40 years after the final game in the SwordQuest series was canceled, Atari is finally about to release the long-forgotten AirWorld chapter.
A teaser video showing gameplay shows that the game appears to be keeping with the style of the first three chapters, EarthWorld, FireWorld, and WaterWorld. Whether that’s good or not is debatable, but the gameplay does look like it’s a little better than the entries that preceded it, and I do have to give Digital Eclipse a lot of credit for keeping the style of the Atari 2600’s crude system limitations.
The Swordquest games were rather cryptic and not all that enjoyable to play, and not exactly worth the time to play them today, apart from as a historical curiosity, but were part of a massive contest held by Atari in the early 1980s, which helped them to attain a legendary status.
Apparently it goes on sale November 11th, as part of the Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration collection, on “all major platforms”. I take it to mean that there will not be a cartridge version of the game playable on the original Atari VCS hardware.
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.)
The new titles hit the Atari Age store for pre-order yesterday, 12/31. Included in the release this year are two Champ Games arcade ports for the Atari 2600: LadyBug and the much-anticipated RobotWar: 2684.
The new store listings don’t have video clips as yet, and I think videos really help you to decide what to buy, but I’m aware that at least some of these games have had demo or beta romfiles available for a long time, and if you want to try them before you buy physical cartridges, you can seek them out.
Knight Guy in Low-Res World – Castle Days and Game of the Bear look like fun puzzle platformers in a similar style. I’ve played Game of the Bear, the platform action reminds me of Terry Cavanaugh’s Don’t Look Back, which I loved playing about 10 years ago. Cavanaugh’s game was made in Flash, which hasn’t been supported in current browsers since Adobe retired Flash in 2020. Wizard’s Dungeon looks like an action RPG in the vein of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons on the Intellivision.
I haven’t looked closely at the rest of the list, but the titles mentioned above looked the most interesting to me.
Unfortunately, prices are up this year. Atari Age games listed between $25-40 for many years, but this year they’re more like $45-60. This is unfortunate, but I don’t think it’s gouging — there have been chip shortages, and inflation has been high since the pandemic disrupted the world economy. As well, Atari Age has invested in producing new plastic shells for cartridges, rather than cannibalizing them from old games. New games for modern consoles tend to run around $60, and often less than that, so to pay that much for new homebrew releases on obsolete consoles is really something only for the most die-hard fans of classic gaming to afford.
Today, Atari launched a new website, AtariXP.com. And with it, pre-orders for newly manufactured Atari 2600 cartridges, with a promise of more to come.
It looks like Atari is looking to tap into the long, long tail of the original VCS system. So far, they are offering three titles: Aquaventure, Saboteur, and Yars’ Return, in standard ($49.95) and collectors ($149.95) editions.
The about page on the new website says that they intend to release games in the following categories:
Games that were completed but never received an official release, or were only released in very limited quantities.
Games for which physical media has become extremely rare, and therefore hard to find.
A wide variety of classic games that would benefit from small improvements to graphic rendering on modern devices and the smoothness and accuracy of controls. These games will be carefully ‘reconditioned’ and then re-released.
It will be interesting to see what these improvements might be for the “reconditioned” games. One wonders whether they might also plan to release unfinished prototypes, similarly finalized. We might then get to see a SwordQuest: Air World.
It will be interesting as well to see how well these sell. The homebrew scene has been pricing games at around $25-35 for cartridge and manual, and some more premium titles have been priced north of $40, but whether gamers are willing to go to $50 and beyond for new manufactured Atari cartridges is an open question. The pricing on the collector editions seems beyond what most enthusiasts are willing to pay, but I see this as actually a good thing, since it will keep the collectors variants rare enough to be actually worth collecting, and may be enough to keep speculators out of the market entirely.
Of course, if Atari is releasing new cartridges for the 40+ year old console, it would only be fitting for them to manufacture new consoles to play them on as well, and new joystick and paddle controllers as well. Given the age of the newest manufactured Atari 2600 consoles is now nearly 30 years old, it would be nice if enthusiasts for the old system had the option to buy new hardware that can play the old games.
Obviously, we’ve had a steady diet of Flashback systems for many years, but a console with a cartridge slot would be much better.
A re-specced Atari 2600 that outputs HDMI and has an SD card reader slot in addition to the old-school cartridge slot, and USB ports in addition to the DB9 controller ports would be really appealing. In fact, that’s almost exactly what I had hoped for when Atari first announced their plans for the AtariBox back in 2017.
Of course, with Atari’s track record over the past few years… decades, really, I can’t say I’m quite on board with this yet. It is, after all, a pre-order launch, and with a thin catalog of just 3 titles. Aquaventure has never been officially released before, but the prototype ROM has been available through emulator for many years. Yars’ Return was featured on one of AtGames’ Flashback consoles years ago. And Saboteur was renown Atari designer-programmer Howard Scott Warshaw’s final Atari game, never officially released. These titles definitely have appeal to fans of the classic system, and assuming that Atari can deliver on pre-orders, and follow up with additional releases with equal or greater appeal, this could bode well for Atari fans. While Atari still isn’t actually offering anything new that hasn’t been seen before, being packaged on actual cartridges as an official release is at least something. The “reconditioned” games might be really interesting.
There have been numerous embarrassing errors with Atari’s announcement.
Images on the AtariXP website were mixed up, creating confusion as to what was included in the standard cartridge package vs. the collector’s edition.
Originally, the AtariXP website had attributed all three of the games announced to Howard Scott Warshaw. Warshaw clarified yesterday that the only game he had anything to do with of these three is Saboteur. Saboteur was his fourth and final project when he worked for Atari, and was never officially released. It was also re-skinned to be an A-Team licensed tie-in to the hit 80’s TV show.
Washaw did not work on Aquaventure in any capacity, and while he did create Yars’ Revenge, he had nothing to do with Yars’ Return, which is a romhack of Yars’ Revenge, created by Curt Vendel, and was first released commercially on the Atari Flashback 2 console, way back in 2005.
Warshaw also mentioned that he is currently working on his own sequel to Yars’ Revenge, and it’s unclear whether he has the legal rights to the IP to entitle him to do so, or if not, how he intends to work with the rights holder to do it. Normally, in the homebrew scene creators are often flying under the radar, technically in violation of IP rights to trademarks and copyrights, but often the rights holders ignore these projects, or tolerate them. In some cases, though, there have been takedowns — Nintendo being particularly vigilant about protecting its IP.
In this case, Warshaw has a strong connection to the IP in question, as he was the original creator of Yars’ Revenge, but the IP remains owned by Atari. Presumably, Atari would relish an opportunity to publish a legitimate sequel by the originator of the property, but whether there is any agreement or intention to work together on this project is unclear.
Atari just announced some actual new game titles this week. Well, “new” in the sense that they are “recharged” versions of classic Atari games: Breakout, Centipede, Black Widow, and Missile Command. That’s sort of new, right?
We’ve seen Breakout demoed for a while, but these others I haven’t heard about previously. They all feature vector-like wireframe graphics in neon colors that evoke vectorscan CRT graphics, much like the classic hit Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved. I like the aesthetic.
It’s nice to have something interesting coming out of Atari after years of underwhelming-to-disappointing announcements regarding the VCS console project. It’s really good to finally see something new offered, this is what I would have wanted to see a lot sooner.
Curiously, these Recharged titles are not VCS exclusives — they are all available on Steam, the Epic Games store, Switch, XBox Series X/S, and Playstation 4+5. While I think this approach makes the most business sense — you want to put games in all markets to sell the most copies and maximize revenue, it seemingly undermines the “true believer” customers who invested in the VCS crowdfunding, only to find that they could have just bought the games on any other platform. I’m unclear but it may be that they will be available on the VCS sooner, but even if that’s the case, getting the games a few weeks earlier on a relatively expensive, less powerful hardware platform still doesn’t sell the VCS to me very strongly.
I’m most interested in the Black Widow: Recharged game, as this is the least well known classic Atari title out of the four, and therefore has the most potential to offer as a reboot.
I’ve been pretty critical of Atari for the past few years as the disappointments with the delays and inadequacies of the VCS have mounted, so it’s really nice to finally see something happening that looks like it might actually be cool.
Weirdly, although I’ve seen announcements from various videogame news sites about these titles, Atari’s own website looks like it’s only pushing Centipede: Recharged at the moment. Where’s the other games? Are they holding back so they can focus on each one at a time? Or is the Atari Recharged site just that hard to navigate?
Kurt Howe, known as Nukey Shay in the Atari homebrew developer scene, died last year at age 54, as a result of a tragic accident on Feb 5, 2020, when he was hit by a car while crossing the street in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His loss came as a shock to the Atari Age community as it was discovered over a year later, announced by Albert Yarusso today.
Nukey was a 20 year Atari Age forum contributor, very active in the homebrew and romhacking scene, and a 6502 ASM guru who helped numerous developers with their projects. One of the most knowledgeable active Atari 2600 programmers on the planet, his death mirrors that of Nintendo’s Gunpei Yokoi, a major contributor to Metroid, Kid Icarus, and the original Game Boy handheld, who died in 1997 at age 56 under similar circumstances.
My own Superman romhacks were only possible because Nukey decompiled the ROM and annotated the source code, and shared his work with the world, which made it easy for me to re-arrange the map to create alternative Metropolises. Nukey’s contributions are far too numerous to list succinctly, but his loss is deeply felt by all in the Atari homebrew community.
