At the height of its power in 1982, the Atari empire’s gilded face smiled down on gamers from a throne made out of black plastic cartridges and tattered silver labels, all against a backdrop of awesome box art.
That was also right before the fabled Videogame Crash began chipping away at not only their Money Bin, but the rest industry’s in 1983. But in ’82, no one saw it coming. Atari shrugged the horrors of its Pac Man port while plowing forward at full speed deciding that it was time to celebrate gaming in as big a way as possible with a monster contest promising a whopping $150,000 in prizes.
The Swordquest series promised to be huge. It was conceived across four different games: Earthworld, Fireworld, Waterworld, and Airworld and each would have a “$25,000” prize attached to them. The prizes, made by that purveyor of questionable collectables, the Franklin Mint, were probably the only items it made that were worth the money. To get a shot at any of these real-life treasures, players had to get through the games and match up the word clues in the accompanying comics, penned and illustrated by DC, which told the story of the series.
The swords & sorcery storyline was epic stuff. It revolved around twins, a sister and brother, who accidentally cross an evil wizard and are eventually caught up in a quest for the Sword of Ultimate Sorcery. It will take them across four worlds representing the elements and they turned out to be a lot more entertaining than the actual games.
The first game, Earthworld, consisted of a series of rooms based on the Zodiac. Some of these had action oriented challenges such as jumping across logs, Frogger-style, or getting through a field of arrows. There was no “death”, only getting bounced back to the start of the puzzle. You even had an inventory for items which needed to be used to help figure out certain puzzles by leaving the correct one in each of the 12 rooms, often by blind experimentation since the game itself didn’t give you much of anything to work with.
When you found a clue, the screen lit up and numbers such as “16 5” would appear meaning to turn to page sixteen in the comic and find the fifth panel on that page that had a hint of what to do next. But this wasn’t the same as what Epyx’s Temple of Apshai made players do in reading from its own book which contained room descriptions to enhance the playing experience. It was strictly about puzzle solving. So as an action adventure title, it wasn’t so much of one tied around a traditional narrative as it was a narrowly obtuse puzzle surrounded by mini-games. This was no Adventure.
The other games were relatively the same with some slight variations, but the series was never completed. Waterworld, for example, was available only to Atari Club members limiting who could get access to it. Airworld was never released. There were also quite a few people who found the clues for the three games forcing Atari to narrow the selection even further on their end with a series of questions to try and skim the numbers.
Eventually it was winnowed down to fifty players for Earthworld who were gathered together at Atari’s expense, repeating again with Fireworld. Towards the end, with Waterworld, Atari narrowed things even further from 50 winners to just 15. Those invited would them compete in a final timed contest for that world to determine the victor, though that had apparently only happened with Earthworld and Fireworld as we’ll see later.
But the prizes would become the “lost treasures” of gaming in a literal sense as replicas of the actual relics that our heroes, Torr and Tarra, went after in the comics. There really was a golden Talisman for Earthworld, a gold forged and jewel encrusted Chalice, a Crown, and the Philosopher’s Stone. The Sword of Ultimate Sorcery, which was said to be valued at $50,000, had also existed.
In an interview with Atari enthusiast site, Atari HQ, by John Hardie, Fireworld winner Michael Rideout verified that the prizes were actually real and that he still has the Chalice. The Talisman was “melted down” by its winner, Steven Bell, though he kept the white gold sword that was held in the center of it. You can even read the original article on his win here, preserved on the ‘net.
As Atari’s fortunes started to turn in ’83, the Waterworld contest, which had an entry deadline slated for December 15th, 1984, ended up being canceled. As Rideout recalls, they had offered him and Steven Bell $15,000 and everyone else who were runners up $2,000 as consolation. The thing was, they had to all agree to take the money for the contest to end, which is apparently what happened. And who can blame them? At that point, Atari was starting to feel the financial belt tightening leaving everything in doubt. The contest entries also didn’t say anything in the event of a cancellation, so there were likely legal considerations that Atari sought to find a way out of at the same time.
So just what happened to Waterworld’s Crown, Airworld’s Philosopher’s Stone, or the Sword of Ultimate Sorcery with its platinum blade and jewel encrusted hilt? No one really knows. Rumor has it that the missing prizes, especially the Sword, ended up in the hands of the father of the Commodore computer, Jack Tramiel, after he bought Atari in ’84. Having passed away earlier this year in April, only his family may know the truth. However, other internet sleuths have also tried to uncover more of the series’ history. An extensive article written by Scott Stilphen for the “2600 Connection” is loaded with even more information and photos.
The two page spread below portrays each of the worlds and the prizes involved as our two heroes gaze up at the final prize in their journey. All four game boxes were even lined up at the end of the text at the top describing the contest and enticing would-be adventurers to test their brains instead of their reflexes over each one. The series also mirrored Atari’s swift fall from glory by slowly dying with it. Yet although the games weren’t so much to write home about, what I really wanted to know was whether Torr and Tarra found their Sword of Ultimate Sorcery and stuck it to the evil wizard at the end.