When I was a wee glitch, I had a friend with a huge collection of Atari 2600 games. This lucky little punk had them all, from Atlantis to Worm War I, and every summer we'd dutifully march through the width and breadth of his vast library, playing cart after cart until we were chased out of the house by his mom. Most of these games were simple enough for us to just pick up and play, and no matter how abstract the graphics or bizarre the game design, they all made their own kind of sense. But one game, Swordquest: Earthworld, stubbornly defied explanation. We tried for literally tens of minutes to crack the code of this mysterious game before finally getting bored and dropping in Robot Tank. Well, as it turn out, we were missing a few crucial pieces of literature that would have revealed to us Swordquest's true nature as the most epic treasure hunt in gaming history.
The Swordquest games began life as a simple sequel to 1979's Adventure, but they quickly grew into their own, with an original storyline and a theme based on ancient mythology. There were to be four games in the series: Earthworld, Fireworld, Waterworld & Airworld. To promote the Swordquest series, Atari planned an epic contest in five parts: There would be a semifinal contest for each game in the series, leading up to a final round for each semifinalist to compete in. Each game included an instruction manual, a poster, a contest entry form, and a DC comic book. The comics told the tale of Princess Tarra and Prince Torr, twin siblings who were orphaned when their mythical kingdom was attacked and their parents dethroned. The comics also contained several words hidden in the artwork, five of which added up to a phrase that was the solution to the puzzle. Players who correctly figured out the solution earned an all-expense-paid trip to Atari's headquarters, and a chance to win actual treasure made from precious metals and gemstones! So how would a player know where to look in the comic book, and what words to use? That's where the game came in.
Kabbalah's Tree Of Life. The game played essentially the same as Earthworld, but this time, the clues spelled out the phrase Leads To Chalice Power Abounds. The contest for Fireworld, held in August of 1983, received many more correct entries, so Atari held a preliminary round, wherein each contestant would write an essay detailing how awesome Atari is and what they loved best about Swordquest. The top 50 essays earned the chance to compete for Fireworld's ultimate prize, The Chalice Of Light, made of gold & platinum and studded with diamonds, rubies, pearls, and other precious stones. It was also valued at $25,000 and won by Michael Rideout, who had the good sense to hang onto it.
The third game, Waterworld, saw only a limited, mail-order release through Atari Club, making it a rare treasure itself. It's the shortest game yet, with only seven rooms that follow the seven centers of chakra. Here at least, the trials all have something to do with water: The player must swim through shark-infested oceans, dive past killer squids and hop across icebergs to gather clues pointing to the phrase Hasten Toward Revealed Crown. The grand prize this time was the Crown Of Life, made out of solid gold, studded with rubies, diamonds and aquamarines, and again valued at $25,000.
So, 30 years after the contest ended, what does Swordquest have to offer the gamers of today? Frankly, not much. The video games really only exist to provide hints on where to look for clues in the comic. Eagle-eyed players probably spotted most of them without even finishing the video games, anyway. The promise of untold riches was clearly intoxicating enough to sell a whole lot of Earthworld and Fireworld carts back in '82 & '83, but now that promise is gone. What's left is essentially a very basic fetch quest, with a little bit of rudimentary twitch gaming thrown in for good measure. The trials in Earthworld play a lot like Frogger, but without the complexity or nuance. Fireworld's trials are even more abstract and confusing: One moment, you're trying to stab what I think are birds onto a spike; the next, you are a bird and you're shooting at snakes slithering all around you. Waterworld at least maintains a constant watery theme with its trials, but none of them are particularly fun or memorable enough to play through more than once. Other than the background color, nothing distinguishes one room from another in any of these games, and no hints as to what item goes in which room are ever given--it's pure trial-and-error in its most repetitive form. In short, they're all pretty mediocre games that relied on gimmickry to sell copies, rather than solid game play. It's a deadly sin that Atari committed many times over in the early 80s, and it lead directly to Atari's precipitous fall from grace.
Thanks for reading my review! Next week, we ascend to the heights of comically-violent side-scrolling bliss with Metal Slug!