Diehard GameFAN Hall of Shame Nomination: Swordquest – Earthworld

Every week, we will present a new game to be nominated for the Diehard GameFAN Hall of Fame and Hall of Shame. These nominations will occur every Monday and Friday, respectively. Our standards are just like the Baseball Hall of Fame: every game will be voted on by members of the staff, and any game that gets 75% of the vote – with a minimum of four votes – will be accepted – or thrown – into their respective Hall.

Game: Swordquest: Earthworld
Developer: Atari
Publisher: Atari
Release Date: October 1982
System Released On: Atari 2600
Genre: Adventure

Who Nominated The Game: Your friendly Editor-in-Chief and the only guy on staff that still actively plays 2600 games, Alexander Lucard

Why Was It Nominated:

Although a lot of people put E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial as the game that killed Atari and one of the biggest causes of the video game crash of 1983, long time Atari fans, economists and historians all point to another game that was pretty instrumental in Atari’s downfall. That game is Swordquest: Earthworld. In truth, the entire Swordquest project was a great example of trying something new and failing spectacularly in every way.

Swordquest wasn’t actually a game per say, but rather a marketing scheme designed to net Atari extra cash. The game was a series of mini-games. If you completed each one, you’d find yourself in a room with items. The goal was to leave some items in a room and take others. If you did the right combination, the screen would flash and give you two numbers. The numbers related to a page and a panel in the George Perez drawn comic book that came with the game. If you looked at said specific panel correctly, you’d be able to find a hidden word on the page. There were ten hidden words that you could find. From there you’d have to figure out which of the five words were red herrings and which five were correct. You’d send in your answers to Atari and if you were correct, you’d be entered into a contest where the winner would receive a real life version of the “Talisman of Truth, or the important mystic item from that game’s comic. Said Talisman of Truth was made of 18K gold, on contained twelve diamonds, along with each birthstone of the twelve symbols of the Zodiac. It was also reportedly heavy.

So here are the problems with the game. The first is that out of the people who actually solved the game, (a whopping eight), none of them actually beat the game. They just found the words by going over the comic with a fine tooth comb. The game is that horribly made and nonsensical as to what you are supposed to do. This also proved true for the Fireworld contest, where only a fraction of the fifty competitors actually found the clues by playing the video game. So basically the big Atari contest wasn’t a matter of skill, but rather a matter of reading.

The second problem is directly related to the first. People figured out they didn’t need to play the game pretty quickly and so sales of Earthworld weren’t that good as people just flipped through their friend’s comic. That meant a lot of the money Atari had spent on marketing, ads and paying DC Comics a lot of money to have guys like Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, George Perez and Dick Giordiano do the comics were just wasted -and trust me they spent a LOT there.

The third problem is that without the comic book, the game is unplayable. Sure it’s online NOW, but for two decades it wasn’t. This meant that if your comic was lost, shredded or thrown out, the game was literally impossible to beat. This also ties in with the fourth problem which is that after the contest ended, there was no point in playing Earthworld as you couldn’t beat the game – you were just looking for clues. Without an ending or any resolution (or even a high score!), Earthworld was a waste. Gamers also realized this quickly and left thousands upon thousands of copies of the game on store shelves. Once again, wasted money by Atari.

This brings us to the fifth problem – Atari spent a ton of money not only on the games, but also on the idea of tournaments for each game, contest marketing, money to DC for the comics and to have four $25,000 treasures made along with a $50,000 sword. All of these items were bought and paid for ahead of time so if something went wrong, the money was already spent and Atari was shit out of luck. Well something horrible did happen. In 1983 we had the video game crash of doom, and Atari had only held two of the contests so far. They whipped out a limited release of Waterworld (Which now retails at over $100 opened. I had one as a kid and sold it for $150 in early 2002.), which was a useless product as they also cancelled the contest for the game, meaning no one had any reason to buy the game unless they REALLY loved the comics. Cancelling the contest for Waterworld also meant they had wasted a ton of money on prizes and marketing. They also completely cancelled Airworld, which again had been paid for in advance, so Atari was out a crap load of money that, had they been smarter and thought about the potential collapse of the market, could have been saved to keep the company afloat. Just the cheer amount of money (Well into the upper six digits) that this series had literally wasted on it still boggles my mind. With the collapse of the Swordquest series, Atari had to offer the previous contest winners $15,000 and the fifteen Waterworld finalists each $2,000 – along with an Atari 7800 and several games. What they should have done was just do a lottery for the Crown, and give the final two remaining prizes out to the previous winners. That would have at least saved them some money and prevented a lot of negative publicity. Somewhere out there is the Crown of Life, the Philosopher Stone and the Sword of Ultimate Sorcery. Urban Legend states at least the sword, but possibly all three treasures, are in the hands of Jack Tramiel, but no one has ever verified this or taken a picture of the items, so this can’t be proven. We do know though that the Talisman was melted down and sold for like $15,000. Because of this, the only object that we know still exists and can be found is the Chalice of Light, in the hands of Michael Rideout, the winner of Swordquest: Fireworld.

Finally, there is the sixth and final problem which is that the game is pretty awful to play in the first place. Even without the other five bits, this was a game that sucked big time. It was up there with E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark as the games my family bitched about the most.

