By Scott Stilphen
The first time I heard of or read about Atari's SwordQuest contest was from the September/October issue of Atari Age. The captivating artwork by famed comic artist George Perez was enough to have me jumping right to the article it was referencing, which was a good thing since there was no mention on the cover or even in Editor Steve Morgenstern's "Captain's Log" column - apparently the BIG news that issue was the discount prices on Atari's already overpriced items. Near the back of the issue, 2 pages were devoted to SwordQuest, and the best hyperbole Atari's Marketing department could create. The first game in the 4-game series, EarthWorld, promised "a new dimension in video gaming" and boasted of being "the first true action/adventure game - a cartridge which carries players into a captivating saga of fantasy and heroic drama". Well, how could anyone resist THAT? Sure, the prizes sounded cool, but I'm pretty sure they weren't the real reason I wanted in on this contest. What exactly would a pre-teen do with $150k in jeweled prizes, other than sell them .. and buy $150k in games :) Nevertheless, even though adventure/puzzle games were not my forte, I had to try.
EarthWorld boasted some impressive visual effects. The title screen was certainly the most impressive one in any VCS game at that time, and your character was a nicely-animated 4-color man - a step up from the blocky Superman characters. Walking between doorways was another special effects treat, as you saw the next doorway "zoom up" as though you were walking up to it in a first-person POV, as this unique "walking/shuffling" melody plays. Just walking around would eventually give you your first (and in my case, my only) clue needed for solving the game. This resulted in another fantastic graphics display, along with a snippet of music.
The game is comprised of 12 rooms (each one being one of the signs of the Zodiac) that contain a total of 15 different objects (a 16th object, the Warrior's Sword, is not used and is only available once you find all 11 clues). 4 of the rooms featured a mini-game that had to be beaten in order to gain entry within - 3 of which can be skipped if you're holding the right object. All 4 are very basic games, and involve nothing more than running from one side of the screen to the other, either dodging objects or jumping on them. If you've played either Frogger or Freeway, which most people had even at that point, then you'll already be bored with them, and I was. Of the 4, the roaring Leo Waterfall skill+action test is the most impressive (both auditory and visually), and require you to run through gaps in increasingly-widening walls. The Charging Taurus Horns Sagittarius Spears tests involved dodging dots and dashes and are similar to dodging cars in Frogger or Freeway. The Rafts in Aquarius are probably the most frustrating and are similar to hopping on logs in Frogger, with the rafts constantly changing speed and shape every other second. Each time you jump to a raft, a note plays that is lower than the previous. 3 of the tests can be made easier or bypassed altogether, provided you're carrying the right object.
In order to solve the game, you need to find the right combination of rooms and objects that unlocks all 11 clues. As I mentioned, the 1st clue is given to you. Through trial-and-error, you can find the next one by putting all the objects in one room, and then moving them all to the next room, until you trigger. The next clue involves 2 objects and 2 rooms. The next 2 clues involve 3 objects and 3 rooms. The final clue involves all 15 objects and 9 of the 12 rooms. To borrow a former advertising line from Atari, if you 'do the math', the sheer number of combinations to try, combined with the time needed to simply move the objects around make solving the game with brute force a daunting task, and I'm certain I speak for 99.9% of those out there in saying there's no game in the world enjoyable enough to make anyone want to try. So how was it that 8 people submitted the right answers for the EarthWorld contest, especially when only 5 of the 11 clues were valid? The key to the whole thing was the comic book that was included with the game. In fact, most everyone who made it to the contest playoffs had only found one clue - the clue the game gives you. For you see, each clue refers to a specific panel in the comic which contains a hidden word in the drawings themselves. If you took the time to sit down and carefully look at every panel in the comic book, you'd eventually find all the hidden words - that is, all but one. Clue #9 - one of the valid ones - was actually not hidden but simply a word in the text that was in boldface. Only those who really analyzed the comic would have noticed one word that was in bold out of context. Even without the game, it was possible to deduce the solution from just the comic, which really undermines the whole reason for buying the games in the first place, not to mention the new dimension in gaming we were promised. People spent nearly $40 for a game (SwordQuest Earthworld's retail price was $37.95) that not only wasn't fun to play, but ultimately wasn't needed for the purpose it was created for. And frankly, for a company that was a leader in the video game business, both in the arcades and in homes, and was known for creating new genres and innovations in games, I would have expected more from Atari besides glossed over variations of Space Race (a game Atari released in 1973 that was a forerunner to games like Frogger and Freeway) with some graphics demos. Sadly, this only became more clear with the 2nd game.
