Howard Scott Warshaw would still like to be remembered as The Man Who Made the Worst Video Game Ever. That doesn't mean he thinks E.T. for the Atari 2600, which he built over five weeks in 1982, is the worst video game of all time.
"Charlie's Angels," Warshaw said, put on the spot by a fan at a Comic-Con 2014 panel.
That game was an adaptation of the 2003 movie sequel Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, and it's fair to assume it had a larger development team than E.T. Released for GameCube and PlayStation 2, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle has the distinction of being the lowest rated console game on all of Metacritic, whereas E.T. was only blamed for the collapse of console gaming itself in the mid-1980s.
"I had one guy who did the graphics, somebody who did the intro screen," Warshaw said, humming the chiptune version of the E.T. them, "and I was the rest of the team."
Warshaw recounted his experience with Atari and E.T. in a panel discussing E.T.: Game Over, the upcoming documentary from Xbox Entertainment that excavated the notorious New Mexico landfill where millions of Atari cartridges were buried following the E.T. flop. While some E.T. cartridges were discovered in the dump, director Zak Penn says Atari didn't literally bury its mistake there, as was widely believed in the decades since.
"There's a whole legend, that E.T. was made, it came out, and it destroyed the video game industry for three years," Penn said. "It did so badly that the industry collapsed for a number of years until it bounced back, and Atari buried it. The movie is a systematic deconstruction of that legend. None of that is accurate. There's an element of truth in all of those parts, but it's all jumbled up."
"I had one guy who did the graphics, somebody who did the intro screen, and I was the rest of the team."
E.T.: Game Over doesn't have a release date yet; an early cut was screened for a private audience at Comic-Con last night. The film is expected to debut on Xbox Live for Xbox 360 and Xbox One when it does launch.
Warshaw and Penn were joined on the panel by Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari, Joe Lewandowski, who led the dig that recovered the cartridges, and members of the production companies behind the documentary. Bushnell made it clear he had left Atari (in 1978, after it was sold to Warner Communications) by the time Warshaw got his infamous five-week assignment.
"Would you have given somebody five weeks to make a game?" panel moderator Larry Hryb asked Bushnell.
"No," Bushnell said. "You can put nine women up to having a baby in a month, but it's not a very good baby." The audience cackled with laughter.
"People who aren't gamers get driven by different ideas, particularly in Hollywood," Bushnell said, explaining what really led to the E.T. debacle. "They felt they could put a kiss and a promise on unrealistic schedules and build a game that makes sense, because of the license. They paid a massive license to [E.T. director Steven] Spielberg for that. The amount they spent drove the number of cartridges they had to sell.
"So instead of looking at the market demand, it was market push, based on the deal they cut," Bushnell said. "Since they're all brilliant people who understood how to do promotions, they way overbuilt [the cartridge inventory]."
Bushnell at the time was working on Chuck E. Cheese, the pizza restaurant chain he founded, but still "had my sources at Atari," he said. He got a copy of the game on an EPROM chip, an old type of storage, and played it. "I said, ‘Clearly, this is not finished.'"
Except it was. Warshaw said he accepted the five-week deadline - from July 27 to Sept. 1 - largely out of obligation to be a team player for the company. He called the development cycle the shortest in history for any video game, and a "life-altering" time.
"I was just so happy to be done with it at the end," he said. "Then one day, Spielberg showed up at Atari, played a little bit of the game and said, ‘OK ...'"
Penn, asked to name his worst video game of all time, seemed to have had an experience similar to Spielberg's.
"Last Action Hero," Penn said. "For Super Nintendo. That was my first movie. I wrote the script for that, and the video game was terrible."