A few years ago, some die-hard video-game fans discovered a huge cache of old E.T. Atari games in a landfill in New Mexico. The discovery sparked some discussion about the game itself. As well, I remember people talking about why we often feel such unaccountable nostalgia for even terrible experiences like E.T. Lately, I’ve been thinking about good–and bad–video games from years past. Inevitably, these thoughts turn to the worst video game I’ve ever played. Weirdly, that game was not E.T. Join me for a dive into absolutely terrible 1980s video games–and modern riffs on an nostalgic theme, like Ready Player One.
An Adventure in a New Mexico Landfill.
Hearing about the landfill search–and later seeing a documentary about it–brought back a lot of memories for me. I was a kid nearing tween status when it came out in 1982. Consequently, I played E.T.
Well, I played it briefly, at any rate. I didn’t know anybody who stuck with it, for reasons that will become crystal-clear shortly. And the speed of my going from interest to totally-no-interest should tell anybody just how bad the game was.
See, my family was not rich by any means in 1982. That said, we took our recreation very seriously. Dad bought pretty much every time-wasting gadget that came out. We acquired, as each hit the consumer market, cable TV, Pong, a VCR, and an Atari 2600.
But having blown the wad on the console system itself, we found ourselves too broke to afford the games themselves. By the standards of the day, these cartridges were not cheap.
My friends and I got around that difficulty by sharing our hard-won game cartridges with each other. My personal favorite for a long time was Mountain King. Mom wouldn’t buy it for me, so I had to borrow it. And only one kid owned it: my bestie at the time. He was really protective of it because it was his favorite, too. (BTW, this was the same friend who’d survived polio and walked with braces.) Its music was entrancing and for a super-primitive console game, it managed to be downright enthralling.
It took me weeks of dedicated effort and no small number of “sick days” to beat that game, and I succeeded–eventually. This game’s mechanics were strong enough that it’d probably hold up pretty well for play today.
But a game didn’t have to be that kind of awesome for me to waste inordinate amounts of time on it.
I’d play anything.
But I soon discovered something I wouldn’t play.
Why E.T. Sucked So Hard.
Everything that made Mountain King glorious doomed E.T.
Mom picked E.T. up around the time every retail outlet marked it down to OMG please just steal this wretched game so our cashiers don’t waste our money ringing it up.
The box should have clued me in. The pictures on Atari game boxes were always more inspirational than informative.
For example, at the right please see the box for Mountain King. It only vaguely relates to the game’s actual play. That gridlike bit in the middle depicts play; the player is the little white zot in the middle, shining the flashlight leftward to spot a treasure chest (it looks like someone spritzing spray paint, but it’s a flashlight beam). Otherwise, it’s a riot of vaguely-connected pictorial ideas.
Even by the loose standards of 1980s box art, the picture on E.T. was egregiously bad, being neither informative nor inspirational.
If anything, the gameplay was even worse than the box’s cover art. It’s hard to put into proper perspective just how terrible this game was in every conceivable direction, so here’s a playthrough.
A playthrough of E.T. for the Atari. Watch only if you have something meaningful to do while you watch.
From the sound of things, E.T.’s developers had been massively rushed to make the game. And in turn, the game they created had no small role in Atari’s fall from the top.
I’m telling you all of this because I’m now going to tell you that E.T. was nowhere near the worst video game I ever played.
No, friends, that honor belongs very firmly to SwordQuest, which came out just two months before E.T. debuted.
All Hat, No Cattle.
Just saying the name of that game makes my sense of dark bitterness twitch.
SwordQuest wasn’t just one game. It was four connected games, each with their own tightly-associated comic book. The games all shared some central ideas.
First, the whole big deal of this series was that the players of each game competed for real-world prizes (I’ll show you more about that in a minute here).
Second, each game was based upon some major world astrological system and named for the four elements. Earthworld took inspiration from the zodiac, for example, and Airworld was going to involve the I Ching.
Third, the games all had associated small-format comic books, as I mentioned. The comic books followed a pair of young-adult (and quite hot by 80s standards) twins, Tarra and Torr. They were thieves, but also the hidden-away children of a murdered king. The usurper wanted to kill them too, of course. Indeed, he and his wizard gave this task the good college try throughout each comic book. But the comics had a purpose: the artists had hidden clue words all through the stories for readers to find. The video games yielded hints about where those clues hid in the comics.
Last, the games were exceptionally aggravating and unrewarding to play on a level that suggests that they actually formed part of an advanced test administered by space aliens thinking about conquering the planet.
We “failed” the test by rejecting the game.
Hooray Team Earth!
Some Ideas Are Worth Repeating. Some Aren’t.
The notion of finding a treasure through clues in a book wasn’t new.
