Friday, September 21, 2012

The Swordquest Competition For Atari 2600

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.

Earthworld, the first game in the series, has 12 rooms in a layout patterned after the 12 signs of the Zodiac. Each room had an inventory of objects that could be accessed by pressing the joystick button. Your goal was to traverse each room, collecting items and depositing them in the correct room in order to reveal the room's clue: two numbers corresponding to the page and panel of the comic book that contained a hidden word. Occasionally, you would encounter a 'trial' consisting of obstacles to be avoided or overcome in order to gain access to that room's objects, such as crossing a raging river by hopping across logs or running through gaps in rainbow-colored waterfalls. There were 10 clues in the game that pointed to hidden words in the comic, but only half of them were right. According to the game's manual, "One more clue, found in the DC booklet will be of help in determining which "word clues" are the correct ones." Casually flipping through the comic book, you might notice that the rambling, incoherent poem on page two contains the words 'prime' and 'number' printed in a slightly different color from the rest. Eureka! Crossing out all of the word clues on non-prime-numbered pages left you with the answer, Quest In Tower Talisman Found, and earned you a place in the semifinals.

Atari held the Swordquest: Earthworld contest in March of 1983. Out of 5,000 entries received, only 8 contained the correct phrase and were eligible to to attend. The contestants were presented with an all-new, custom version of Earthworld, and given 90 minutes to solve its puzzle. The grand prize winner was a 20-year-old guy from Detroit by the name of Steven Bell. He took home the "Talisman Of Penultimate Truth," a pendant made of 18-karat solid gold, studded with 12 diamonds, as well as the birthstones of the 12 Zodiac symbols. It also contained a small sword made of white gold embedded in its front. All told, this fancy little bauble was valued at $25,000 dollars--in 1983! Sadly, Bell is rumored to have Cash-For-Gold-ed the entire pendant, except for the small sword.

In February 1983, Atari released the second in the Swordquest series, Fireworld. It was slightly shorter, and it had rooms laid out according to the 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.

Unfortunately, the Waterworld contest never happened. Atari, who was hemorrhaging money due to the video game crash of 1983, canceled the entire contest shortly before Waterworld's competition was scheduled to start, and killed all further development of Airworld. The last comic was never written, and the ultimate fate of twins Torr and Tarra was never revealed. Bell and Rideout, who would have returned to compete for the overall grand prize, a $50,000 gold-and silver sword called The Sword Of Ultimate Sorcery, were instead paid about $15,000 each. Swordquest was quietly and unceremoniously laid to rest at the close of 1983. By 1984, Atari had been sold to Commodore founder, Jack Tramiel, who planned to retool it as a personal computer manufacturer. Without its clout as the world's premier video game maker, (and the income to match) Atari would never again host a contest as extravagant and elaborate as Swordquest.

 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.

There's one final puzzle in the Swordquest saga which may never be solved: Whatever happened to the last three treasures? The Waterworld contest never happened, and Airworld never saw the light of day, but there's photographic proof of the existence of Airworld's Philosopher's Stone, (a hunk of white jade encased in a solid gold box) Waterworld's Crown Of Life and the grand prize, The Sword Of Ultimate Truth. For years, rumors persisted that Tramiel kept them in his office, but nothing has ever been confirmed, and no more details have come to light since Tramiel retired in 1995. After 30 years, those lost treasures, and Swordquest itself have truly become the stuff of gaming legend.

Thanks for reading my review! Next week, we ascend to the heights of comically-violent side-scrolling bliss with Metal Slug!

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