Atari’ Swordquest Series: What Went Wrong? Part I
On the face of things, Swordquest looked like the idea that couldn’t miss. It had elements that had never been done before in videogames, but that had the recipe for success that had worked time and again in other mediums in the form of continuity, depth and tie-ins.
In terms of continuity, each game was a sequel to the other, with a different theme. Taking the tried-and-true formula of a quest that had worked for stories since men had sat around fires and told tales to entertain each other and educate the next generation, the title Swordquest evoked memories of brave knights, magical swords, slain dragons, beautiful princesses and heroic finishes. Each game was linked by theme to one of the four elements of ancient Greece- Earth, Fire, Water and Air. Such a progression marked in each gamer’s mind the promise of an amazing, four-part story, each one linked to the next by a victory in the previous game, each new game building upon the previous one until an incredible conclusion, the kind that would make up for a series of disappointing movie/tv show tie-in games that often became $50 plastic paperweights after they’d been purchased.
In terms of depth, until then too many titles demanded blasting wave after wave of aliens and monsters whose motives where inscrutable and never discussed. Gameplay happened in a tiny field with a humble cursor-hero whose backstory [if mentioned at all] could fit into a pixel-sized thimble. Swordquest promised gamers a world of depth and story in the games that promised to rival the books and shows that had become so beloved in American pop culture by that point. Star Wars, Excalibur, Conan the Barbarian and the quasi-pantheon of Dc and Marvel comics got us used to the notion of worlds and characters behind the games and stories we loved. Here, Atari tapped the Greek myths, stories that had enthralled man for over thirty centuries, and their upcoming games were labelled as whole worlds made of these four, primal elements. Earthworld, Fireworld, and so on. Hearing these titles, teenage gamers who had been weaned on the single cursor bouncing around in the Blue Labyrinth of Robinette’s Adventure or shooting Nazis with one-pixel bullets in Warshaw’s Raiders of the Lost Ark saw in their mind’s eyes amazing new worlds to conquer in their 4k Atari consoles. Puzzles, the Atari gamers were told, would need to be solved to properly advance to the next level. After that announcement every fourteen-year old who’d ever played Dungeons and Dragons saw themselves as the one who would be the modern equivalent of Oedipus solving the riddle of the Sphinx in time to win the day.
And the tie-ins were unprecedented in terms of their own depth. Medieval-themed prizes awaited those who could solve the puzzles first. Jewel-encrusted swords, chalices, even the philosopher’s stone [a good quarter century before Harry Potter made the term a household name!] tempted gamers with real-life riches instead of imaged hordes of virtual ‘gp’s their characters could get in D&D. . ’ The first title, Earthworld, would involve the players traveling through multiple rooms themed after the Greek zodiac, tapping into the 70s craze of the horoscope and birth-signs. Atari even commissioned DC to produce a clue-laden comic book series drawn by the legendary, late George Perez. The books would span a four-part, sword-and-sorcery saga of twins named Tor and Tarra who would romp through the four worlds in an effort to avenge their parents’ wrongful deaths and ascend to the place of the ghostly, ethereal guides [named Mentor and Mentarra…c’mon, DC! I was maybe 12 and I figured out it was the heroes’ future selves in about ten seconds! Step it up!]. The ads were striking, showing the potential prizes and all their well-lit, pre-photoshop era glory. George Perez even worked the title into other books he was writing for DC; the New Teen Titans, one of Perez’ all-time most popular titles, saw its characters playing a Swordquest video game in that mecca of 80s teen culture, the video arcade. Home-video game author and guru of the 1980s Ken Uston predicted that the game series would “undoubtedly become a SwordQuest cult.” [Uston ]
A built-in market for the product, multiple marketing fronts, and united ‘buzz’ from several respected voices in the industry and target market’s community, and prizes worth tens of thousands of dollars. What could possibly go wrong?
Turned out: Just about everything.
Next Time: Atari’s SwordQuest: What Went Wrong? [Part 2: Thy Game Sucks…]