[Read part One here! 🙂 ]

The Waldorf Astoria; a place whose very name for most people evokes images of elegant opulence. One day in 1982, a number of journalists gathered in the Waldorf’s ballroom. Figures from the 12 symbols of the zodiac decorated the floor. As the lights dimmed, two actors dressed in dark robes gestured while voice-overs directed the visiting writers to stand on their own birth-signs.

The promotional event was sponsored by Atari, and kicked off the Swordquest series of video games. Each game was themed after one of the four primary elements of the world according to Greek mythology and a form of 1980s pop-spirituality in America. The series also sported tie-in comic books and $150,000 in prizes for those who could solve the puzzles in the games and comics.

Video games, comic books, pop-culture mysticism and a emergent D&D geek culture who loved medieval-themed challenges and imaginary treasure-hunts. What could go wrong?

Turned out: Just about everything.

No public records exist to show exactly how much money Atari spend on the Swordquest debacle; records of that period in the company’s history are scattered piecemeal around the country, mostly in former employee memories or in old curio junk shops. But in Monday-morning QB’ing hindsight, the reason for the failure of the attempt to make SwordQuest the Next Big Thing in videogaming can be laid at the feet of several important factors:

1) The tie-ins weren’t consistent or always relevant.

People who’ve drawn for toy manufacturer promos know how serious toymakers can me about their promo art. If the Robocop action figure holds his gun in his right hand, you better not make him a southpaw in the ad you draw or paint.  It sounds arbitrary to most of us, but SwordQuest illustrated this principle in the difference between the comic and the game.
The comic book’s heroes, Tor and Tara, were fit, attractive people with blond, curly hair dressed in short white togas.

…The avatar for SwordQuest games was dressed in a purple sweater and slacks.

And he was bald. And he ran with limp wrists clutched in front. After reading the comic book, players want to experience the characters they’ve read about, and the SwordQuest game just didn’t do that. The comic also showed Tor and Tara doing jumps, tricks, acrobatic fights and daring acts of thievery. All of which were…not visible in the game. In fact, the comic had little to do with the game at all, save a few points of which rooms to find which objects. No towers, no dark-robed future selves, no lame-named wizard to fight or escape at the end, just a random run from room-to-room.

Moreover, the themes the games were based on weren’t always relevant to the target audience.

Earthworld was based on the twelve signs of the Zodiac. Fireworld on the Kabbalah. Waterworld on Chakras and Airworld the I-Ching….


Beyond newspaper horoscopes, most gamers at the time knew little to nothing about the mystical-themes in the first place. Even for the rare player who were familiar with these concepts, there was no distinctive tie-in between the mystical-whatsits the game worlds were based upon and the game-elements themselves. Players questioned: What did Earth have to do with pictures in the sky made by stars? What the heck was the Kabbalah, and what did it have to do with fire? Ditto the I-Ching and air, or water and chakras? What the heck were chakras, anyway?

2) The contests weren’t solvable as puzzles.

Part of the appeal of the games were the puzzles that could be solved. But several issues existed here as well.

First, you could solve the puzzle without ever playing the game.

The way SwordQuest ostensibly worked: Players were to use the comic and its clues  to solve the puzzle of the game. If the right objects were placed in the right rooms, a display would shine for the player to see, giving the page number and panel where the clue word could be found. Thus, putting the {game thingie 1} and {game thingie 2} in the {room name} room would make ’16 4’ appear, stating that a viable clue word hidden in the artwork could be found on page 16, panel 4 of the book…

Find the right words, and you can put together the secret message and win the game.



But this whole process was rendered needless by a clue at the beginning of the comic itself: Clue words needed for the secret message were found on prime-numbered pages in the comic:

One could, thus, in theory, solve it all without ever having to click ‘start’ on your VCS!

Second: The placement of objects to unlock clues did not follow any pattern; it was completely randomized.

A puzzle by most definitions has a solution that can be solved using one’s reason. Pieces can fit, riddles can be solved, problems have logical solutions. Players would have been happy enough if they couldn’t solve the puzzles, but later could have been shown logical ways they could have been solved. In Infocom”s popular series of text-entry games, the puzzles could be deviously obscure [remember trying to get the Babel Fish in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? ]

What players got in the SwordQuest games instead were effectively solutions based on the programming equivalent of rolls of the dice, and no one likes that. Not after having spent a hundred or more hours looking for a reasonable patterned solution in the game you just paid fifty-bucks-plus-tax for.

