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The SwordQuest Experience - The Atari Times

The SwordQuest Experience

How I Found Out What Was Inside an Atari Cartridge
by Rebecca Pinkoski

October 23, 2003
This originally started out as a review of SwordQuest Earthworld, but I find I have very little to say about the game itself. The graphics were quite nice by 2600 standards, nothing was terribly difficult to master, nothing could kill you or take your stuff, and the little guy on screen went where you wanted him to go. It came with a nice thick instruction manual saying you were on a quest for the Warrior's Sword... quest, sword, SwordQuest! Then I realized that what I REALLY wanted to relate was how this game preyed on my mind in two separate ways, leading me on a lifelong (for me, anyway) quest for knowledge, enlightenment, and an answer to the questions "What the heck was going on in SwordQuest, anyway?" and "What's inside an Atari cartridge?"

Let us now travel back in time, back even before my time as an Atari junkie, to the time when my family got its second 2600, the first one having broken (the power switch would only stay on if held down by a helpful finger or a wad of masking tape.) Both 2600s had come packed with Combat, leaving us with 2 of the same game. Since everyone else who owned a 2600 had Combat, there wasn't even anyone to donate it to, so my brother Mikey pried the black plastic casing open to see what was inside. I was just a toddler at the time and never got to see what was inside a game, much to my long-lasting aggravation.

Through the years I wondered and wondered what mysterious force lay inside those black plastic boxes but all our games were either bought by someone else who would murder me if I was caught breaking them, or games I loved and would never wreck for anything. Therefore, I was left to wonder.

Now for the other question, which arose a few years later.

Anyway, on that long-ago summer day Angie and I popped Earthworld into the Atari, turned it on, and went, "COOL!" Any game with a title screen of a giant, flashy sword, we felt, was gonna be great. Angie eagerly took a turn, running the little guy on screen through a series of rooms named after what I knew were constellations, astronomy books being a great favorite of mine at the time, and horoscopes, which were just jokey bits in the paper that had something to do with when your birthday was.

There were a boatload of items scattered throughout the 12 rooms which didn't really seem to have much to do with anything. Some objects had effects on the world at large, i.e. the Talisman of Passage meant you could run through the otherwise impassible side doors, but the Key did the same bloody thing. The Amulet let you wander randomly into any room but the one you wanted. The Shoes of Stealth did nothing but eliminate the persistent walking noise, which was a relief to the ears but not otherwise helpful.

On and on we wandered until we blundered into one room, when the screen lit up with a flashing rainbow display showing the mysterious message 16 4! Hot Diggety! We had uncovered one of the word clues the manual told us to watch out for! Except 16 4 wasn't a word, and nothing we could think up made any sense. Matching up numbers with corresponding letters yielded "PD." Police department? Pet dog? Pretty dumb?

Those familiar with the SwordQuest games are no doubt screaming "You were supposed to look in the comic book and the numbers were page and panel numbers and there were hidden clues in the artwork!" Hang on, I'll get to that in due time.

Since the game was mostly wandering through these rooms picking up and dropping objects at random, Angie soon lost interest, as did I. The four skill challenges provided me with a bit of distraction, but three were absurdly easy. Dodge the Spears of Sagittarius and the Horns of Taurus, same darn thing except the horns were smaller, and you could bypass either if you had the right item. The trippy rainbow Leo Waterfall was also a cinch; all it took was timing, and I believe you could bypass that one also. The fourth was incredibly frustrating: the Aquarius Rafts. "All" you had to do was jump across a river on moving rafts a la Frogger, with the annoying complication that the rafts would join up, break apart, speed up, slow to a crawl at random. The usual result was you'd be one hop from the goal when your raft would zoom off like a Ferrari while the last one was putzing along like a Model T, so you couldn't make the jump and wound up at the bottom of the screen, to try again, and again, and again, to get to the goal where you didn't know what to do when you got there.

The cartridge got shoved into the no-man's-land at the back of the storage box; on occasion I would take it out and try again. As I got older and learned more about astrology, I would try to match up objects with astrological "traits." Cancers are domestic and kindly, maybe the food goes in there? Nope. More literal interpretations were tried. Ok, Sagittarius is a warrior, so if I put the short sword and shield in there... nada. I managed to get one more number clue by accident which also didn't make any sense to me.

One dull winter evening, I, now a high school sophomore, resolved to try one last time more, and one time only. I sat down and spent the whole night carefully carting every single object into every single Zodiac room, and since you could only carry 6 at a time it took a bazillion trips to move the whole pile, especially since the amulet would send you to random rooms. Nuthin'. Then it hit me... I'd never win this rotten game. Angie was long done with it and hated it. 

