Sunday, December 21, 2014

Swordquest Origins

While working on the section of my book on video game comic books, I came across some information on the Swordquest series that I found interesting and I that I haven't seen mentioned on the various Swordquest sites on the web.

I'm sure most of you know all about Swordquest, but just in case here are the broad details:

Back in 1982, Atari decided to create a sequel to its Adventure cartridge called Adventure II. The game eventually morphed into something completely different: a series of four interconnected cartridges called Swordquest in which players competed to win an actual treasure. There were supposed to be four games in the series, each based on an element - Earthworld, Fireworld, Waterworld, and Airworld. Each would also come with a mini comic book produced by DC Comics (DC was owned by Warner and had already produced the Atari Force mini-comics that had been included in various 2600 games, starting with Defender). The player used clues in the games and comics to solve a puzzle that they would submit to Atari. 50 of the solvers (I may be getting the details wrong) would then be selected (based on a statement saying what they liked about the game) to go to Atari HQ to play a custom version of the game with the winner being awarded a prize worth $25,000. The winners of the four individual games would then compete for the grand prize - a jewel-encrusted "Sword of Ultimate Sorcery" designed by the Franklin Mint worth $50,000.

In Earthworld (I think the others worked the same way but I'm not sure) the way it worked was that the player would travel through various rooms (in this case, based on the 12 Zodiacal signs), often by playing brief arcade game sequences. For certain rooms if they dropped the right combination of items, a pair of numbers would appear, directing them to a certain page and panel of the comic, in which a hidden word appeared. Then then had to take five of the ten words (part of the puzzle was figure out which ones - I think it Earthworld it was the ones with a prime number) and send them to Atari.

Anyhow, the first game drew about 5,000 entries, but only eight were correct. The prize (a talisman and small sword) was won by Steven Bell. The contest for the second game (Fireworld) - a jeweled chalice - was won by Michael Rideout.

Next came Waterworld, but while finalists were apparently selected, but final prize was never awarded and, in the wake of the video game crash, Atari dropped the entire contest and never produced Airworld. No one is sure what happened to the final three prizes (the Waterworld finalists were supposedly given $2,000 each while Rideout and Bell were given $15,000 each as compensation).

Anyway, the whole thing was an excellent idea gone bad. Aside from the crash, one problem was that the games themselves, to put it bluntly, stunk. I realize this a matter of opinion and I have to admit that I didn't actually own any of them, though I was actually quite excited about the contest. A friend of mine had Fireworld, however, and after I played it, I was shocked at how bad it was and quickly decided I wasn't willing to submit myself to the agony of playing the game just to win a jewel-encrusted tchotchke that I would likely never use and didn't know how easily I would be able to sell.
As a standalone game, it was (again, IMO) worthless. The only reason to play it was if you were going to enter the contest.

Anyhow, that's now what I want to write about. What I wanted to write about was some new info I found.

I was actually researching Atari Force at the time, not Swordquest. Since the Atari Force comics were written by Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas, I immediately wondered if they might have been discussed in Alter Ego, a comic book fanzine edited by Roy Thomas.

I didn't find a complete article, but they were discussed in an interview with Thomas in Alter Ego #100. There was only a paragraph on Atari Force, which didn't really reveal anything new (other than that the idea started when DC's Jenette Khan had Conway and Thomas fly to Silicon Valley to meet with atari engineers and the fact that Conway did basically all the work on the series, despite the fact that Thomas was credited as co-creator).

More interesting to me was the following paragraph on Swordquest:

"Then came Swordquest. Gerry and I came up again and huddled with a couple of Atari’s engineers. The company had this general idea for a series of four interconnected games under the banner 'Swordquest', with a grand prize they’d promote to help sell it. A sword was to be buried somewhere in the United States, and the person who found it – working from clues that were to be imbedded in the games themselves – would get a considerable amount of money. This was based on a similar gimmick that we were told had recently been used by a book company, with clues hidden in some picture book; that had sent people scrambling all over the country in search of a buried treasure. Gerry and I immediately came up with the idea that the four games should be based on the four classical 'elements' – earth, air, fire, and water. It was basically a rather effete sword and sorcery comic – Atari wouldn’t have wanted any real blood-and-guts – and George Perez was assigned to pencil the accompanying comics, which would again be printed in a pocket size. Gerry and I split the work on this one, but I forget exactly who wrote what."
The next paragraph is even more interesting.

"Only thing is, as I recall, before we did the fourth comic, a real problem arose with the earlier treasure hunt thing. We were told there were lawsuits in the case of the earlier book because some overeager people hunting for the treasure were digging up people’s lawns and demolishing property. So Atari pulled the plug on the Swordquest game before it got completed. Well, the comic book was a lot better than the game anyway."
Now this last paragraph conflicts with what is known about the game. As far as I've read, the final contest was never supposed to involve digging up the sword. Instead, it would be similar to the others - players would play a custom game and the winner would be awarded the sword. In addition, I've never heard that Atari's dropping the series had anything to do with potential lawsuits. It's always been presented as being due to the video game crash and Atari's financial situation.
While I don't think Thomas's info is entirely accurate, however, I don't think he just made it up either. Nor do I think he was just getting the book contest he mentioned confused with the Swordquest contest (he specifically says that they were told about the lawsuits and that the original idea was based on the books).
My first question, however, was what book contest Thomas was talking about. I distinctly remember one such contest from around that time but not distinctly enough to remember the name.
A quick bit of research turned up two possibilities.