Phoenix was a hit arcade game in 1980-81 before being ported to the Atari 2600 the following year. A vertical fixed shooter in the tradition of Space Invaders, Phoenix was an evolution of the Space Invaders concept, which added a number of innovations: enemy variety, swooping enemies, regenerating enemies, shields, and a mothership boss — one of the first boss battles in video gaming.
The game consists of five waves, which repeat in a cycle. In the first four stages, you face waves of bird-like enemy space aliens. The first two waves consist of smaller enemies who bear some resemblance to their Space Invaders forebearers, in that they march across the screen in a tight, grid-like formation. But these enemies will break out of their formation and swoop down low to dive bomb the player, and then fly back up again.
The second wave features a larger number of enemies, and for some reason the player is afforded rapid fire on this stage only. On all other stages, you have to press the fire button every time you want to shoot, but on the 2nd wave alone, you can hold the fire button down and it will fire automatically.
The next two waves, three and four, feature larger bird-like enemies, which can be killed by scoring a direct hit on their body. An off-center hit will clip one of their wings, which will regenerate after a few seconds if the body isn’t quickly finished off first. These larger bird aliens fly from side to side, not in formation, and change altitude occasionally, and swoop low to touch the ground. It seems that touching the ground is what triggers their regenerative powers, but in addition to that, as they get this low they also pose a threat to the player, who will be destroyed if they collide. In the arcade, these regenerating enemies start out as eggs, which hatch and grow before your eyes to become full-grown birds, but on the Atari 2600 port this is simplified, and the egg phase of their life cycle is omitted.
The fifth wave is the mothership: a huge, saucer-like ship that fills most of the screen. The boss is destroyed by shooting its commander, who sits in the center near the top of the ship. The bottom of the ship must be chipped away first, to expose the pilot’s cockpit. The rim of the saucer rotates, creating a revolving barrier that must be shot through. This takes time, during which the saucer slowly descends, dropping bombs all the while. As the mothership sinks lower, the reaction time afforded to the player to dodge these shots diminishes, making it increasingly difficult to stay alive. Judicious use of the shield and rapid fire button mashing is the way to survive.
My favored technique to defeat the mothership is to activate shields the moment the wave begins, and fire as rapidly as possible to blow through the shielding in front of the pilot, then as soon as the shield drops, I swing over to the left edge of the ship, where the shielding is thin, and blast away at the rotating rim. The body of the mothership tapers upward toward the outer edge of the ship, giving you a few more pixels of breathing room to react to incoming fire, which is very important. By being at the edge of the ship, you can always escape to safety by dodging left, completely out from under the ship’s breadth, and thus out of its reach. After shooting away the rotating rim, I wait for a clear moment when the mothership isn’t dropping many bombs, and then move back to the center, hit the shields again, and blast away until one of my shots manages to hit the pilot and destroy the ship.
In the arcade, the mothership was also protected by a fleet of escort birds, of the type from the first two stages, but on the Atari 2600 there wasn’t enough computing power to handle all that action, so they are left out, and you face the mothership one-on-one.
Then the cycle begins anew, much like the legend of the mythological phoenix going through death and rebirth.
Phoenix featured three distinct background tracks. Not full songs, these are just simple loops. The first two stages use an electronic wail or warble which somehow evokes bird-ness. The second two stages employ a loop with a swooping pitch from high to low, which evokes and reinforces the swooping motion of the diving birds. The mothership music is a more robotic, mechanical beeping that evokes classic sci-fi movie soundtracks of what space sounds like — beeping, echoing, un-melodious.
The shield adds a dimension of strategy to the gameplay. Using the shield involves a set of trade-offs. In exchange for temporary invulnerability, you cannot move. Further, the shield lasts a fixed amount of time, about 1.5 seconds, and thereafter cannot be used again until it recharges. There’s always a certain amount of luck involved with using the shield — because you’re immobile while it is up, and cannot control when it goes down, the timing of enemy fire can put one of their missiles right in front of you just as the shield goes down, without no time to move out of the way. Thus, while shields can bail you out of a jam, it can sometimes result in a mere delay of the inevitable. In addition to protecting you from the enemy’s shots, your shield will destroy enemies if they touch it, making it an essential offensive weapon for close engagements. When the enemies are very low, it’s too dangerous to take them on without the shield, as their shots cannot be dodged, and they can also crash into you. Thus, despite its slight drawbacks, learning how to use the shield effectively will help you to avoid deaths and last longer into the game.
Phoenix is still as good as it ever was, but I don’t think it has aged as well as some of its contemporaries in the shooter genre. It’s primary drawbacks being that it gets pretty repetitive, and that this is accompanied by very little increase in difficulty after you’ve run through it the first cycle. There’s a nearly imperceptible increase in enemy aggression, but it isn’t much more than the initial cycle, and doesn’t seem to increase beyond that. The game awards a single bonus life, at 5000 points, otherwise this game would be easy to play indefinitely. Back in the day, my best scores on this game were around 135,000. While the game is generally pretty easy, accidental deaths are still tough to avoid completely.
