The Sword Quest Series
The history of video games is filled with good ideas that were followed up by bad implementation. It is conveniently also filled with bad ideas with bad implementation, which is how sites like this one keep finding content. Before the video game crash of the early 80s, Atari was trying to find ways to push the envelope of their games to match the more involved home computer market. Sure, you can get people to play Outlaw or a half-assed port of Donkey Kong for a few minutes… but then compare it to the far more involved games on the home computer market, or even looked over at one of their major competitors, the Intellivision with the Dungeons and Dragons games—well, there weren’t a lot of 2600 games with any sort of intellectual depth. Atari set out to change this with games like The Raiders of the Lost Ark and the ill-fated Swordquest series of games.
I didn’t have an Atari 2600 until the system was pretty much dead. We had an Intellivision because it was a superior system (those D&D games I mentioned before were way ahead of their time and a staple of my youth – and probably explain a lot about how I’ve turned out, now that I think about it…), but much like the Amiga computer and the Turbografx-16 with CD attachment we had, it slowly failed, taking just enough time to suck as much money as possible out of our Scrooge McDuck money vault on the way. Everyone else we knew had the 2600, so at the time it wasn’t like I didn’t spend loads of time playing the 2600, but I always felt that I was missing out by not having one. I finally got a 7800 for Christmas in 1984 (which also played the 2600 games), but since the NES came out a year later, it was yet another massive failure that nobody cared about. I had 4 games for the 7800, and three of them sucked badly enough for me to not hunt down any others. The bonus for me was that everyone else got an NES (I didn’t until maybe 2 years later) and then sold their old 2600 games at yard sales, so I bought a truckload of games for 50 cents each.
That was a long way to go to explain that’s how I happened to obtain my copy of Swordquest : Earthworld — the first game in the series.
The Swordquest games were a planned 4 game story arc, and in each game they included a small comic book to explain the story because otherwise you’d have no idea what the hell was going on. Remember, this is the era of the Atari 2600, so you really did need the manuals to tell you what was going on, or else you’d never really know more than “I think I shoot everything that isn’t me” for pretty much every game. In this case, you didn’t just get a paragraph blurb about saving the world / kitchen / neighborhood / your school / etc… you got a massive 50+ page comic explaining the game. This wasn’t going to just be some sloppy arcade port or Combat clone… this was going to be Epic.
[ You can read the comics on AtariAge! (along with some of those amazing Atari Force comics) ]
The story of Swordquest follows a pair of thieving twins who find out that they are actually the children of a noble family who were sent to death by the King because of a prophesy that they would cause his doom. He was given this prophecy by his wizard advisor, and as a result, the children are hidden away while their parents are killed, and are raised in secret by unassuming subjects of their former Lord. Now as adults, they manage to steal some sort of magical gem that will lead them on their path through the four elemental planes, fighting beasts and using magical items to unlock the secrets of the elemental labyrinths. Holy crap, this sounds like it could be the most amazing Atari game ever, right?
So, after you read the comics and get ready for the most incredible game of all time, you load up the game and got ready to see a lot of this :
This is what most of the game is like. You wander through empty rooms, picking up and putting down undiscernable items for god knows what reason, and occasionally you’ll get sent to a single screen action game, where the goal is “walk through some moving walls by diving through holes” or there was another game where I’m pretty sure you just pushed to the right and prayed that you’d get to the other side. If you did manage to get through the action games, you’d be rewarded by a splash screen with a set of cryptic numbers, like “15 4”. I knew that somehow this was supposed to tie to the comic, but I thought that it meant go to page 15 and the comic was depicting what you were supposed to be doing. This didn’t ever actually make any sense though, so I gave up on figuring out anything about the game, and ended up spending many afternoons wandering through colored rooms and playing generally uninteresting mini-action games.
There was no end to the game, you’d just keep getting those splash screens of numbers, and the game would just continue letting you wander through it’s multicolored rooms endlessly picking up and putting down whatever item you happened to be carrying. The items didn’t seem to do anything, other than allowing you to move them. It didn’t make any sense, and eventually I just put it in my box of Atari games next to my copy of the Journey video game as an oddity that I would pull out when I had a guest over I didn’t really like.
What I was too young to grasp was that this wasn’t a game that had a real ending at all. The whole point was to get those cryptic clues like “15 9” and that meant that you needed to go to comic page 15, panel 9, and there would be a hidden word in the art. You would get all of these words and put them together into a chain of words that made some sort of sense, and then you’d submit them to Atari and you’d have a chance of winning an actual golden Talisman. I would never have figured it out, and actually the developers put in extra hidden words and even put in extra clues in the game that would give you extra words. You know, just to be real dicks.
Eventually though, some people managed to figure out the right combination of words, and they were then sent to the Official Championships where everyone flew to Atari HQ and were given a timed challenge to play modified versions of the carts to get more clues. Whoever had the most correct clues at the end of the time limit was determined the winner, and they received the Talisman. There were 4 treasures made (one for each of the planned games) and there was a 5th treasure that was going to be given out to the winner of a Grand Championship that would put the winners of the previous 4 contests against each other. This sounds like it could be the plot to a ridiculous sequel (or prequel, really) to The Wizard, but it’s not. This was fully real.
The first two games (Earthworld and Fireworld) had their Championships, and the Talisman and Chalice were awarded. Waterworld was released, but by then the video game crash had already occurred, and the contest was abruptly canceled. There was no 3rd Championship for Waterworld, and Airworld was never released. I’d say it’s a shame, but only because there’s a part of me that would like to see what someone would actually do with a jewel encrusted sword that was valued at $50,000 in 1983. I’d sort of assume it would have immediately been pawned, or dismantled and sold piece by piece, or there would be some horror story like “my parents thought it was a toy and threw it out when I went to college”, like everyone’s comic and baseball card collections that were obvously worth millions of dollars.
Still— I’m sure in 1983, had I been a little bit older, I would have spent time working on this. I wish I could have been in one of the Championships, because I’m sure it would have been the most surreal event in my childhood. Instead, a frustrated 6-7 year old played this game well after these contests were over, unaware of the much bigger picture of what was going on— one of the most impressive gaming contests of our lifetimes, doomed to obscurity by the console industry imploding on itself.
- Jeremy P.