Back in the 1970s, a picture book called Masquerade drove a bunch of British people out of their minds using the same ideas. The book contained a bunch of lavish paintings. Each painting contained various brain-busting clues that, when put together, revealed the location of a gorgeous buried treasure: a jeweled golden hare pendant.
The “winner” of Masquerade cheated to get the prize. He then achieved a second but very limited success making a treasure-hunt game, except in video-game format, in 1984. The game he made, Hareraiser, is often reckoned the worst game ever made. I never played it, so it can’t compete as “the worst video game that Yr. Loyal &Etc., personally, has ever played,” but it still sounds bad.
Yes, it’s a half hour long. It’s worth the time.
I kinda wonder if that guy who made Hareraiser derived some of his inspiration from Atari’s release of the first SwordQuest installment a couple of years earlier.
He should have known better.
The Sum of Great Parts (Wasn’t Great).
By themselves, the elements of SwordQuest should have combined to make a great game.
I loved the comic books themselves. The artists involved were two of my hands-down faves–George Pérez1 and Dick Giordano. They illustrated the New Teen Titans series that I loved like breathing, and EarthWorld looked about like that.
(Here’s the first SwordQuest comic, Earthworld. Revel in the so-80s-it-hurts art aesthetic. Breathe it in. Go ahead. I won’t judge you.)
And I liked Atari games in general. Though I wasn’t terribly good at brain-teaser puzzles, I wasn’t bad at them. Ever the realist, I never imagined winning the prize. But it was neat that real-world prizes were part of the game’s setup.
But when I actually played this game, all of those winning elements combined into something absolutely horrible.
Real Cash, Real Prizes.
The whole central selling point for SwordQuest was that it offered these real-world prizes.
See, if you found all the clues, you earned a shot at winning a fabulous, fantasy-flavored prize. For EarthWorld, Atari offered a gold talisman necklace. FireWorld netted its winner a gold chalice. WaterWorld‘s winner got a gold crown. AirWorld would have offered up a gold “philosopher’s stone.” Atari set a value on each prize of USD$25,000.
After all four games had winners, those winners would then come together to play a final fifth installment of the game. Whoever beat that final game first would get a $50,000 gold sword. Popular tchotchke-seller Franklin Mint had already crafted the prizes–and they looked downright dazzling on the game’s poster.
The system Atari devised for figuring out an ultimate winner turned into a door-banging orgy cluster on so many different levels. Basically, whoever found any of the clue words in the comic book could send them in to Atari via snail mail. Those who found all of the clues for EarthWorld (8 people total) gathered together at Atari’s headquarters in California in 1983 to play a special, modified version of EarthWorld. The first person to beat it won the Talisman of Penultimate Truth.
In 1984, a similar contest was held. This time, 73 people sent in the right words. Atari had them write essays about what they liked about FireWorld. (The mind boggles about just what kind of dishonesty would have been required to write anything positive.) They selected 50 people from the essayists, and those folks played a specially-coded version of that game. Someone in that winnowed group won the Chalice as a result.
WaterWorld enjoyed a very limited release, but whoever won the Crown received it after a “semi-secret tournament” only held because the law forced Atari to run one. That winner’s name was never publicly revealed. AirWorld never got released at all. Because it wasn’t released, the contest didn’t have to happen. Thus, the Philosopher’s Stone never got awarded, and neither did the Sword.
Atlas Obscura thinks the Franklin Mint eventually melted down both of those last prizes. They’re probably right. Nobody seems to know where the crown went. The Talisman was mostly melted down and sold for the gold, while the Chalice still survives in its winner’s hands.
Wrong on All Levels. ALL. LEVELS.
But all of that stuff was just academic to 12-year-old me in 1982. To me, EarthWorld was simply a terrible game in every conceivable way.
Indeed, I only played–if played would even be, strictly speaking, the correct verb in the first place for this experience–the first installment in the SwordQuest series.
In 2001, Dimetric Houston typed out a well-organized walkthrough of EarthWorld. Once I read some of it, I realized that I’d never had a single chance of figuring this game out. All I remember is vague, weird rooms full of either difficult challenges (a couple of the games looked like Frogger, a far superior but still very glitchy game I’d already enjoyed on the Atari platform) or else maddeningly-empty rooms with zodiac symbols in them.
EarthWorld‘s big disconnect, for me, was not knowing I was supposed to be dropping specific things off in specific rooms. That move never once even occurred to me. Certainly nothing in any part of the game or comic hinted that this was a good tactic to try. Consequently, I discovered one of the clues by total accident, and then never saw another one.
A walkthrough. Includes the final clues in the comics at the end. And yes, people did try to “win” by just finding the clues in the mini-comics.
After a strikingly short attempt to play the game completely through, I quit and found something else to do. The game had simply collided against my incredibly-low tolerance for frustration in the worst possible way. Ultimately, I lasted longer at E.T. than I did at EarthWorld.
A Fresh Old Hell.
