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Video Game / Swordquest

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The most expensive video game contest never completed.

"Come questing with bold siblings twain,
Prime thieves of ravaged Earth;
Next journey to the Fireworld,
Land of volcanoes' birth.
Waves without number- Water's realm-
But 'ware of evils there;
Last, ride the Air's winds heaven-high
To claim a prize most rare."

In 1982, Atari, at the height of its power during The Golden Age of Video Games, decided to do a sequel to Adventure. The ideas they came up with were very ambitious: A four-part Action-Adventure series, built around a series of contests for big-buck real world prizes. They came up with a story about two brave young adventurers, Torr and Tarra, and their quest for the Sword of Ultimate Sorcery. They threw in every ancient and mystic symbol they could think of: The Four Elements, the Western Zodiac, the Kabbalah Tree of Life, the Chakra points, and the I Ching. They commissioned the Franklin Mint to make five prizes, worth a total of $150,000 (about $480,000 in 2023), and hired DC Comics to make a comic book for each game that would set the story, and hold clues for the contests.

The games themselves would hold clues to the contest. You would find clues in the game in the form of a two number code, referring to a page and panel of the comic. In that panel, you would find a word hidden in the artwork. After you found all the words, you would try to figure out what the sentence was. Then you would send what you thought was the right sentence to Atari, and if you got it right, you would be entered into one of the contests. In each contest, you would play a special version of the game, and the one who found the most clues in a limited time would receive one of the prizes: A $25,000 Talisman of Penultimate Truth, a $25,000 Chalice of Light, a $25,000 Crown of Life, and a $25,000 Philosopher's Stone. The winners of these contests would then compete with each other for the grand prize, the $50,000 Sword of Ultimate Sorcery.

OK, but what about gameplay?

  • The first release, in October 1982, was Swordquest: Earthworld. You play a Featureless Protagonist, who doesn't look anything like Torr or Tarra, just a guy in a blue shirt. He wanders around 12 rooms, one for each of the signs of the Zodiac. You've got some Standard RPG Items; a Dagger, a Grappling Hook, Rope, a Short Sword, Leather Armor, a Lamp, Shoes of Stealth, a Cloak of Invisibility, an Amulet, a Ring, a Necklace, a Talisman, Food and Drink, a Pitcher of Water, and a Key. And you've got some Mini Games, mostly based on Frogger. But the items don't do anything except allow you to skip some of the minigames. There are no enemies, no chasms to cross, nothing to feed, and nothing to sneak past. The only thing you actually do is carry the objects from room to room. With trial and error, you eventually find the combinations of objects in rooms that reveal clues. If you get all 10 clues, then you get to see the title screen again, and you're given the completely useless Warrior's Sword. A clue hidden in the manual tells you how to assemble the clues into the correct sentence. So it works as a contest tool, but not as a game in itself.
  • The second game, Swordquest: Fireworld, was released in February 1983 in an unfinished state. Some of the minigames are virtually Unwinnable. If you hit a wall just right, you warp through it or get stuck. And the clues aren't even there, just numbers from 00 to 09, invokedplaceholders for clues that were never coded.
  • Swordquest: Waterworld was released in February 1984, and is considered the best of the three. It doesn't have Fireworld's bugs, and it gives you clues to the item/room combinations. But gameplay is still just a matter of hauling stuff from room to room. The Great Video Game Crash of 1983 had hit by this time, so Waterworld saw only a limited release.
  • Swordquest: Airworld never got past the design stage, due to the Crash. Fortunately, almost 40 years later, the game is finally realized as part of Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration, a Compilation Rerelease that marks Atari's invoked50th anniversary and is released for Steam, Epic Games Store, and consoles belonging to The Eighth Generation of Console Video Games on November 11, 2022, with development coming from Digital Eclipse (the company handling the compilation) and inspired by the design concepts of original Swordquest creator Tod Frye.

Due to The Great Video Game Crash of 1983, only competitions for Earthworld and Fireworld were ever held, and the Talisman and Chalice awarded. It was heavily rumored and/or joked that the Crown, Stone, and Sword were in the possession of Jack Tramiel, who bought Atari in 1984, but in 2015 a Facebook conversation confirmed that they were returned to the Franklin Mint and melted down. Only the Chalice still exists in full; most of the Talisman was melted down by the winner. A later investigation revealed that there had in fact been a quiet, semi-secret contest among the 10 winners of Waterworld, as the game had been released under the stipulation that the contest would go ahead and thus it legally had to be held. Who the 10 gamers that took part in the contest were, and which one ended up winning the Crown, is unknown.

The Angry Video Game Nerd did a rather respectful review (contrary to his usual style) of the series, which can be seen here.

Details about the Comic Book series can be found here.

The Swordquest video games provide examples of:

  • All There in the Manual: Almost everything. The plot, characters, enemies, and what the items are supposed to do, are only in the manual and comic book.
  • Cutscene: Every time you go from room to room, there is a short first-person animation of you walking to the next room.
  • Cut Short: Airworld and its accompanying comic book were never released (or, more accurately, they were barely started) due to the Crash.