True Crime: Swordquest

If you’r rather listen to this story, check out this episode of the podcast.

Our tale begins with a humble gray dot. The year: 1980. The age of Atari was upon us. A million units were sold and a dozen and a half games released. One was Adventure. Conceived as a graphic version of text games like Zork, it is now hailed as one of the most influential video games of all time [Eat that Fortnite.]: Adventure was the first action-adventure and console fantasy game. In 1981, it was enough that it delivered on the promise of its name, sending players on a quest to recover an enchanted treasure stolen by an evil magician. But slaying dragons, finding hidden keys, and recovering the goblet were just the beginning. For concealed deep within Adventure was a second, stranger quest, one unknown to the adventurer.

In August of 1980, a youth from Salt Lake City sent a hand-written letter to Atari, claiming he had “found something strange” while exploring the catacombs within the game’s Black Castle. He detailed how he discovered a tiny, hidden speck, and how he used this Gray Dot to enter a mysterious, otherwise inaccessible room elsewhere in the game. There, the boy discovered the final treasure. A secret. The hidden room revealed a mystery that had been withheld from the world with one simple message: “Created by Warren Robinett.”

Warren Robinett, the architect of Adventure, was no longer with Atari by the time of the game’s release. So, he was certain the company would be angered by his act of rebellion, and strip his secret credit from future releases of Adventure. He was wrong. Instead, the unusual tale of the Gray Dot became the first and best-known Easter Egg in all of video game lore. With Adventure a success, fueled by the intrigue of the Gray Dot, Atari looked to spawn a successor. But before long, their next evolution in gaming would grow into something wholly new, uniquely ambitious, and difficult to tame.

Atari’s new “Adventure Series” was advertised as early as 1981, with two games promised for the following year. One article hailed Swordquest as the most promising of Atari’s forthcoming products – “a four-part epic mystery that, believe it or not, may take a full year to unravel.” The Swordquest saga would follow twins Tarra and Torr on a sprawling journey for the Sword of Ultimate Sorcery, bringing them into conflict with their parents’ murderer, the evil King Tyrannus.  Each chapter would lead into the next, but could also be played as a standalone adventure. Nothing like it had been attempted before. And for good reason. For the scope of the ambitious story was only the beginning of Atari’s audacity.

To win each game, players would unearth clues concealed not only within the confines of their TV screens, but also in a companion comic book that accompanied each cartridge. Since Atari’s parent, Warner Communications, also owned DC Comics, they recruited royalty to tell the tale of this epic quest. Roy Thomas (best known for introducing Conan the Barbarian to a generation of comic book readers) and Gerry Conway (who drafted the gut-wrenching death of Gwen Stacy) were brought in to write. Art was provided by George Perez (who was working on DC’s bestselling New Teen Titans at the time) and Dick Giordano (whose pedigree extended back to Charlton Comics). But more was to come. A treasure hunt as daring as Swordquest demanded an equally compelling prize, and Atari planned to exceed all expectations.

The Talisman of Penultimate Truth. The Chalice of Light. The Crown of Life. The Philosopher’s Stone. To their great fortune—or misadventure—Warner Brothers also owned the Franklin Mint. So much as these sounded like mere in-game treasures, Warner was uniquely positioned to bring these artifacts to dazzling life. And so, they did. Each chapter of Swordquest was to culminate in a contest allowing a clever hero to claim one of these real-life treasures, each valued at $25,000. But wait, there was more. The four paragons who conquered each chapter were to face one another in a final challenge to claim the Sword of Ultimate Sorcery, a jewel-encrusted blade worth $50,000. A treasure hunt like no other, you say? A quest for the ages, yes! But a tale, perhaps, too good to be true.

