Swordquest is an unfinished series of video games produced by Atari, Inc. in the 1980s as part of a contest, consisting of three finished games, Earthworld, Fireworld, and Waterworld, and a planned fourth game, Airworld. Each of the games came with a comic book that explained the plot, as well as containing part of the solution to a major puzzle that had to be solved to win the contest, with a series of prizes on offer whose total value was $150,000. The series had its genesis as a possible sequel to Atari's groundbreaking 1979 title Adventure, but it developed mythology and system of play that was unique.
The comic books were produced by DC Comics, written by Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway, and drawn and inked by George Pérez and Dick Giordano. All three game box covers were illustrated by an Atari in-house illustrator, Warren Chang. A special fan club offer was provided, allowing those who wanted the game to also get a T-shirt and poster for each game.
The games of the Swordquest series (along with Atari 2600 Raiders of the Lost Ark) were some of the earliest attempts to combine the narrative and logic elements of the adventure game genre with the twitch gameplay of the action genre, making them some of the very first action-adventure games. However, the last two contests along with the grand finale contest were never held, and the final game in the series was not released, due to Atari's financial problems related to the video game crash of 1983.
Each game of the Swordquest series was themed after the classical elements: earth, fire, water, and air. Each game required the player to move through a maze of rooms, collecting objects from one and placing them in other rooms. The arrangement or theme of the rooms varied with each game: Earthworld was themed after the Western zodiac, Fireworld after the Kabbalah tree of life, Waterworld after the chakras, and with Airworld to have been modeled after the I Ching. Traversing between rooms sometimes required the player to complete a "twitch"-style minigame to progress. When the player placed an item in its correct room, they would be presented with numerical clues that referred to a page and panel within the comic that was packaged with the game. There, the player would find a hidden word that was part of the larger Swordquest contest, as by submitting all the correct words in the correct order to Atari, they would be entered into the next phase of the project. The discovered words would form a relevant phrase towards the larger contest. In at least two cases, for Earthworld and Fireworld, there were more clues indicated by the game than required to be submitted. Players also had to identify a second clue in the game's instruction manual (for Earthworld, indicating prime numbers to use only clues on prime numbered pages) to know which clues to send in.
The games follow twins named Tarra and Torr. Their parents were slain by King Tyrannus's guards, prompted by a prophecy by the king's wizard Konjuro that the twins would slay Tyrannus. The twins were then raised as commoners by thieves to avoid being slain by the king. When they go to plunder Konjuro's sea keep, they accidentally reveal their identities to him. The twins then start running from a demon summoned to kill them, but it appears that a jewel they stole attracts it. After smashing the stone to avoid the demon, two of Tyrannus's old advisers appear and tell the two about the "Sword of Ultimate Sorcery" and the "Talisman of Penultimate Truth." They are then transported to Earthworld.
After defeating many beasts of the Zodiac and another thief (Herminus) in Earthworld, the twins are transported to the "central chamber" where the "Sword of Ultimate Sorcery" and the "Talisman of Penultimate Truth" are kept. Upon reaching them, the sword burns a hole through its altar all the way to Fireworld. In Fireworld, the twins split up to look for water, and Torr, with the aid of the talisman, summons Mentorr who shows Torr the "Chalice of Light," which will quench his thirst. The twins reunite eventually and find the chalice. However, Torr drops it after he is startled, and it is revealed that the one they found was not the true chalice. Herminus then gives them the chalice, and it grows until it becomes large enough to swallow the twins and transports them to Waterworld.
Upon reaching Waterworld, the twins become separated. Tarra travels to a ship made of ice, somehow forgets her name, and meets Cap'n Frost, who desires to find the "Crown of Life" and rule Waterworld. Meanwhile, Torr travels to an undersea kingdom, forgets his name as well and meets the city's ex-queen Aquana, who desires to find the "Crown of Life" in order to regain her throne. After a brief war between the ex-queen and captain, Herminus sets the twins to duel each other. They then pray to their deities for guidance, which summons Mentorr who allows them to regain their memories. The twins throw down their swords, causing the crown to be revealed and split in half. The halves are given to the ex-queen and the captain, who then rule as equals. The "Sword of Ultimate Sorcery" then transports the twins to Airworld where they would have to do battle with King Tyrannus and Konjuro.