Overall, Swordquest has a franchise was a magnificent failure on every level that a video game can be, and is a huge piece behind the eventual collapse of Atari as it showcased the insane spending and lack of forethought that the company is now infamous for. With all these factors in mind, I decided to nominate Earthworld: Swordquest as a token for the entire Swordquest series to see not only if it could get into the Hall where so many others have (thankfully?) failed, but if it could even drum up enough votes for a proper column.

All in Favor:

Alexander Lucard: All of the Swordquest games are an example of why Atari crashed and burned. They made these horrible RPG/platformer hybrids and sold them based on the fact whoever beat the game within a certain amount of time would win a 25K or 50K item. However, you needed the comic book with the game to even come close to beating the game and even then the clues provided in game that synched up with the comic were esoteric at best. If you lost the comic you literally could not beat the game. This is a point honed in on with the recent re-release of all the Swordquest games save Airworld, the final and climatic chapter of the series which was never made, as you can barely play the game since the comic was not included.

This game was one of the most hated on the Atari 2600, rivaling Raiders and ET for a legion of torch weilding gamers. To experience Earthworld is to experience a slice of hell. It is the game that taught me to swear loudly and regularly. It is awful. Most of all, as the game existed only for a contest that has been defunct for nearly thirty years, it lacks any reason or value to reboot it up for a spell like so many older and better 2600 games.

Matt Faul: A fantasy adventure game that comes with a comic book tie-in inked by George Perez and a competition to win an $25,000 gold talisman. It sounds like a major release from a current day game publisher, but it’s not. To play this game we must go back to 1983 and witness the horror that is Swordquest: Earthworld.

From the start of this game you find yourself wondering aimlessly room to room picking up and dropping items. If you’re lucky a screen will pop up with a page number and a panel number. Remember that comic book tie in, it’s not just extra fluff. It is needed to play the game. The panel is supposed to have a hidden word in it and if you collect all 5 you send them into Atari and you and entered to win the talisman. The game was obtuse on where the objects were to be place and I only have managed to find one word. I wasn’t alone, since out of the 5,000 entries into the contest only 8 were correct. So what you have is a game where you run around room to room picking up and dropping objects, except there are no real hints as to where you are supposed to put those objects, leaving you with the frustrating experience of randomly picking up and dropping things. This is only made worse when you lose the comic book, morphing this game from a near unplayable game to an unplayable game. This is why this
Swordquest: Earthworld belongs in the Hall of Shame.

All Opposed:


Christopher Bowen: Talk about having balls.

The Swordquest games tried doing something that I don’t believe has been tried since: creating a full-on adventure game, requiring people to use mutliple sources and legitimate sleuthing, while making it a contest. Not just any contest: a contest with some motherfuckers for prizes. Define “motherfuckers”? How about a $25,000 talisman made of pure gold? That’s ambitious!

Yes, the game sucked. Aileen and I tried it in 2010, and it’s impossible without a walkthrough, though the comic is still available to read. That’s actually a problem because a walkthrough would destroy what made the game notable in the first place. It’s like playing Zork with a walkthrough; why bother? Back then, people didn’t have walkthroughs or GameFAQs, and I’m sure they weren’t using the military’s ARPANET to trade game secrets. That meant that anyone who didn’t have the comic in question really couldn’t play this game. I can totally see why Alex and others would vote for this as a Hall of Shame game, especially with $150,000 of prize money – this is in 1982, don’t forget, and would be worth $275,000 in 2009 according to the Westegg Inflation Calculator – on the line at a time when Atari was about to hit the wall.

But I cannot justify this game being in our lowest depths for trying something like this. Simply put, games don’t *get* more immersive than this. That’s going to be hard for anyone under the age of 25 to understand, but there were no hint books back then. Everything had to be sleuthed out. It was as close as we could get in 1982 to having a real live quest for a grail.

To me, the problem with Swordquest was equal parts insufficient technology and over-ambition. With that said, over-ambition isn’t necessarily a bad problem to have. They at least tried something, back in an era when trying something was normal, and we didn’t have odious pieces of shit like Zynga’s Andy Tian talking about how games are a “craft” and not art, or the fact that Zynga – whose sole claim to fame is stealing other companies’ games and marketing the hell out of them – even exists and is successful. In 2010, game designers are told, “I don’t want fucking innovation. You’re not smarter than your competitor. Just copy what they do and do it until you get their numbers.”, but in the early 80s, they were told “Yeah, sure! Give it a shot! We’ll bankroll it with six digits worth of prizes!” Though it failed, and can never be tried again due to the advent of the internet, the Swordquest games were highly ambitious and if they worked right, could have been amazing experiences that went beyond the realm of what a video game was, even in 1982. For that reason, I can’t justify calling Swordquest a Hall of Shame game. The end result wasn’t so bad that it could override the amazing potential that this had.

Result: 2 In Favour, 1 Opposed, 66% Approval = REJECTED DUE TO LACK OF VOTES

Conclusion: We can walk away from this nomination with three things in mind. The first is that the people that grew up with Earthworld loathe and despise it. The second is that our current staff doesn’t seem to have a lot of experience with the 2600. Third, I need to hire some older gamers that can wax on about games from the 80s.

Next Week: A game that is often cited as one of, if not the worst, SPRGs ever made and a game that nearly won our “Worst Game of the Year” award – TWICE.

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