real' though and see if I can beat the actual game...

I put the game on '1', and now have an FBI agent and a scientist in game.

I start playing. I get dragged around by the scientist a few times. Apparently if he touches you, he drags you back to his autopsy room and then lets you go. I find a phone piece. I start looking for the next one- FUCK YOU FBI AGENT. FUCK YOU FOR TAKING MY PHONE PIECE.

Ok, now it's randomly hidden again. All the agent does is make you play longer? Really? Ugh. Part of me says keep playing, but I realize that once you have to start standing still to win, the bad guys have a distinct advantage over you. There's no way I'm going to go through this...

I quit playing. But for days, the game haunts me. It beat me. As bad as the game was, I feel like I need to beat it. So, I turn it back on. I'm going to do this methodically. I've played World of Warcraft, and if I can deal with fishing for god knows how long to get a stupid coin you can flip and Mr. Pinchy, I can beat E.T.

I play Game 3 in E.T. again. I'm going to learn the game. It's not long before I've got a handle on the basics. The world is basically cubical, and I can hold that in my head. Dodging pits is easier once you've got a grasp on where the 'edge' pits are on that one screen. I figure out how to find the 'phone home' and 'pickup' spots before getting any phone pieces. I learn how to call Elliot. I learn how to get out of pits without falling back into them immediately. I beat the game with a score of over 15,000, more than doubling my previous attempt, and understand what's going on. I also get a solid understanding of exactly how stupid this game is with no enemies.

Now, for the real game. It's Game 1, with the Scientist and the FBI Agent. I map out the layout of the place in my head. I get picked up by the scientist and the FBI Agent repeatedly... but that's an opportunity to learn the map and you can still see icons. I find the Pickup spot. I find the Phone Home spot. I learn where the 'send the humans away' spots are.

The FBI Agent steals a phone piece and re-hides it, which is honestly a bitch, but it isn't that bad. The Scientist just takes time away from you. It isn't much longer before I have all three phone pieces and am running for the phone home icon. It's a pisser that the bad guys can just hover over pits, but oh well. I've learned how to run to the 'go away humans' spots on the screens. I phone home and make it to the woods. Here is where I learn a terrible secret.

The ship doesn't come to you when you make it to the spot. It comes when the timer runs out. So you stand there, and of course some guy runs in and grabs you. This costs me, and I don't get rescued.

I figure out what you have to do. You have to find a 'run away humans' spot or a 'save me Elliot' spot on the woods screen, and use it repeatedly until the timer runs out... and right as the timer runs out, run to the pick-up spot.

It takes a while, but Elliot keeps me safe. I know that if I changed difficulty levels, Elliot couldn't be on the screen for me to be picked up. But I beat the stupid game. It wasn't satisfying... the game is truly trivial and bad. It's purely a 'wander around looking for the perfect pixel' game, that adds in 'and by the way there are pits and people that reset you to the start' thrown on top, with an endgame of 'perfect timing is required, or you get to start over'.

It's playable, I guess. But it's throw-the-controller arbitrary and punitive. It would be like playing Adventure with 4 bats and invisible keys, but no sword or dragons.

I hate you ET. The only good part about your stupid movie was the guys playing D&D in the first scene.

No comments:

Post a Comment