We’ve talked a little about it before with E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, but in the 80s Atari was King. This meant, naturally, they had a lot of money to throw around. What better to do with all this money than hold a competition with some pretty amazing prizes, based around a series of games that each had a puzzle to be solved. Together, this series was known as Swordquest.
Swordquest involved a series of four games, Earthworld, Fireworld, Waterworld (no, not that one) and Airworld. These games began in 1982, with one game being released each year until 1984. Airworld, unfortunately, didn’t come out due to to Atari’s spectacular crash, and so the results of the competition remain a mystery to some extent. But let’s take a look back at what we do know.
As stated previously, four games were intended to be part of the Swordquest series. Atari wanted to create a series with a strong narrative but also with fast-paced action gameplay. Perhaps, inadvertently, they created the first action-adventure games. More directly, however, they showed us yet another example of ‘this is a really bad idea, don’t just do what sounds cool, are you guys actually putting any thought into this?’
The bad idea in question was the $150,000 worth of prizes to be awarded to a series of winners, with one winner for each game. The original success that spurred this on was Atari’s classic game, Adventure, which contained an Easter Egg where a pixel could be manipulated through a series of rooms to unveil the name of the games programmer. The fun little extra proved popular among Atari fans and so, Atari thought to themselves, pockets overflowing with cash and hubris, ‘what if we made this into a whole Thing?’
This turned into a massive crossover event with other Warner Communications owned businesses, DC Comics and the Franklin Mint. DC Comics would produce companion comics for each game while the Franklin Mint would produce the prizes. For those wondering, the prizes in question were absolutely amazing pieces, worth $25,000 each, such as a golden chalice embedded with jewels, or a golden crown which was… Also embedded with jewels. The grand prize was meant to be a sword worth $50,000 which was, you guessed it, also very gold and very loaded with jewels.
The games themselves were each based around a concept, ranging from the Western Zodiac signs in Earthworld through to more obscure concepts like chakras in Waterworld (again, not that one, stop it), and the Kabbalah in Fireworld. The comics also plotted out the story of twins Tarra and Torr who are secretly heirs to the throne and have to overthrow a tyrannical king while tracking down the artifacts that were also the prizes up for grabs.
The competition used the games and the comics in tandem in order to create puzzles that players would attempt to solve. For example, Earthworld’s puzzle involved finding numbers in various rooms which would correlate to pages and panels in the comic book where players would take certain words to form a phrase. The comic contained 10 key words, but with only 5 being needed for the secret phrase, players then also had to clue out they needed only words that fell on the prime numbers of the key.
The winning phrase was ‘Quest in tower talisman found’ and those who sent the full phrase in were then entered into an extra competition to win the grand prize. Out of 500,000 copies of the game sold, only 5,000 players submitted an attempt to answer the puzzle, and out of those, only eight had answered correctly for a further chance to claim the prize.
Those eight players would then compete in a special version of the Earthworld game, having to complete the game in under 90 minutes.
All the competitions ran in a similar matter, and as word spread, more entries came in with each subsequent game having a higher entry count than the previous. Unfortunately, it was around this time Atari began to crash and burn with Waterworld signifying the beginning of the end (okay, I’ll give you that one). Most entrants were just told they didn’t qualify, and it was only under the advice of Atari’s lawyers did any prizes at all come out of it, with two winners being given $15,000 and an Atari 7800 as compensation.
This all comes on the back of Atari being bought out by Jack Tramiel, with Airworld being cancelled, and the fate of the unrewarded prizes… Well.
The prizes: Where are they now?
So we know two things. The first is that two of the prizes, Earthworld’s talisman and Fireworld’s Chalice were won by Stephan Bell and Michael Rideout, respectively. Bell had his talisman melted down for money, keeping several of the gems (though where they are now is unconfirmed), while Rideout, as of 2017, confirmed he still had the chalice in his possession, keeping it in a safety deposit box.
The second thing we know is that… We don’t know much at all. The Waterworld prize was rumored to still be given out via a secret tournament and it’s unknown if the prize was given out or substituted with a cash prize.Though legally, they had to have held the contest, so it’s entirely possible the games prize, a crown, is still out there somewhere.
Finally there are two prizes left. The Philosopher’s Stone, from the unreleased Airworld, and the grand prize, the Sword of Ultimate Sorcery. One popular theory stated that Tramiel obtained the prizes in his purchase of Atari, though no one is sure if the sword in his home is the sword from the games or a family heirloom, and it’s unlikely we’ll ever discover the truth with Tramiel’s death in 2012. Other theories say the prizes were still with Warner Communications, with one former Warner Communications employee stating that the prizes remained at the Franklin Mint and were later melted down.
Though we’ll never know the answers for sure where some of these mysterious artifacts are, it’s fun to think that somewhere out there are pieces of video game history, waiting to be discovered.