The Quest For The Real-Life Treasures of Atari’s Swordquest
March 9, 2016 4:44 AM   Subscribe

 
I had Fireworld as a kid. It was clear even to my seven year old self that I was dealing with something far too bizarre for my brain to comprehend. I remember the comic as well, but I had no idea it contained hidden messages.

I did get it in my head that I might win some kind of prize if I could "beat" the game but the game itself was such an enigmatic shitshow I never got anywhere.

In a way it was a metaphor for my Atari games experience in general... Move enigmatic pixels around a screen wondering if something cool was happening. Thank God I discovered computer games.
posted by selfnoise at 4:55 AM on March 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


I was one of the 10 finalists in the Waterworld contest. Unless they flat-out lied to me, nobody participated in a secret tournament for the $25,000 crown. Instead, they asked us all to agree to split the value of the crown 10 ways, then (after each player agreed) mailed each finalist a check for $2,500.

I have no idea what might have happened to the crown. But that's how it went down from my end.
posted by Mothlight at 4:58 AM on March 9, 2016 [89 favorites]


This reminds me somewhat of the book Masquerade which set off a minor bout of treasure hunting.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 5:13 AM on March 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


“[What] did not belong to Atari, nor was purchased by Tramel Technologies were the Swordquest prizes, because they were owned by Warner Communications, and were being held by Franklin Mint,” he says “They’re not sitting on Jack Tramiel’s mantel, nor is the sword sitting over Jack Tramiel’s fireplace. He never had the rights or access to the [prizes].”

According to Vendel, the rumor stems from an Atari employee who did see a sword over the mantel, but it was a family heirloom, not the Swordquest sword.


Tramile lost his family in Auschwitz, was there himself, came to the states with nothing in the late 40s and wirked in a typewriter factory. Him just happening to have a sword seems odd, and if he did it'd have to assume it was some kind of Indiana Jones style relic.
posted by Artw at 5:19 AM on March 9, 2016 [4 favorites]


Atari Age has the three comics that were printed available for viewing on their site (along with the pack-in comics that came with the other games). Given the constraint of having to embed the contest clues, they still manage to be surprisingly good.
posted by radwolf76 at 5:34 AM on March 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


Thanks so much for this article. My brother and I had the games but without the comics and we used to spend Saturday mornings labouring over astrology and the game, meticulously recording what did what. It was so all for naught! It was a wonderful day when I discovered Atari emulators and the first thing I did was the walk throughs for the games :D
posted by Calzephyr at 5:34 AM on March 9, 2016


some kind of Indiana Jones style relic

Hopefully the kind that that melts Nazis' faces.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 5:36 AM on March 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


Best thing about the 'quest comics was that they had George Perez doing the artwork.
posted by MartinWisse at 5:42 AM on March 9, 2016 [4 favorites]


Tramile lost his family in Auschwitz, was there himself, came to the states with nothing in the late 40s and wirked in a typewriter factory. Him just happening to have a sword seems odd, and if he did it'd have to assume it was some kind of Indiana Jones style relic.

Yeah, that story is pretty clearly false in some dimension. No one except for royalty has 'family heirlooms' that are gold and jewel studded swords, and it's not like an Atari employee would mistake any random interior furnishings sword for their much promoted cheezy glittery one. It's just not clear whether it's false because Tramiel did take the sword (because seriously, unethical corporate raiders are going to pay so much attention to ownership if they can get their hands on an asset undetected?), or Tramiel was the sort of guy who had fake fancy swords made up and claimed them as family heirlooms, or it was just a rumor that eventually got a fake backstory of "and XXX SAW IT!"
posted by tavella at 6:02 AM on March 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


So that "until now" part of the title just means "for people who haven't already read this on Wikipedia?" Kind of a letdown, as I was hoping they actually knew where the other prizes were.

That said, I love reading about those games. My brother had a friend who was that kid who had just about every Atari game ever. So after playing them for a week or so Rob would let my brother borrow them. I remember playing the first couple of games and being mostly bored, but also intrigued. I was a big fan of the book Masquerade, by Kit Williams, so the idea of finding clues that lead to a treasure was something I was really into.

Too bad the games kind of sucked.

It really is a shame the contest was never finished and the other prizes were lost or melted down. In any event, I wish that one guy who had the talisman would pull it out of the safe deposit box and take a nice digital photo of it.

