Every attempt to make an adventure game on the Atari 2600 ends up being little more than an experiment in the idea. The system's limited memory, one-button controller, and low-key graphics and sound capabilities are not conducive to the complexity demanded by the genre. At best, they will be too simple and thus beatable in a matter of minutes, like Adventure. At worst, they will be a convoluted mess, like Raiders of the Lost Ark. The middle-case scenario gets you something like E.T., which is the game oft given the most blame for causing the 80's video game market crash, despite that overproduction, poor marketing decisions, and the era's technology making few steps forward weighed very heavily into that, too.
After a rather impressive title screen introduction, a spaceship brings E.T. to Earth, only for him to immediately begin a quest to find phone pieces to call the spaceship right back to pick him up again. While you have probably seen the movie and are aware that greater context is at work here, in the game alone it comes across as the worst case of "Wizard of Oz Syndrome" that I've ever seen.
E.T. attempts to find the missing phone pieces by searching a very dark and creepy forest full of pits. These pits are where the parts are hidden, and they are the source of much woe for many gamers. Once you fall into a pit, it is sometimes difficult to leave without falling back in again, but I have found this to be a similar exaggeration to the pit problems people had with Heroes of the Lance. (If you're having trouble, try holding down the button when you reappear on the overworld and only move E.T. off the pit at the farthest possible point east, west, or south, never north.)
Hindering E.T.'s progress is a trenchcoat-clad FBI agent who is more interested in getting his grubby mitts on those damn phone pieces and flinging them back down into the pits than he is in the Extra-Terrestrial phenomena going on, and a scientist who insists on kidnapping E.T. and putting him in a Parthenon. E.T. also loses hit points with every step and every action, which may require them to be restored by eating Reeses Pieces (also conveniently found lying around the forest). Losing all your hit points is the only way to get a Game Over.
Because there are a variety of actions E.T. must perform and only one controller button, the developer (Howard Scott Warshaw of Yars Revenge and Raiders of the Lost Ark) implemented a system wherein the move you can make depends on where you're standing. As you walk around, the icon in the top middle of the screen changes. What it changes into determines what E.T. will do if you stand still and push the button. This is probably the single biggest source of the game's confusion because it isn't very clear what the symbols mean without the manual or some experimentation.
If you have the manual or learn the game's mechanics through some other means, then E.T. suddenly goes from being impossible to being an extremely easy game. Even on the hardest setting, it only takes a few minutes to complete, and any gamer willing to hop off EGM's bandwagon probably will. (Easier difficulty settings remove the FBI Agent and/or the Scientist, but despite their relentless obsessions they aren't tough to deal with.)
If there's one thing nice I can say about E.T., it's that the graphics are okay. The people characters are actually pretty well-detailed and fluidly animated for 2600 sprites, and the screen with the green trees has a weird "pop-out" effect if you look at it the right way. Although E.T. himself didn't quite suffer the "gingerbread man" fate of 2600 Donkey Kong, he could have used a little more work. Amongst other issues, he appears to have a penis. But maybe that's to be expected of a character who spends much time elongating himself.
Despite what problems others have cited, I never had much trouble playing E.T., even when I was a kid. There was no more or less to do with it than Adventure, and my dealings with Raiders of the Lost Ark left me far more frustrated. The main difference between E.T. and those games is that they didn't bring down an entire industry.
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