Swordquest: Earthworld (Atari, 1982)
Oh if only you could have seen the first draft of this review! My initial play of Swordquest: Earthworld had me very excited indeed. I was convinced that it was merely a flawed game that a bunch of negative nellies had falsely labelled as one of the worst games ever for the 2600. I even liked the minigames; look at that Leo Waterfall piece – it reminds me of the electric corridor sequence in Montezuma’s Revenge. Rafts in Aquarian Rapids? Why – it’s Frogger! How utterly delightful! Sagittarius Spears? Just a minimalist Freeway! Oh sure – I’m having a hard time beating them now, but it’s only a matter of time, right? Right???
Swordquest: Earthworld is unconscionably, ridiculously, ludicrously hard, and an entirely pointless exercise now that the $150,000 worth of prizes for beating the game (first with the commercially-available cartridge and then with a special championship edition) have been awarded decades ago. Atari wasn’t about to give away that kind of hardware without a fight, even though they were never shy about taking our hard-earned money.
Think about it this way: Swordquest: Earthworld is a game in which you need an active knowledge of the Signs of the Zodiac as well as a comic book to even play. Even if you do know your astrology, good luck deciphering the signs in Atari 2600 pixels without having to constantly refer to the manual.
The DC comic, written by industry luminaries Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas with art by George Perez and Dick Giordano, is actually really good as a standalone comic. However, as a clue-provider for the game itself it’s a washout, mainly because the in-game mechanics involved in finding the clues in the comic are convoluted and ridiculous.
The minigames border on the impossible, with even the slightest slip-up intended to send you right back to your starting point. Every one of them is literally a race to the bottom. Ultimately, the game comes down to putting objects in rooms, which was okay for a few objects in Adventure but not for the freaking SIXTEEN you have to deal with here. Gosh what fun.
And to think I was originally going to defend this game on the basis of “Hey, even the Zelda games involved a lot of exploring combined with the occasional minigame.” What an asinine conceit. I can’t believe I have two more of these things to review. Pray to the god of your choice for me. F
Swordquest: Fireworld (Atari, 1982)
Swordquest: Fireworld is more of the same but somehow even worse. I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way to escape this Swordquest experience with my sanity intact is to judge them on their minigames, but Fireworld fails even by that standard. Earthworld’s minigames actually are fun until you discover how impossible they are, but Fireworld doesn’t even offer that. The graphics are terrible, at least two are based on Kaboom! but with no paddle control, and there doesn’t seem to be any clear metric for success in any of them. What’s worse is that Fireworld apparently makes success in the minigames a prerequisite for getting into all of the treasure rooms. The one I was actually able to win sent me to a room with no treasure.
Otherwise, Fireworld offers more thrilling adventures in placing objects in rooms. I don’t know what else to say – these games are numbing my brain. F
Swordquest: Waterworld (Atari, 1983)
Welp, the good news is that Swordquest: Waterworld features the best graphics in the series (several times better than Fireworld at least) but the bad news is that the gameplay might be even worse than its predecessors. For one thing, they cheap out on the minigames – the only tangible metric of this series’ quality – with only three, each one pretty lame. Like Earthworld, there’s an uninspired Frogger rip, while the other two are pretty much the same except one is dodge-the-shark while the other is dodge-the-octopi.
Atari altered some game mechanics with this one, and not for the better. With Earthworld and Fireworld, players used a cursor to collect and exchange treasures. Here, you guide your explorer onto a treasure and hit the action button, which would be fine except that it HARDLY EVER WORKS, even if you won the prerequisite minigame. And because there are only three minigames, you wind up playing those games a lot.
So, as far as the race to the bottom that is determining which Swordquest game is the best and which is the worst, Earthworld comes up first among the clunkers if only for the semi-decent albeit ridiculously difficult minigames. Waterworld is pretty bad, but Fireworld rides the caboose of the lame train on account of its wretched graphics and terrible games. At least as a collector’s item, Waterworld is by far the most monetarily valuable of the series as it was only made available to Atari Club members, so there’s that, I guess (the planned fourth and final game, Airworld, was mercifully never released – thanks Video Game Crash). F
Sync (Homebrew, 2007)
Between the repetitive music and sheer difficulty of most of its high-speed puzzle games, I swear Sync was designed to drive the player insane. An attempt by programmer Simone Serra to bring the then-popular rhythm/reflex genre to the 2600, Sync vacillates between quite enjoyable to incredibly frustrating depending on which of the seven games you’re playing.
For me, the weakest games on the cart by far are the ones that most closely resemble the Dance Dance Revolution-with-thumbs (or in this case a joystick) subgenre. These include “Mantra” and “Jitter,” which start out skull-crushingly hard and just get worse from there. “Flow” – with its goal to eliminate as many CPU-placed blocks as possible – was much more to my liking.
The “Four” minigame set includes scaled-down, supposedly 1K versions of “Jitter” and “Flow” (sorry, I don’t buy that Serra was able to program either of them with only 1K). I didn’t like “Jitter” in the first place and this 1K version is more of the same. “Flow 1K” doesn’t seem to match the gameplay of its 4K cousin and as a result is extremely frustrating. However, I enjoyed “Gate” (a vertically-scrolling shape matching game) and the pretentiously-titled “Here” (eliminate bars with precise timing) much, much more.
So, of seven games I enjoyed only three, which is not a case for a strong recommendation. But you gotta admire Serra for attempting such an ambitious title. Technically Sync is a marvel, with an innovative-for-the-2600 game selection system, frequently stunning graphics and – in some games at least – borderline hypnotic music. Sync is available in the AtariAge Store. C
Synthcart (Homebrew, 2002)
Paul Slocum’s Synthcart may not be the best homebrew ever made, but it may well be the coolest. Synthcart turns your Atari 2600 into a full-on synthesizer featuring the system’s surprisingly robust – if slightly off-key – range of sound. The cart gives you control over tone, tempo and percussion, with a beatbox pre-programmed with 33 beats and patterns. That alone would surpass most peoples’ expectations, but the user also has control over attack/delay/release, tremolo and arpeggiation. The possibilities are virtually endless.
The bad news for users playing on original hardware rather than an emulator is that you will need your choice of two keyboard controllers, two video touch pads or two kids’ controllers (as I’ve long suspected, all of these controllers are interchangeable). Problem is how many people still have two of any of those controllers (I’m sure Basic Programming just tore up the video game sales charts, after all)? I know I lost my only Star Raiders video touch pad ages ago. So if you want to use Synthcart on an actual VCS you may need to make some additional investment.
Synthcart will appeal primarily to homebrewers composing soundtracks for their own projects, but considering how many AtariAge participants have done homebrews or aspire to do so, that could be a significant market within our little community. . And yes, it’s available for your shopping delight in the AtariAge Store. B