Once the 1980s became retro and vintage, SwordQuest somehow became an object of interest again.
In 2016, Atlas Obscura ran a fascinating article on their site about the prizes that SwordQuest had offered–and where they were now.
Then, in 2017, someone collected all the mini-comics into one volume and republished the lot of them.
Finally, in 2018, the comics got their own inevitable reboot. This time, the story is set in the modern age, where the hero of the series, who unfairly lost his shot at the sword as a kid, is now an adult trying to steal the big prize he couldn’t win.
In a world where someone could make a short film based on Frogger, anything is possible, I suppose.
An Evergreen Hunt.
Now, with Ready Player One, today’s young people look back at the days of my childhood, sifting through the nostalgia of yesteryear for points of relevance in the modern day. And us older folks can enjoy the brush of favorite memories of popular culture.
The central conceit of the bestselling book–and movie–is a video-game-based treasure hunt. Players in the real world race to find a prize hidden somewhere within a massive virtual-reality environment. The prize offered in Ready Player One is ownership of the environment itself. In spirit, this hunt not much different than the one I briefly fought to win in 1982–or even for that matter than the Golden Hare in the 1970s.
In many ways, the craze of Pokémon Go could also be seen as a similar treasure-hunt, too. We keep reinventing that wheel. It speaks to so many of us, which is why so many Christians wrung their hands about Pokémon Go (and tried to Jesus juke it) and are writing about Ready Player One these days.
SwordQuest never reached the level of a craze like Masquerade did. Hareraiser could only brush the wingtip of that level of national interest. But their creators tried to get to that level.
Desperate for Relevance.
I can only imagine how fervent Christians feel about all of these trends flying past that center on everything but their religion. Most of the Ready Player One reviews I saw from Christians delighted in the nostalgia value of the book/movie, but tut-tutted disapprovingly over its clear antipathy toward Christianity.
Indeed, at least one Christian reviewer I saw in passing frowned at the dystopian elements of the setting. He declared, with no citation of sources, that if Christianity were still the dominant social force in America, then it surely would be “much less dystopian.” O RLY? I had to laugh at this wild guess of his:
I imagine that is why authors in this category of fiction stray from God when possible. It adds to the bleak outlook of characters whose only purpose is living day to day, and trying to get along with one another.
Oh, you imagine so, hmm? It’s funny when Christians accidentally believe their dear leaders’ propaganda. They seem to know more about that than they do their religion’s history or the many ultra-dystopian Christian nightmare communities that exist today, right now. That same guy sanctimoniously whined about the “pity” he felt toward people who lacked belief in his magical invisible wizard-friend. Poor widdle us, trapped in our day-to-day struggles, lacking the glorious joy and sense of purpose that Christians always feel!
And yet every single time a huge trend gets popular, it has nothing whatsoever to do with Christianity unless it was specifically created by them to pander to them–and even then the trend stays in their bubble.
The Psychology of Treasure Hunts.
All of these games and diversions share some deep, deep roots. They don’t just speak to what makes us human, but also to the many traits we share with so many other animals.
The hunt itself is presented as a game–not as a struggle to survive. Finding prizes–especially when we don’t know exactly where to find them–can trigger a dopamine rush. Unexpected rewards trigger better rewards in our brains. It doesn’t matter if the test subjects are people or rats; they often go to extreme lengths to gain rewards in randomized trials.
And when the hunt relates to our past, it triggers our love of nostalgia. Through these nostalgic treasure-hunts, us older folks can remember our childhoods. For those too young to remember those days directly, it can be pleasurable to think of earlier days when things seemed simpler and easier to understand.
I can easily understand why the people in the book Ready Player One were willing to go to extremes to find James Donovan Halliday’s big prize. It’s the same reason why people in the 1980s spent hours playing a ridiculously not-fun game. And it’s the same reason they spend way too much money on loot crates, or spend hours playing games they don’t even enjoy anymore. I’m not immune to the appeal of those kinds of games, either, as I’ve discovered.
Probably the only thing that stopped me from getting obsessed with EarthWorld back in the 1980s was my own low tolerance for frustration, then. So I guess that’s one thing I can thank it for!
Hey, maybe it helped me help save the Earth from space aliens.
NEXT UP: We plunge into the Unequally Yoked Club, prowl around some odd outgrowths of evangelism, and if there’s time, fit in a book review. See you soon!
1 This probably won’t matter to anybody in the world except me, but for a while I was 99.9% certain that George Pérez worked on Richie Rich back before he ended up at DC. This suspicion came from my noticing in an issue of Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld that the women’s eyebrows in that series all looked like Mayda Munny’s in the Richie Rich comics. I’m not on board with that connection now. The New York Times names Warren Kremer, who passed away in 2003, as the artist behind the Richie Rich comics. (This is what it looks like to change one’s beliefs when new evidence arises.)
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