On History: Swordquest

By | Tuesday, March 10, 2015 2 comments
Atari was the home gaming system in the late 1970s and early 1980s. There were some competitors like Colecovision and Intellivision, but no one had more than a smallest percentage of the gaming market compared to Atari.

In the early '80s, Atari paired up with DC to produce a series of comics based on some of their games. There were four titles originally, and were packaged with some of the games themselves. The one that really stands out to me is Swordquest. In part because it was done by some really top-notch talent: Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, George Pérez, and Dick Giordano. But what also stood out to me was the contest associated with it.

There were intended to be four games in the series. In each game, the player had to solve a series of logic puzzles (interspersed with some action sequences) and solving each puzzle revealed a clue. The clues directed people to a page and panel in the accompanying comic book with a word stealthily drawn into the art. If you found the five correct words -- there were red herrings as well -- and placed them in the correct order, you could compete in an official playoff. (As an example, you can see the word "revealed" in scales of the fish in the foreground of this image.) There was one playoff for each game, and the winner of each would win a trophy item of some sort: a crown, a chalice, a talisman, or a philosopher's stone, each ostensibly worth about $25,000. Those four winners would then compete for a grand prize of a sword valued at $50,000.

Pérez was a perfect choice for this project. Not only does the sword and sorcery genre well-suited to his style generally, but his intricate linework allows for relatively easy placement of hidden messages. In fact, I had to go to one of the later issues for the example here because the earlier ones are almost too well-hidden! But in getting Thomas and Conway to write the books, they were clearly wanted this to look like as professional a comic as possible. They tied in very well with the games themselves, and provided a solid bridge between the individual gameplay and the overall story arc Atari was trying to convey. (Frankly, the games themselves did not do that at all. There's barely any story within the games, though, to be fair, there's only so much story and gameplay you can pack into a 32 Kb cartridge!)

Ultimately, and unfortunately, the series was never completed. Atari ran into some serious financial difficulties mid-way through this contest. The first three games (and comics) were released, but only the first two contests were held. The third contest was cancelled part-way through, and the fourth (as well as the championship) got nixed entirely. My understanding is the fourth comic was never completed; I don't know how much was ultimately written or pencilled, but it never got to Giordano's desk for inking.

All of the Atari comics, including the first three issues of the Swordquest series can be read over at AtariAge.
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Mike F said...

The biggest problems with the games is that there was no logic to getting the clues. I had Earthworld, and enjoyed the game when I first started to play it. Now The first 4 clues did seem to have some logic behind it, so I spent a lot of time trying to get the next clue using similar logic, but never did. Once I was in college and found the 2600 Connection newsletter, I saw the solution and played through it. The rest of clues involved putting different combination of objects in random rooms that seemed to have no relation to each other. Fireworld was even worse, you put one object in another room and 4 in another to get one clue, then repeat that for all the clues. And just to get into the room in Fireworld was really difficult, as some of the mini-games to get into the rooms were nearly impossible. If they wanted a successful series, the actions to get the clues should have been built on something that you could reason out and solve rather than being random.

I read an interview with the guy who won the Fireworld competition. He actually mentioned the same problem with Earthworld, and said for the last clue, he just gave up and started looking for ANY hidden words in the comic.

I feel somewhat vindicated that my 11-year-old self came NOT AT ALL close to even completing Earthworld.