A bit of prying with a screwdriver...

The chip inside was green, studded with silver pins. Various circuits ran hither and yon under the green plastic laminated to the chip, glowing a bit golden underneath my kitchen lights. The contact points which got pushed into the console were as ordered and neat as piano keys. It was kind of pretty, and it was hard and kind of sad to believe that this little hunk of plastic and metal had given me so much aggro for so long. Anyhoo, I was thrilled to at last get to witness the answer to one life quest: what was inside a cartridge.

Now, then, fast-forward to early 2003, when I, now 27, was surfing the 'Net and the thought surfaced: why not type SwordQuest Earthworld into a search engine and see if I get any hits? It was something to kill a couple minutes, and little did I imagine I'd get the answer to my other big question.

Imagine my total shock to discover what had been missing: the comic book! Now, I read that instruction manual about 9 billion times and never saw anything about a comic book, or that the whole game was part of a big money contest, and that the point of the game wasn't really to find the Warrior's Sword or save the day, just to uncover the hidden word clues in the comic before anyone else.

I was into comics then like I was into videogames, for the same reasons (imagination, escape) and even at a young age I might have cracked the code. In fact, as soon as I found the scanned comic itself I went to page 16, panel 4, and after a bit of squinting and hunting found the word "spire" hidden in the artwork. It meant nothing to me in the context of the game, but I found it! Yippee!

That made me wonder did Angie buy a cartridge on sale, either previously played and missing some of its packaging, or marked down because it was missing the most important part, the comic? It's hard to tell because I never knew anyone who made heads or tails out of the game, or the follow-up game Fireworld for that matter. I never knew anyone who got Waterworld, or indeed anyone who cared enough to bother.

If my Earthworld cartridge were still intact, would I play it again knowing what I know now? Nope. I read the solutions online, where to get the clues, which all seem to be carrying random objects into rooms in an order that doesn't make sense. In addition to that, the game is boring because there's no challenge, no enemies to kill or points to rack up, no point even trying because it's part of a contest that was over 20 years ago. It's not even fun to play. You don't even get a reward for winning; from what I've read, once you get all the clues in the game you get the Warrior's Sword, but it doesn't do anything, and the game doesn't end. Whoop-dee-doo!

The game didn't really have anything to do with the comic itself (only one player instead of the twins, no Mentors, no king or evil wizard, attacking Zodiac characters nowhere in sight.) I came to the depressing conclusion that the game was made almost impossibly hard just to keep too many people from solving it. Perhaps a game that followed the comic too closely was beyond the capacity of the Atari 2600, and perhaps it was a game that shouldn't have been made. Or they should have made a game playable (and understandable!) on its own and have the comic as an interesting aside, like the "Atari Force" or Yar's Revenge comics.

Wouldn't it have been better to put out a game everyone could play and win? To me, solving a puzzle using your wits or just plain scoring higher than someone else is more rewarding that having about a 1 in a zillion chance of winning some garish gewgaw like the prizes in the SwordQuest contest. To mere mortals like me and Angie and most videogame junkies, games are about fun and bragging rights, and the SwordQuest games ain't fun.

Reader Comments for The SwordQuest Experience

Help me Torra! by Torr on 2007-01-13 01:52:58
Help me Torra! I'm stuck. I'm trapped inside Fireworld! Please help me sister! Where are you? I started reading this stupid comic book and then got sucked into my Atari cartridge. Fireworld has changed a little since the 80s. One of the treasure rooms has internet access so I figured I'd check online to see if anyone had found a way out yet. I was checking some of the posted walkthroughs and guides, but none of them work. Clue number 08 that is on everyone's website doesn't friggin' work! My Atari has been plugged in since 1985! I'd really like to get on to that Waterworld, so if you know of anyone who has been to Fireworld before, send them my way. I'm the only one around.They say there was one "contest winner" who made it out... I bet it was my double-crossing sister Torra!
Swordquest SUCKED!!! by Paul on 2007-01-31 13:41:54
I remember as a 12 year old, trying to jot down on paper the combinations of objects to rooms. I had actually gotten 4 or 5 clues, but then my mind folded in upon itself realizing there were about 20 kajillion possible combinations. Had these guys mentioned that at the very least that the solutions had no room with two objects in them, maybe that would have been enough to keep me going, but I just pitched the cart and moved onto pornography.
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