Earthworld, the first of the planned four-part adventure series, arrived in October, 1982, with promises of zodiac-themed adventures, pitting players against challenges like the Dark Bull Pit of Taurus and the deadly Spears of Sagittarius. But those dreaming of a thrilling game that would up the stakes from Adventure would have to wait another month for the Raiders of the Lost Ark video game. Instead, Earthworld’s challengers were met with an intellectual puzzle, roaming through a dozen bland rooms. True, some included reflex-related mini-games, but mostly players found “magical objects,” carried them to different rooms, and hoped some combination of the artifacts would reveal a clue in the form of a pair of numbers. But what to do with those mysterious numbers?

Soon, the most adept players discovered, that each set of numbers mapped to a page and panel in the game’s corresponding comic book, which held an artfully concealed word. Five of these words formed the game winning phrase – QUEST IN TOWER, TALISMAN FOUND. And with twelve rooms, sixteen objects—and an untold number of complex combinations of those—it’s amazing that anyone successfully completed the game, which one honest Atari employee referred to as “the kind of a punishment a judge might mete out to a convicted serial killer.” Yet, in the months that followed, thousands of hopeful heroes embraced the torture and deciphered the code. And eventually, eight Supreme Sages of Sorcery – the titled granted to those correctly identifying the phrase – appeared, ready to battle one another.

In May of 1983, the champions of Earthworld gathered at Atari headquarters for a contest that was equal parts Willy Wonka and The Last Starfighter. A diverse group, including high school and college students, a housewife, and a Coast Guard lieutenant, raced to best a modified version of Earthworld. Their bounty: the Talisman of Penultimate Truth, an 18-karat solid gold disc studded with 12 diamonds, the birthstones of the 12 Zodiac signs, and a miniature white gold sword set atop it. Ultimately, in a mere 47 minutes, twenty-year-old Stephen Bell emerged victorious, attributing his win to his knowledge of astrology and his ability to decipher the unique clues provided. And although Bell claimed he was excited to show his prize to his parents, he also spoke of selling the medallion to buy a car. [Need tag.]

By the time the Earthworld competition took place, Fireworld had been out for three months. Having learned some lessons, Atari reduced the number of rooms to ten, provided better clues, and made the pattern of objects less confoundingly random. Consequently, seventy-three Knights of the Chalice identified the correct phrase – LEADS TO CHALICE, POWER ABOUNDS, Atari employed an essay to narrow the field to fifty contestants. The competition was set for November, but in an early sign of the troubles to come, it was postponed until January 1984,. In the end, Michael Rideout claimed the Chalice of Light, setting up a battle of the ages against Earthworld’s champion, Stephen Bell, a battle that would never come to pass. For evil forces outside the realm of Swordquest had been gathering in number.

A year earlier, in 1982, Atari released three games crafted by brilliant designer Howard Scott Warshaw. Like the Swordquest series, Warshaw’s works were influenced by Warren Robinett’s Gray Dot. Unlike Swordquest, however, Warshaw kept his Easter Eggs buried. May brought Yar’s Revenge, the first game to come with its own comic. November saw the arrival of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the true spiritual successor to Adventure that Earthworld strived to be. And as the year ended, so too, did the Warshaw trilogy, as the eagerly anticipated E.T. filled store shelves. Unfortunately, however, to meet the demands of the Christmas season, development time, which was often ten months or more, was cut to mere weeks, leading to events that would impact not only Swordquest, but the entire industry.

In the years following, it became clear that numerous factors were responsible for the collapse of the video game industry in 1983: a glut of game systems, the rise of home computers, and the unchecked quality of third-party competitors. But the character who was so beloved on theater screens a year earlier, had become a pariah on our game console. E.T. was considered such a singularly disappointing game that it became the face of the fall. And so, it came to be that in September 1983, while warriors fought feverishly to uncover the treasures of Fireworld, Atari sent truckloads of unsellable cartridges to be buried in the New Mexico desert.

The video game industry had imploded. Although the impact would not be felt immediately, a new King would usurp the throne at Atari. Jack Tramiel, one of the world’s leading “business-as-war-entrepreneurs,” ruled Atari ruthlessly, cutting staff by ninety percent and earning comparisons to Darth Vader. Tramiel’s strategy for the failing brand was lean and hungry, unsentimental, and driven by sales. It left little room for flights of fancy. Or for quests for fantasy. And so, Atari dispatched the envoys feared most throughout the land, the very Destroyers of Dreams: Attorneys.

