A sense of adventure and an active imagination were required to enjoy many Atari VCS/2600 games. The instruction manuals, box art and in the case of the Swordquest series, comic books, gave the players an idea of what the rudimentary shapes on the screen were meant to portray. Since I never owned an Atari VCS in the 80’s, I always dismissed the true adventure games on the system due to the confusing nature of the gameplay and steep learning curve to accomplish anything of note. I tended to be drawn to instant gratification Atari games that offered arcade experiences at home. Games such as E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark are not easy to pick up and play without owning an instruction manual and they perplexed me to no end for the longest time (still kinda do). The concept of what to do and where to go is so vague in these games that popping them in and assuming you could figure it out as you go is completely false. So when the internet came along and I could download and print off the instruction manuals, I did. But I still never game them a worthwhile shot until this month. With that said, I have only so much patience for this genre on the Atari so a couple of the games in this post continue to be ignored.
Let’s get it out of the way….I’ve never played either of the Swordquest games in my collection. Partly due to the crappy word of mouth and reviews they’ve received over the years and partly due to my bad early experiences with E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark really soured me on this style of game and left me cold to the idea of giving them a shot. As part of a proposed quadrilogy of games (limited release of Waterworld and cancelled Airworld round out the list) tied in with a prize laden contest, these titles were initially meant to be game changers for the aging Atari VCS in 1982-1983. Instead they ended up as interesting footnotes and collectors items in the case of Waterworld. I imagine back when they came out, there were a number of players that read the Swordquest comics and thought that the idea of playing a video game to win debatably cool but valuable prizes sounded awesome. Unfortunately, the video game crash occurred and the final two contests were never officially conducted which never game players and fans of the series the closure they needed. Haunted House, however, intrigued me with it’s visual style and concept. You’re goal is to find the hidden treasure inside an abandoned house where the ghost of the original home owner stalks the hallways. The rooms are entirely dark and all you are is a pair of eyes looking around with illumination surrounding you if you light a match with the joystick button. There are 4 floors with multiple rooms per floor but ultimately, once you figure out that you pretty much need to go to the fourth floor to find the treasure each time you can make quick work of the game. The goal is to find the pieces of treasure to put it together then take it to the exit as efficiently as possible. You start with nine lives and unlimited matches but you can achieve betters scores by using the fewest amount of matches and losing the least amount of lives by avoiding the ghosts, bats and spiders that jump out at you. You can also find a scepter which makes you invincible from spiders and bats but you cannot hold more than 1 item at a time, which adds to the challenge. Haunted House is a surprisingly fun game considering the simple graphics and premise but definitely loses steam after you’ve “solved” it. I would recommend the higher game variations with more enemies and locked doors that can only be opened once you find a skeleton key if you want more of a challenge.
The other two games on the list, Venture and Wizard of Wor offer a sense of adventure but not the open world concept of the previous titles. Venture is basically a Berzerk clone in which you control a hero named Winky that is represented on screen by a goofy smiling face (WTF?!?!) who seeks out treasure in various rooms while avoiding or in some cases battling the monsters within depending on who they are. Once inside a treasure room, you’ll need to make quick work of grabbing the treasure, killing any enemies that get in your way, and getting the hell out before an angry looking head aka the Hall Monsters which you cannot kill, makes its way towards you (Evil Otto anyone?). The game has its merits and even though its a bit of a Berzerk clone, the search for treasure and the various maps (exterior, interior) make Venture a slightly better option in my opinion. The graphics are super dull though and I’ve played better versions of Venture than the VCS/2600 version. Wizard of Wor, another arcade port like Venture, is a game that I never played in its original voice synthesized arcade glory. The VCS/2600 port is pretty faithful as far as what I can tell from videos I’ve seen of the original. You control a “Worrior” intent on shooting various monsters inside a Pac-Man like maze. Some monsters are temporarily invisible and you must keep track of their movements using the radar sub-screen, which is a pretty cool feature. If you kill enough of a certain kind of bird or dinosaur-like enemy (sorry, I can’t tell what it is) at the end of each stage, the Wizard of Wor will eventually show up and you’ll have to blast him to rack up major points. In the arcade, the Wizard taunts you in a heavy synthesized voice that really dates the game but also makes it kind of cool sounding. Too bad this none of the home ports contain this aspect. I tend to enjoy Wizard of Wor a bit more than Venture as it seems a little more original and I like how frenzied the pace gets as you shoot more monsters and the final monsters are zipping around the maze trying to escape.
Currently in my collection:
Haunted House – game, manual B
Swordquest Earthworld – game, manual
Swordquest Fireworld – game, manual
Venture – game, manual, box C+
Wizard of Wor – game B+