FireWorld is basically more of the same, only without most of the graphical treatments from EarthWorld. Gone is the amazing title screen, replaced by an attract mode that cycles through all the doorways and skill tests. The 4-color character you controlled in EarthWorld is now 1-color (black), making him look less like a man and more like a robot. Walking to another doorway still offers the same 1st-person POV effect, but instead of random sounds, you get a single tone. The dark, rich colors of EarthWorld have been replaced by light, overly-bright colors, making some of the skill tests rather hard to see. It seems programmer Tod Frye's garish color choices with Pac-Man spilled over onto FireWorld.
There are only 10 rooms this time around. 3 of the magical objects have been replaced (key, lamp, and necklace with oil lamp, shield, and Chalice), but all 16 are available. The oil lamp icon looks very similar to the water icon, so it's easy to confuse the two. There are 6 different skill tests; every room features one and none can be skipped, although 5 of them can be made easier with the right objects. If you take too many hits, you end up back in the doorway screen. The easiest, Deadly Snakes, involves shooting multi-colored snakes that slowly crawl across a screen that reminds me of the Bleak Zone in Vanguard. Your character now looks like a winged bird. In the Flaming Fire Goblins test, you control a multi-colored box and must catch as many falling goblins as you can ala Kaboom. In Flaming Hot Knives test, you must steer falling knives into a stationary pit (ala Kaboom). In the Flaming Firebirds and Jawing Salamanders tests, you must steer a vertical line (yes, a simple line) through falling birds and spinning lines (or "salamanders" for those with really inventive imaginations). In other words, it's yet another variation of Space Race. In Fire-Breathing Dragons, you're basically playing Flaming Firebirds again, only this time they simply move back and forth and shoot at you, and you have the ability to shoot back at them. None of the skill tests portray you as a human character, which was yet another odd choice. With the exception of Deadly Snakes, these skill tests are quite glitchy and get increasingly harder the further into the game you progress, and ultimately do nothing but test your patience. Once again we have a "game" that's filled with mini-games - none of which that are particularly fun to play. Even walking around is somewhat glitchy as your character tends to occasionally 'stick' to walls. Tod Frye confessed at the 2015 Portland Retro Gaming Expo that SwordQuest FireWorld is the game he's most ashamed of because "I just banged it out so fast. I didn't tune any of the games." (why someone would sabotage their own vision for something like SwordQuest is anyone's guess, but then again he's also admitted more than once that he was under the influence of illegal drugs during his time at Atari).
Solving this game requires you to first place an object in one room, and 4 objects in another. You're not given a free clue this time around, and given the complexity involved with finding any clues, it would have been nice to at least see what the special clue screen looked like beyond the manual in the screenshot. According to the manual, "After completing the skill and action sequences, you, like Torr and Tarra, shall gain wisdom, mercy, power, understanding, and perhaps valuable prizes as well." No. No, you won't. Instead, you'll be crying for mercy, because once again all you would have needed to solve the correct phrase to enter the contest was the comic book. The game is truly worthless in this case, because the numerical clues in the game have no meaning or relevance to the comic book at all! There are 10 clues, numbered sequentially from 00 to 09. The manual claims they refer to the comic book and hints that clue 05 could mean look on page 5 for a clue. Trust me, they don't. Tod Frye might know, but he hasn't said anything in the last 33 years about it. Even the FireWorld clue from EarthWorld doesn't seem to have any meaning. On top of that, the special clue screens aren't nearly as special, and resemble the effects you see when your tank is hit in Battlezone or Robot Tank. I suppose that's appropriate, given the financial hit people took buying it, but shouldn't something that's supposed to be an important moment in the game look more like fireworks and less like my system is shorting out? Finally, you don't receive the Chalice after solving the game, like how the Warrior's Sword was in EarthWorld. It would have been nice for at least a small payoff such as that, plus it would have been more faithful to the comic. Overall, the game ultimately just comes off as unfinished.
