Monday, August 23, 2010

SwordQuest: Earthworld, an Atari 2600 experience (part 2)

I finally had a chance to sit down with Stella and play this game. Remember, this game was supposed to be the holy grail of Atari 2600 adventure gaming, the game that would be everything Adventure was, and more. Upon loading the game, you are presented with a color-cycling sword and the copyright. Arguably, this is better than Adventure's intro screen.

Not a bad start, I guess.
As soon as you press 'fire' you start the game, where you're presented with a relatively inscrutable screen. Your avatar (an armless, bald dude in a blue shirt... arguably an improvement over Sir Square) stands in the middle of a 4-way intersection, and has three items in his inventory. A dagger, a grappling hook, and a rope. (or possibly a crossbow bolt, a sword blade, and a cobra. It's hard to tell.)

Moving around the room is easy enough. I press 'fire' and am in a room with an amulet, a flashing door, and a symbol that looks remarkably like a woman in a lewd pose. I can maneuver my inventory here, dropping or picking up the items. I decide to pick up the amulet, and leave the rope and hook behind. Pressing fire on the door icon takes me back to the room.

I immediately decide to explore to the right. I'm thwarted. I find I can't go left, either. Ok, down it is. Going down, I get rewarded with a pseudo-3D hallway effect, and am in an even pinker room than before. Pressing 'fire' puts me in a room with a symbol that is possibly a trolley car headed for me, but most likely a set of scales. I seem to recall that the rooms are zodiac-based. I might verify that if I go read the instructions.

I go down again and I get my first clue! Woo! It is simply the number '1'. I know if I collect all the clues, and figure out the secret, and build a time machine, I can have a chance at winning the Talisman. I expect that at this stage of my life, it's more likely that I'd build a time machine than complete this game.

The room with the clue has what I'm going to assume is Scorpio's symbol, as well as a talisman of some sort. I go pick that up, and leave the amulet in its place. Maybe the '1' meant to drop the item from the 1st room here. I still can't go left or right, so down it is.

I'm now in a bright green room. The symbol is probably Aries, but there's nothing here. So far, I'm sevral minutes into the game and have encountered nothing remotely interesting. By this time in Adventure, you'd have been eaten a few times at least.

I go down again, after verifying that I still can't go right or left. Ooh! A purple room, but this time I'm not in an item area... I've got a skill challenge! I'm at the bottom of the screen, and there are pink things moving... I quickly deduce I'm either supposed to dodge those, or move across them, to get to the purple door.

Woo! Frogger! Only bad!

I decide it's likely 'phase 1' of Frogger, where you have to avoid the cars. I quickly realize this is incorrect. You can't move left or right, and can only move forward jumping from pink thing to pink thing. And it's pretty brutal. They move quickly, and if you hit the edge of the screen, it dumps you off. Every fail sends you back to the start. After a few tries, I decide to time myself to see how long it takes me to make it.

On the 19th try I make it to the door... and miss it. 3 minutes down the drain so far, but despite being completely unfun and pure twitchiness, I'm not to throw-the-controller level yet.... FUCK YOU GAME. 50 or so tries later, I've made it to the stupid last rank a half-dozen times, but missed the door each time. While I'm currently at throw-the-controller levels of frustration, I also know that I simply have to be at the right hand side of the screen for the last couple jumps, period. I appreciate trying to make things hard, but the varied speed and requirements to line things up is just stupid...

FINALLY. Made it. 10 minutes of repetitive bullshit, half-assed Frogger clone with bad graphics and one-dimensional controls (Forward/back only? Really?) I make it into the Aquarius room, I'd guess, and can pick up a dude and a jug. I do so. I leave the talisman here, too, for no good reason. Woo! I can move left! Apparently one of the items lets me do so? Or maybe it's a reward for beating that stupid screen. Except... moving left just puts me back in the Libra room. Lame. Well, anyway... I go left some more and get to Gemini... where there's a candle and a lance or trident. I get both of those items...

Ok, I'm getting bored. I can move around, see rooms, but I've not found any game to play except Shitty Frogger. I start running around randomly, because that's sure to help. I finally find a new challenge screen... I'm excited, briefly, until I realize that I'm back to Shitty Frogger Returns. This is the height of adventure gaming in 1982, really? Shitty Frogger and obfuscated puzzles involving picking shit up and putting it down somewhere else?

More Frogger? Really?
Either this screen is 100 times easier, or my previous 'challenge' screen has honed my abilities, because I get through this Frogger screen in one try, and am rewarded with Sagitarrius' room, with what I guess is a cloak in it.

Ok... wander, wander, wander. Oh, look, I can keep playing Shitty Frogger Mk I, I bet that room is super important and has to have lots of shit dropped in it to get a clue since it is so freakishly painful. I find more items... shield, key, shoes, booze and pills... but I have no idea what to do with any of them. It's time to break down, admit failure, and... read the instructions.

Ok, the instructions have useful info. The lewd woman was Virgo. The booze/pills is food, the dude is a talisman of passage, the shield is leather armor. I can now see what all the items are, and the room symbols... I also learn about the challenges. Frogger Mark I is using rafts to cross the Aquarian Rapids. Frogger Mark II is dodging the spears of Sagittarius. I've apparently not yet found the Horns of Taurus, or the roaring waterfall of Leo. Which is odd, because I've seen the rooms that have those symbols...

Ok, the instructions are only moderately helpful. I'm supposed to put things in rooms... but as far as I can tell, it's purely trial and error, with a combination of 12 rooms and 15 objects. I'm not going to do the math on that, I'm willing to accept it's simply a large number. Luckily, I'm living in 2010, and not 1982... so I can make use of the internet, and solve the puzzles of Earthworld with Google, instead of my free time and sanity.

With the aid of a walkthrough, I learn that the reason I've never seen the 'Horns' or 'Waterfall' is that I have the items necessary to avoid them. Yay. I also learn that the clues are pretty much entirely arbitrary, and involve dropping things with no rhyme or reason. Apparently, you were supposed to buy a game that had about 20 minutes of game play, but to be compelling, you needed to drop items in rooms. Again. And again. And again. Ah, hundreds of hours of compelling game play of moving things around in hopes of getting a magical combination, with occasional games of Shitty Frogger to lighten the mood. Good job, Atari!

I think I'm done with the game at this point... I have little interest in playing the other variations of 'dodge things' to get the privelege to randomly drop things in rooms. The only question I have is: 'Is this game better, or worse, than E.T.?' It just might be worse.

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