While the comic for Airworld was started, the cancellation of the series left the comic unfinished.
The concept of Swordquest originated from Atari's previous Adventure video game, which is notable for one of the first documented Easter eggs. Adventure drew more interest once the Easter egg was found and documented, leading Atari to come up with a type of sequel where "marketing thought it would be a great idea to create a series of games where players would have to find clues both in the game [and in its physical materials]", as described by Atari historian Curt Vendel. As Atari was owned by Warner Communications at this point, they were able to use two of Warner's subsidiaries to help with this contest. DC Comics was used to create the comic book that would help creating the setting where the word clues would be hidden, written by Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas and illustrated by George Pérez. The Franklin Mint crafted the game's prizes. The games themselves were programmed by Tod Frye.
Atari had designed the Swordquest contest to award a winner for each of the four games. For each game, they had planned to bring all winners to the Atari headquarters in Sunnyvale, California, to race to complete a specially-programmed version of that game to be the first to finish it. The person with the fastest completion would be named the winner and be awarded a "treasure", produced by Franklin Mint, each valued at around US$25,000 at the time of Swordquest's release. The prizes were:
- Earthworld: The "Talisman of Penultimate Truth", an 18-carat solid gold disc studded with 12 diamonds and the birthstones of the 12 Zodiac signs, along with a miniature white gold sword set atop it.
- Fireworld: The "Chalice of Light", a goblet made of platinum and gold studded with diamonds, rubies, sapphires, pearls, and green jade.
- Waterworld: The "Crown of Life", a solid gold crown decorated with diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and aquamarines.
- Airworld: The "Philosopher’s Stone", a large piece of white jade in an 18-karat gold box encrusted with emeralds, rubies, and diamonds.
The four winners would then have competed in a final contest to win the ultimate prize, "The Sword of Ultimate Sorcery" with a silver blade and an 18-carat gold handle covered with diamonds, emeralds, sapphires, and rubies, that was valued at US$50,000
For Earthworld, about 5000 entries were received, but only eight answered correctly. The contest was held in May 1983, with Stephen Bell winning the Talisman. For Fireworld, Atari received several more entries, with 73 of these being correct. For practicality, Atari required the 73 finalists to write a brief essay of what they liked about the game, selecting the top 50 replies to continue to the final competition, held in January 1984. This was won by Michael Rideout, who was awarded the Chalice.
At this point in time, Atari had suffered major financial setbacks due to the 1983 video game crash. Atari was further in the midst of dealing with fallout from an insider trading scandal by former CEO Ray Kassar; Kassar was replaced by James J. Morgan in mid-1983, and looking to cut financial losses, eventually cancelled the Swordquest project, despite work having already started on Airworld. However, because the company had already advertised the availability of the Waterworld contest, Atari's lawyers required the company to continue the contest. To limit the number of entries, Waterworld was only made available to members of the Atari Club. During the contest period, in mid-1984, Atari was sold to Jack Tramiel, the owner of Commodore International. Tramiel, who had been more focused on the success of home computers than gaming consoles, placed the Atari divisions in a new company, Tramel Technology, and reviewed the state of all divisions, furthering the troubles in completing the Waterworld contest. Most who did enter the Waterworld contest were told they did not qualify for the final, but according to Vendel, Atari was legally required to follow through as advertised on the Waterworld contest. Vendel stated that Atari did secretly invite those with correct entries to hold the final round, and the Crown was awarded to a person, their name remaining anonymous due to legal requirements. Because they could not hold the ultimate final round, Bell and Rideout were both awarded an additional US$15,000 as well as an Atari 7800 as a compensation prize, and granting the ten finalists of Waterworld US$2,000 each.
The fate of the prizes has been a type of urban legend since the cancellation of the project. Of the five treasures, Rideout has confirmed, as late as 2017, that he still has the Chalice in his possession, stored in a safety deposit box. Bell fell out of contact following the Swordquest event, but according to Vendel and Rideout, Bell appeared to have had the disc part of the Talisman melted down for its value (about US$15,000 at the time), keeping the small sword, diamonds, and birthstones; the current fate of these is unknown. The fate of the Crown is unknown; Vendel stated that while Atari was required to hold the contest, they could have awarded the winner with a cash prize equivalent as opposed to the Crown.