The first was Masquerade, a book written by Kit Williams and published in the UK in 1979 that consisted of a series of 16 paintings that provided clues to the location of a jewel-encrusted, golden hare that had been buried somewhere in the UK.  The book sold over a million copies worldwide.

The second was Treasure: In Search of the Golden Horse, written by Dr. Crypton (puzzle writer for Discover magazine)  and published in 1984 (as an alternative to the book, a video tape was also produced that provided the requisite clues). In this one, a golden horse worth $25,000 was buried somewhere in the US, along with a key to a safe deposit box containing a $500,000 annuity.
Was one of these the book Thomas was talking about?
One problem with Masquerade was that the treasure was hidden in the UK, not the US (though the book was published in the US by Schocken Books). In addition, a "winner" to the contest was declared in March, 1982, which doesn't seem to fit Thomas's story either (though it might). OTOH, while I didn't find any references to lawsuits, contestants did dig up private property, causing some controversy (read the Wikipedia article for more detail).
Treasure: In Search of the Golden Horse might seem a better candidate. The problem here is the 1984 publication date, which seems to rule it out. . After looking into the book's history, however, I'm not so sure.

According to an August 21, 1989 article in the New York Times (reproduced here) the idea for the book was cooked up in 1982 by Dr. Crypton and filmmaker Sheldon Renan (who produced the video tape for the game) who sold the rights to former record company exec Barry Grieff in 1983. Grieff then raised $3.5 million, formed a company called Intravision to market the idea, and contracted with Warner Books and Vestron Video to distribute the book and video tape. Unlike Masquerade, this one was a flop. Only about 80,000 books and 12,000 videos were sold, Intravision went into debt, and the treasure was never found (at least not by the time of this article - the annuity was donated to Big Brothers/Big Sisters).

The interesting part for our purposes was that the book was published by Warner (Atari's parent). Unfortunately, it seems that they didn't know about it until 1983. If so, it seems it couldn't have been the book that Thomas was talking about.

So where does that leave us?
Is Thomas's story completely inaccurate?
Is there another such contest that could have served as inspiration? (there were a few other "armchair detective" book/contests I found from 1982 involving buried objects, but they were all were in the UK. As I mentioned, I clearly remember one such contest but I'm not sure it was Masquerade or the golden horse book or some other books I couldn't find reference to).
Did Warner know about the golden horse book earlier?

My guess (and it's just that - a total guess) is that the idea for Swordquest did have something to do with one of the buried item book/contests, though I'm not sure which one. I don't know if Atari ever considered burying the sword, however. If they did so, it may have been early in the concept stage, since from what I've read, the initial rules stated that the finals would involved playing a video game (though, oddly, my initial memory was that there was a buried sword involved). And I don't think that the cancelling of the series had much do to with worries about a lawsuit (at least not about digging up private property - though they may have been worried about being sued for something else). It seems to me that the standard explanation (i.e. that they were cancelled for financial reasons) is the most likely. OTOH, I do wonder where Thomas got the info..

A quick aside that has nothing to do with Swordquest or buried treasure contests. A similar idea appeared in 1983 when William Morrow published a book called "Who Killed the Robins Family" in which players tried to solve a murder mystery to win a $10,000 prize. In 1984, Warner Books published the paperback addition. This one I definitely remember (it also sold a million copies).


  1. I looked up some of the Swordquest stuff recently, as I became aware of it quite some time ago through AVGN's video. It's fun to think about, though I must say I find the relatively untold story that you relayed about the first professional video game league to be far more compelling. Someone should make films based on these contests, with a special 80's flair for good measure!

    Great investigative work here. It's such a great feeling to work down a trail of contradicting statements to find what questions -really- need to be asked. Hope the book is going well!

    1. Thanks. I am currently corresponding with Dennis DeNure and will post a much more in-depth history of his professional video game league once I am done (probably late January or early February).

    2. Awesome! Looking forward to it.

  2. A slight amount more about Swordquest - Earthworld was based on the Zodiac, while Fireworld was based on the Tree of Life, while Waterworld was based on Chakra and only available through the Atari Club (okay, that's just on Wikipedia). I do remember reading updates about Swordquest in the Atari Age Magazine (which I was obsessed with at the time, I definitely remember poring over Swordquest stuff that was in the issues) - publication dates of those magazines would provide more information about nailing down the contest rules and intended completion details of the contest.

    ANYWAY while playing Earthworld involves picking up items and dropping them in rooms, many of which require passing challenge mini-games. If you put the right items in the right rooms, you get numerical clues that point to page numbers (and word clues) in the comic. It got old really quickly.

    What's worse, Fireworld numerical clues are just 00, 01, 02, 03... in other words, you don't even need to play the game to "solve" the comic puzzle. Waterworld goes back to actual number clues that point to comic book pages.

    Here's a fun video of someone beating all 3 games, inasmuch as they can be "beaten".

  3. I've done a lot of research into SwordQuest and I've never heard of Roy Thomas' story before. The idea of burying a prize might have been part of the genesis of the idea for having the contest, but I seriously doubt that burying a $50k sword was ever part of the SwordQuest plan :) I also question how much Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway contributed to the final plan for it, as I have a statement from Atari programmer Tod Frye which seems to contradict Roy:

    "Howard Scott Warshaw and Steve Wright did have some ideas about using DC comics in conjunction with carts, but the Franklin Mint / DC Comics / Atari games 'triad' was conceived by me. The whole story line of mystic systems and 'grail quest' were solely conceived by me."

    Check out these articles for more information about SwordQuest: