The company that calls itself Atari these days is releasing the fourth and final game in the SwordQuest series, as part of the brand’s 50th Anniversary Celebration. Atari was founded in 1972 by Nolan Bushnell, Al Alcorn, and Ted Dabny, making 2022 the 50th anniversary of the brand’s existence.
The SwordQuest series was an ambitious, ahead of its time, puzzle/quest game, intricately tied into a real-world contest to solve each game. The first three games in the series: EarthWorld, FireWorld, and WaterWorld were released, but the final game, AirWorld, was never developed and was canceled amid the 1983 video game crash.
Each game was packaged with a comic book which told the story and held hidden clues which the player would follow while playing the game to try to discover the secret. Players who solved the puzzle were entered into a contest where they could real jewel-encrusted gold prizes, worth $25,000 according to Atari: a scepter, a crown, and a cup. I think the plan for the fourth prize was a sword, but like the game you’d need to beat for a chance to win it, it was never made.
The games were very cryptic, and would have been suitable for older (teenage and up) gamers. As a 7 year old, I didn’t really understand what was going on in these games, but spent hours wandering around, trying to collect the objects from the rooms to figure out what they did, and what you were supposed to do in the game, but never really understood that the game required the comic books in order to solve the real puzzles and beat the game. You controlled a man who ran around a top-down “overworld” which consisted of mostly empty rooms with doorways to each of the cardinal directions. The only difference between the overworld rooms was their color, and sometimes items that were found there. Many of the rooms had a challenge that you had to overcome before you could enter. This challenge consisted of one of a selection of mini-games where you had to evade obstacles in order to pass from one side of the screen to the other. Typically if you fail the challenge, you get knocked back and have to start over, or you can give up and back out. EarthWorld, FireWorld, and WaterWorld had color schemes and graphical themes corresponding to their respective elements, as well as tie-ins with things like the Zodiac.
The mini-games were challenging enough, and were fun enough, when they weren’t infuriatingly unfair.
EarthWorld and FireWorld are very common, but WaterWorld is a rare cartridge. It was produced in limited numbers and I think it was only available by mail order or some kind of limited time special order offer. A friend had a copy, which I was fortunate to be able to play when I as a kid, and I never realized that it was so rare. As a result WaterWorld is an expensive collector’s item, although as a game it’s not really any better than the other two, which, apart from their contest allure to win real-world gold prizes, are not really great games by modern standards, barely worth replaying now.
Not much is known about AirWorld yet, but we can expect it will likely be similar in format as the first three, but perhaps more refined, than the other SwordQuest games. We do know that it will play on the 2600, and that it was not a re-discovered unreleased game, but was developed only recently. I’m actually curious to see what it’s like, and looking forward to playing it, just to be able to complete it. A re-issue of WaterWorld that I could buy at a reasonable price would be nice, but Atari’s re-releases of 2600 games have been priced at $100, which is about what a loose copy of WaterWorld is worth. There’s no word as yet on whether there will be a new contest with a big-ticket gold prize, but I’m not holding my breath.
When finally released, SwordQuest AirWorld will set a record for the longest time between initial announcement and release — about 40 years — beating Metroid: Dread (16 years) and Duke Nukem Forever (15 years) by over a decade. (Of the three Duke Nukem Forever was supposedly under continual development, and was never canceled, making it the longest continual game development project.)