In another foreboding omen, the third game, Waterworld, was available only to Atari Club members. And to futher dumb it dumb, it featured only eight rooms, a hint book, and a mere four-word solution – HASTEN TOWARD REVEALED CROWN. But those that survived the aquatic challenges in search of the Crown of Life were told that the contest was delayed until late 1984. That is until it was delayed until 1985. Then, potential warriors were once again asked to submit essays to narrow down the challengers to ten or fifteen – numbers vary according to the lore –but then were told they didn’t make the cut. By 1986, it was clear, the third contest would never take place. Swordquest – the most bizarre, ambitious treasure hunt in the history of video games – was over. Or was it?

Although there was no public competition for Waterworld’s Crown of Life, folklore tells of a contest was held in secret. In response to a query in 1984 questioning if the entire Swordquest series was a “phony come-on,” Electronic Fun magazine stated that the first three contests had taken place. Until his untimely death in 2020, gaming historian Curt Vendel was adamant that Atari had held the match–and that the Crown of Life had been claimed by a mysterious champion. The final chapter, Airworld, however, died on the vine. Despite tales that the game was playable, Tod Frye, who worked on all four games, said it was only twenty percent complete before being unceremoniously terminated. And while others claim to have seen a script or storyboard for the comic, artist George Perez dismissed this as nonsense. By the mid-1980s, Swordquest was truly dead. But nothing stays buried forever.

Even stronger than four elements of Swordquest is nostalgia. In 2014, more than thirty years after the video game crash, the mysteries of the treasure buried in the New Mexico desert were unearthed, revealing a trove of E.T., and other video game cartridges. Among others, the dig was attended by Howard Scott Warshaw. Well publicized, including a documentary, it helped draw attention to later chapters of the Atari saga. And so it came to be that three years later, Dynamic Comics released a new Swordquest comic book, telling the tale of an adult gamer trying to track down and play Airworld to complete his childhood quest. And last year, Atari 50, a compilation of over a hundred video games, and a documentary of the history of Atari, finally completed the Swordquest saga by releasing Airworld. Players may, at long last, claim the Sword of Ultimate Sorcery…in game, at least. But what about the treasures in the real world, those forged by the Franklin Mint?

Fireworld champion, Michael Rideout, is still in possession of the Chalice of Light, which he secured in a safe deposit box. But according to both Rideout, and historian Curt Vendel, while Stephen Bell may have kept the gems and a small sword emblem that hung from the Talisman of Penultimate Truth, he melted down the medallion and sold the precious metals. No one has ever come forward as owner of the Crown of Life, but if the Waterworld contest was held, someone has it. Conventional wisdom dictates that the final treasure the Sword of Ultimate Sorcery, valued at $50,0000, was returned to the Franklin Mint to be melted down and repurposed as dozens of commemorative coins. But eagle-eyed employees noticed that Jack Tramiel had a sword in his office. And while some claimed it was a family heirloom, we may never know for certain. And thus, our tale ends as it began, mired in mystery… Or does it?

Although a version of Airworld was eventually released, the solution does not include a phrase. The Swordquest quatrain, begun over forty years ago, remains incomplete. “Quest in Tower Talisman Found / Leads to Chalice Power Abounds / Haste Toward Revealed Crown…” The first three games tracked a series of clues from video game to comic. So, is it just coincidence that recent years have given us a new video game…and a new comic? Perhaps the clues are still out there to lead a new champion to the Sword of Ultimate Sorcery. (Or Jack Tramiel’s office.) Perhaps the true Swordquest is just waiting for brave soul to accept the challenge. Will you take up the adventure?



Buck Naked Ambition

If you’d rather listen to this story, check out this episode of the podcast. 1981. Although it was fall, it felt like winter

Todd Rogers: Game Over

If you’d rather listen to this story, check out this episode of the podcast. On November 30, 2012, for the first time