Since they were never part of any contest, the Philosopher’s Stone and the Sword had seemingly disappeared. Some claimed that Tramiel had taken these prizes for himself, based on observations that Atari staff had made of seeing a similar looking sword mounted on Tramiel's home mantel. Vendel believed that the persons who started this rumor mistook a Tramiel family heirloom for the Swordquest sword. Vendel argued that it was extremely unlikely that Tramiel would have been able to keep the Stone, Sword, and (if not given away) Crown, as when Atari was sold, these items had been property of Warner Communications until awarded and would have been returned to the Franklin Mint. With the Franklin Mint being later sold in 1985 to American Protective Services, and the original Atari business no more, the Mint would have more likely smelted the items back to their base components to reuse elsewhere, according to Vendel.
Each of the three released games shipped with a comic book, published jointly by Atari and DC Comics. The books included clues to solve the puzzles within each of the games.
Dynamite Entertainment Mini-Series
In February 2017, Dynamite Entertainment announced a new comic book series, called Swordquest, but based on the actual contest around the three games, rather than the story within the games. It was a six-issue series, starting with a special #0 "Preview" book that sold with a cover price of 25¢. The remaining 5 issues, published monthly after the Preview, sold at $3.99 each. In addition, Dynamite released a trade paperback volume that reprinted the above 3 Mini-Comics along with the Mini-Comic for the game Yars' Revenge. As with the originals, the TPB is sized as a mini-comic itself.
The series featured the story of a person who had played the three Swordquest games (with help from two friends who were brother and sister) when he was younger and was anticipating Airworld. Now as an adult, he continues his efforts to play Airworld using his old Atari hardware, but manages to get caught up with a mysterious figure who offers to help him obtain the real "Sword of Ultimate Sorcery" from its resting place in the World Arcade Museum. As well as being valuable, it may have its own mysterious powers. The man contacts his two childhood friends to accompany him on his new "Swordquest".
The comic was written by Chad Bowers and Chris Sims and had art by Scott Kowalchuk under the pseudonym "Ghostwriter X". The first #0 "Preview" issue got published in May 2017, with the remaining 5 issues released monthly after that. A trade paperback reprint of all 6 issues, titled Swordquest: Realworld was released in February 2018.
Richard A. Edwards reviewed Swordquest: Earthworld in The Space Gamer No. 61. Edwards commented that "The only reason to purchase a copy of Swordquest: Earthworld is to try and solve the puzzle and win the prize. Gamers not interested in spending the time required should pass this one."
In popular culture
- Grundhauser, Eric (March 8, 2016). "The Quest for the Real-Life Treasures of Atari's Swordquest". Atlas Obscura. Retrieved September 28, 2018.
- "The Players Guide to Fantasy Games". Electronic Games. June 1983. p. 47. Retrieved 6 January 2015.
- Iwaniuk, Phil (August 6, 2017). "The 35-year hunt for Swordquest's lost treasures". Eurogamer. Retrieved September 28, 2018.
- Parr, Andrew (October 2018). "The $378,870.10 Contest That Wasn't". Games World of Puzzles. pp. 38–39.
- McWhertor, Michael (February 20, 2017). "Atari's bringing back its Swordquest comics". Polygon. Retrieved February 20, 2017.
- Edwards, Richard A. (March 1983). "Capsule Reviews". The Space Gamer. Steve Jackson Games (61): 42, 44.
- Atari Protos SwordQuest: AirWorld
- Atari Protos SwordQuest: EarthWorld
- Atari Protos SwordQuest: FireWorld
- Atari Protos SwordQuest: WaterWorld
- AtariAge entry for Swordquest: Earthworld
- AtariAge entry for Swordquest: Fireworld
- AtariAge entry for Swordquest: Waterworld
- AtariAge Comic Book Archive
- The SwordQuest Comic Book Archive
- Swordquest Interview With Michael Rideout
- SwordQuest: EarthWorld at MobyGames