For those who weren't around at the time, this contest was a pretty huge deal. Atari was basically IT for video games (except for the rich kids who had Intellivision) and just about everyone had one or had a friend who had one. The idea that you could play a video game and win something worth $25,000, surely enough to make you the richest eighth grader around, was a pretty new concept.
posted by bondcliff at 6:14 AM on March 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


I really would suggest reading up on Jack Tramiel - foundational figure in two generations of personal computing that I grew up with and tough as nails skinflint bastard. I'm pretty sure he looked at this nonsense about prizes for about 30 seconds before shutting it all down.
posted by Artw at 6:30 AM on March 9, 2016


Seems appropriate that Harry Potter, wearing a fake beard while time traveling, should win the magical, jewel-encrusted chalice.
posted by sexyrobot at 7:08 AM on March 9, 2016




For those who weren't around at the time, this contest was a pretty huge deal. Atari was basically IT for video games (except for the rich kids who had Intellivision) and just about everyone had one or had a friend who had one. The idea that you could play a video game and win something worth $25,000, surely enough to make you the richest eighth grader around, was a pretty new concept.

And then you actually tried to play the games, got tired of running the same minigame treadmill and getting nowhere, said "screw this" and went back to ruining your joysticks with Activision Decathlon.

Intellivision had its own contest, the Astrosmash! Shootoff, with a $25,000 top prize. Unfortunately, Mattel hadn't counted on (a) no on-screen indicators listing the difficulty level, so players racked up huge scores on the slowest speed, or (b) overflow errors causing extremely high scores to be ASCII gibberish instead of numbers. They did get the contest run, but it caused some headaches.
posted by delfin at 7:29 AM on March 9, 2016


"In the end, no one was able to grab the Sword of Ultimate Sorcery."
posted by Bob Regular at 8:16 AM on March 9, 2016


I used to have a blanket with a bunch of Activision patches I'd earned sewn onto it.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:22 AM on March 9, 2016 [6 favorites]


So that "until now" part of the title just means "for people who haven't already read this on Wikipedia?" Kind of a letdown, as I was hoping they actually knew where the other prizes were.

This seems to be about 95 percent a rehash of Vendel's book info, and I can't say I really trust his research methods. For example, he insists that there must have been a secret tournament to award the crown for Waterworld, despite there being absolutely no evidence of it:

“They held a very quiet, non-public contest with the 10 people who solved the Waterworld contest. The crown was awarded to the third prize winner.” While we could find no hard evidence of this contest, Vendel says the contest had to take place by law.

Which seems more likely? A secret tournament happened, that neither any player or any Atari employee has ever spoken of, or that with the sale of the company, lawyers invoked some loophole in the contest rules, as they demonstrably did with the first two winners in voiding the final contest?
posted by tavella at 9:02 AM on March 9, 2016


The rest of the prizes being melted down eventually does make sense, though, given that the Franklin Mint was owned by Warner Communications as well. The prizes may never have formally gone on Atari's books rather than Franklin's. An outside company probably would have had to pay at least part before them being made and thus Franklin wouldn't be able to just melt them down when convenient.
posted by tavella at 9:10 AM on March 9, 2016


@The Card Cheat - I finally scored 15,000 points on River Raid in 1982 or so. The patch has not survived the passage of time, but a dupe of the photo I had to send in of the TV screen (with my sister holding a floor lamp directly in front of the TV, as we were obvious photography dummies) does...
posted by kuanes at 11:13 AM on March 9, 2016


Man, I remember playing Earthworld when I was a kid, and I remember having the comic. But what I really, really remember is that one goddam room with the rainbow gate jumping-puzzle and the horrendous noises it made.

In fairly short order, it was relegated to the bottom corner of that black plastic shelving thing that would release the cartridges with a satisfying choonk! and I went back to trying to convince my friends to play Air-Sea Battle just one more time.

I'll even be the big plane! You can be the three little planes! Or Indy 500! Ice Race, man!
posted by Kafkaesque at 1:07 PM on March 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


bondcliff: “The idea that you could play a video game and win something worth $25,000, surely enough to make you the richest eighth grader around, was a pretty new concept.”
It's hard to conceive of now, but in 1982 $25,000 was a fortune. Converting it to 2016 dollars — $61,377.20 — doesn't do it justice. My parents bought a"starter" house in 1979 for $32,500. Eight grand would buy a Trans-Am. The median household income was $19,155.

All of which is to say, I had an Odyssey 2 and was so jealous of my friend who got a Swordquest game for Christmas that year. Then again I never solved that Masquerade puzzle either, so who am I kidding?
posted by ob1quixote at 8:33 PM on March 9, 2016


I also remember being 13 years old and convinced that I would surely win, as were all my friends. I mean, I like video games, I like puzzles. Therefore I will win the contest!

It's like how my son thinks if he records an hour of himself playing Minecraft and posts it to YouTube unedited he will start raking in the dollars.
posted by bondcliff at 6:17 AM on March 10, 2016 [2 favorites]


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