It’s worthwhile to point to as an example of the evolutionary path shooters took, and was a noteworthy step forward in the emerging genre of fixed shooters.
Thematically, I liked Phoenix quite a bit. The theme ties in with the phoenix of legend, with its cycle of death and rebirth, giving the game a mythic quality that most video games seldom aspired to have. This gave the game an intangible quality that made it seem like more to me than perhaps it really was. I think this shows the power of narrative, and how even just a tiny bit of storytelling underlying the basic gameplay can enhance the player’s perception and reception of a game.
I’m about halfway through Once Upon Atari: How I Made History By Killing an Industry by Howard Scott Warshaw, and loving it.
Howard Scott Warshaw, if you didn’t know, was a programmer for Atari in the early 80s. He worked in their console division, where he developed the games Yar’s Revenge, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600. These were groundbreaking games on the most popular home console of its day, and accomplished many “firsts”.
In 1983, the video game market suddenly collapsed, due to a combination of a multitude of factors, but at the time Warshaw’s E.T. was often given blame for causing what came to be known as the “Great Crash of ’83’. E.T. has often been referred to as “the worst video game of all time” but that is quite unfair to the game, which pushed the limits of the Atari 2600 hardware, and while not perfect, was by no means a bad game — although it was drastically over-produced by Atari, leading to a huge amount of unsold inventory, which hurt the company’s bottom line. Warshaw was given 5 weeks to develop the game, a feat thought by his managers to be impossible given that most Atari 2600 games took about 6 months to develop.
This is all well known and chronicled history for video game fans. Warshaw to his credit has been remarkably accessible and open about his story for some time, and has given numerous interviews over the years. He’s even been known to appear on the Atari Age facebook page and comment once in a while. He’s truly a legend of the industry, and a wonderful, brilliant human being. This book details his story, how he came to work for Atari, what went on there during his tenure (confirming a lot of the oft-retold stories about the workplace culture), and how he faced the indignity of being cast as the creator of the “worst game of all time”.
Warshaw left Atari and went on to become a licensed psychotherapist and has helped people like himself, who worked in the high tech field to deal with the immense pressures that they’re put under to be creative, be correct, and deliver products that will make billions of dollars for themselves or their shareholders.
I haven’t gotten to that part of the book yet, but from what I already know of his story, his approach to dealing with failure, or at least the perception that he had been responsible in large part for a massive and very public failure of what had just a year prior been the fastest growing company in the history of the world, is remarkable as it is instructive. He has embraced the label, but adds to it that his Yar’s Revenge is often cited as one of the best video games on the Atari, thus giving him the rightful claim to having the greatest range of any game developer. Turning a negative into a badge of pride, he has faced the critics, rebutted them with not just clever rhetoric, but also facts, figures, and sound reasoning, and provides us an example of how “failure” often isn’t failure, that perceptions matter, that what you tell yourself matters, and that above all it does not define us — we have the power, if we choose to use it, to define ourselves.
Warshaw’s writing style is accessible, not overly technical, candid, often quite humorous, warm and insightful. Reading his book makes me admire him even more than I did, and grateful for the handful of times that he’s Liked something that I’ve said on the Atari Age facebook page, and most of all, thankful for the many hours I spent as a young child engaging with, and enthralled by, his digital creations.
“Atari” has finally shipped a physical product to its Indiegogo backers.
I didn’t back the campaign, because I didn’t have faith in the company calling itself “Atari” these days to deliver value. One of the backers received theirs already and has published an unboxing/review on YouTube.
And there’s a lot of rough edges. The controllers work differently, depending on whether they’re connected via USB cable or by Bluetooth? Hitches in the e-commerce experience, getting double charged for a failed download? You have to pay for Atari Vault Vol 2, a collection of 30+ year old games? Browser accounts aren’t properly connected to the local user? Really? I wish I could say I am surprised.
The launch library is, as expected, sparse and uninspiring, offering nothing new beyond a warmed-over Missile Command remake. I haven’t seen the new Missile Command in detail — it looks OK, I guess — but having participated in numerous game jams, and knowing the original Missile Command, I know enough to say that a Missile Command reboot could be tackled with a game jam’s worth of effort — in other words, 2-3 people, 1 weekend, bam, playable new Missile Command game. Realistically, to be completely generous, a game like that could be developed in a month or so.
“Atari” have spent $3 million and 3 years creating a cool-looking case and joystick for a commodity PC that runs a Free OS and have developed a front-end for it that could be used to deliver new original games, first-party exclusives, if Atari had them. but all they currently offer is Google Chrome browser, Netflix, and a couple bundles of emulated games that have been available for 30+ years, and absolutely don’t need a new console to deliver them.