Players scoured the comic-book actions of Tor and Tarra. They noted that the objects themselves had nifty in-game effects. Some even tried melding the Zodiac with different mathematical formulas in efforts to ‘crack’ the code, all to no avail.

But the actual solution seemed random, without any pattern at all. If a pattern actually existed, no programmer from the era spilled those particular beans. Players who later learned this felt severely cheated. All the attempts to decode puzzles and win prizes were ultimately for naught. Even the final contest to gain the Earthworld talisman was going to be a no-brainer of picking up and dropping off objects in named rooms [‘put the shoes of stealth in  Taurus, then the short sword in Aquarius, then…’], with the first person to cross the finish line declared the winner. It took the intervention of an Atari employee named John Michael Battaglia to change the final contest to have at least a modicum of actual puzzle-solving to make the final game a genuine challenge and satisfying win.


3) Most important and deadly for Atari: The games themselves weren’t fun.

Gamers are willing to forgive a lot. Bad tie ins, unfairly tough puzzles, even poor graphic choices or sound effects are things a video game player could overlook, so long as the game is fun.

Animator Don Bluth broke into an astonishing new territory when he brought fully animated hero Dirk the Daring into the arcade with the mega-hit Dragon’s Lair. But Bluth also had the foresight to realize something about their prototype: There was no game. Even though the laserdisc cartoon technology was groundbreaking, it wasn’t fun to play. There wasn’t enough excitement for players to plunk down their pairs of quarters to play a game that wasn’t fun, no matter how pretty the graphics were.

…and some were VERY pretty!

Bluth and his co-creators hit the arcades, looking at the best and worst games they could find. The best games, they realized, had constantly shifting game situations, the sense of constant danger and the ability to advance through pattern recognition [Left, count two…right, right, hit sword…], these were the factors that separated popular games from those standing in the corner of the arcades.

SwordQuest did have ‘twitch’ game challenges. But they were either overly, annoyingly difficult [who else hated the quasi-frogger minigame in Aquarius? (see 2:50 mark…not fair how easily he solved it! ]].Worse, they were largely irrelevant, as one could start over and over again without ‘dying’ in any appreciable sense. We loved to hate Rhindle the Red Dragon in Warren Robinette’s Adventure because he could pop out of nowhere and eat us! A jarring single note sounded our defeat as our little blue cursor struggled vainly in the monster’s stomach. We swore as we started a new game, but we kept coming back!

Not so with SwordQuest. Its challenges bored us very, very quickly. How many times can you dodge ‘Sagittarius Arrows’ before you switch to Pitfall or Vanguard?

Last, if you finally ‘won’ the SwordQuest game, there was little or no sense of accomplishment. In any game, getting a reward for finishing is essential. Bringing the glowing chalice to the golden castle in Robinette’s Adventure gave us a light show and a short musical accompaniment that still can bring the slightest memory-chill to gamers forty years later. Even E.T. had Eliot running back and forth in D.C., either over a happy E.T. or his still, whitened corpse.

By comparison, SwordQuest just gave us a room with a four-line set of black pixels we were asked to believe was a ‘Warrior’s Sword.’ No effects, no fanfare, not even a single end-screen saying ‘You Won! Good Job!’ It was the final insult to any player who may have put a hundred hours into solving the thing.

No discernible reward for a hard job well done is a terrible and ineffective way to retain the loyalty of either an employee or a gaming fan. Todd Frye, became a millionaire at 26 for creating the cataclysmic port of Pac-Man to the 2600, and he added SwordQuest to his list of gaming failures. His helming of the project resulted in cartridges we bought with our parents’ money and returned after two weeks. If we were lucky.

In the end, SwordQuest was an exercise in great potential squandered. Instead of being the groundbreaking, classic series it could have been, the games became an exercise in the marketing adage ‘good advertising exposes bad product.’ Sadly, the game series has not even achieved the kind of marketing infamy that is now attached to the Edsel or New Coke. It’s instead sunk to the level of a footnote. The once highly-anticipated series of gaming events are now largely a bunch of ten-dollar cartridges on Ebay, and the subjects of a few articles written in the far corners of the internet.

John McNichol John McNichol (9 Posts)

John McNichol was born in Toronto, Canada at the dawn of the Swinging 70s...which explains why he's such a fan of the Big 80s! He loves reading, writing, playing his old Atari games, and hanging out with his wife and seven children when he can. Today, He is a proud U.S. citizen who lives and teaches High School in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. He also loves meaty Lasagnas, loaded pizzas, and killing time for three or more hours at a stretch at the local Barnes & Noble. He's ok with pineapple on pizza, but hates broccoli. Hates it. Still.