WaterWorld is similar to the other 2 games, and is by far the easiest to both play and solve. The cool title screen from EarthWorld is back (although the handle is slightly different) and the game keeps the attract mode from FireWorld. Your character still resembles the one from FireWorld (except it's now white) and the doorway and room coloring is a mix of both previous games.
There are still a total of 16 different objects, but gone are the rope, dagger, water, leather armor, grappling hook, short sword, and food; replacing them are the Crown, king's ring, medallion, money purse, royal seal, scepter, and throne. The ring is now called the peasant's ring, and the oil lamp is called the lamp, but the icon is not the same one used in EarthWorld. There are only 7 rooms and 3 different skill + action tests. You must pass a skill test to gain full access to all the objects in a room (though most can be skipped with the right objects), and now there is a time limit as to when you need to beat it (you can also bypass any test by hitting the fire button, but the same restriction applies). If you pass it, you'll briefly see the sword from EarthWorld's title screen; if you don't, you'll simply see the SwordQuest title screen text. In the Sea of Sharks test, you must swim from the left side of the screen to the right against a steady stream of sharks moving right-to-left. Bumping into any shark puts you back to the left side of the screen. In the School of Octopi test, you must swim from the top of the screen to the bottom past octopi constantly moving back-and-forth horizontally across the screen. It's a bit more challenging since you have to exit through an opening that's centered. The 3rd test, Slippery Ice Floes, is identical to EarthWorld's Rafts of Aquarius but much easier due to the floes not changing speed or shape. Unlike the Rafts, you can move across the bottom before you start jumping, but you can only jump up (no back-tracking). Once you figure out the pattern to reaching the top, the Japanese Geisha-like tune that plays every time you jump will be stuck in your head for all time. Different musical tunes also play every time you enter or leave a room.
Solving this game requires you to place 4 (and only 4) of 7 correct objects in each room. Clues are given to you as you pick up or drop objects in each room. If that wasn't enough help (and it actually is), the game came with a hint booklet, so there's really no excuse for anybody not being able to solve this one. Whether or not this was intentionally made to be easier to solve (perhaps to get more people involved) I don't know, but I know the contest deadline was extended for another 4 months, and they apparently had less correct applicants than for FireWorld. A tune will play while a numerical clue is displayed on your inventory strip at the bottom (sorry, no special graphics screen here). Where the other games allowed you to continue playing and finding more clues, WaterWorld ends every time you find a clue! Again, the Crown object isn't hidden and it would have been nice to play through a single game, uncover all the clues, and receive the Crown as a reward.
By the time WaterWorld reached my local stores, the industry crash was in full swing, and a game that was originally an Atari Age exclusive was now in bargain bins near the end of 1984 for less than $5. Atari's magazine had folded by then, along with just about every other video game magazine, and it was clear the final game in the series, AirWorld, would never be released. Whereas EarthWorld was too hard to solve and FireWorld too frustrating to play, WaterWorld is far too easy to solve. Tod Frye planned on making AirWorld radically different from the other 3, with your character flying (1st-person) on a horse, dodging stuff and picking up items, and selecting 1 of 64 different mini games to play. He had a somewhat-playable prototype working when he was pulled off it to work on another game, and soon after the SwordQuest project was cancelled.
For more SwordQuest information, check out the SwordQuest Archive of Adventure and SwordQuest Revisted pages.
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