Interview by John Hardie

Adventure II Prototype Pic
Adventure II prototype cart

  • In late 1982, Atari set out to develop a sequel to their highly successful game, Adventure. Originally dubbed Adventure II, this larger, more encompassing RPG eventually evolved into a quartet of adventure games known today as Swordquest. The four parts of the Swordquest series were titled Earthworld, Fireworld, Waterworld, and Airworld. Each game had a contest and prize associated with it. The winners of each contest were to receive the following prizes:

    Earthworld - The Talisman: made of 18K solid gold, studded with 12 diamonds and the birthstones of the twelve zodiac signs.

    Fireworld - The Chalice: made of platinum and gold, adorned with rubies, sapphires, diamonds, pearls, citrines, and green jade.

    Waterworld - The Crown: made of gold, encrusted with diamonds, rubies, sapphires, green tourmalines and aquamarines.

    Airworld - The Philosopher's Stone: a large piece of white jade encased in an 18K gold box featuring emeralds, rubies, diamonds, and citrines.

  • Each prize was valued at $25,000 and the winner of each contest would return to compete for the grand prize; a jewel-encrusted Sword, with an 18K gold handle and a silver blade, loaded with diamonds, emeralds, rubies, and sapphires; valued at $50,000.

  • As most of us know the contest was a bust and there has been much debate over what exists and what doesn't, which prizes were awarded, etc. Here for the first time, is an in-depth interview with Michael Rideout, the winner of the Swordquest: Fireworld contest, who will give us a behind-the-scenes look at the contest and possibly provide some answers to these questions.


    JH: Mike, can you start with some background info on yourself so our readers can get to know a little more about you?

    MR: Sure. I'm 39 years old. I'm not married. I'm a computer programmer for a company that writes software for real-estate companies. I enjoy reading fantasy and science-fiction, and watching videos, TV shows, and movies like Star Trek and Babylon 5.

    Tell us how you got your start in videogames. What was your first game system?

    My first game system was the Atari 2600. One day I was at a bar, and saw this guy playing a Missile Command coin-op, and it sort of captured my attention. I was just sitting there watching him play this game, like I was hypnotized. Shortly thereafter, our family got an Atari 2600 for Christmas and I just kinda went crazy with it. I got the Adventure game and Haunted House, and decided that those were the kind of games I liked the most.

    How old were you when you got your 2600?

    It was probably around '81, so I would have been about 22 at the time.

    What other systems have you played with over the years?

    Well, I got an Atari 8-bit computer that I played with for a while and did some programming on. I did get a Nintendo and bought some of the adventure-type games like Legend of Zelda.

    Have you seen any of the newer systems (Playstation, Jaguar, Nintendo 64)?

    I've seen commercials from time to time but I haven't really looked into them. I'm not really into gaming like I used to be. Every once in a while I'll buy a computer game, but I don't really play them to the extent that I used to. I liked the Ultima series although you really need to compile a lot of info, maps, and stuff, and they just get way too involved. A lot of the newer games seem to be very violent; shoot-em-up and fighting type games and I'm not really into that.


    Atari began the Swordquest challenge with Earthworld. Did you enter that contest also?

    Yes, I bought Earthworld and played it a lot. I didn't find very many clues, maybe three or four from playing the game. I found nine of the words in the comic book. As you know, while playing the game, clues came up on the screen that pointed to panels in the comic book. These panels contained words hidden in them. There were ten words hidden in the comic book and five of them were correct while the other five were dummies. It turns out the tenth word wasn't hidden the same way as the others were. Most of the panels had a word hidden in the picture, like written on a wall or in the grass, etc. Since I didn't find the number clue that pointed to the tenth word, I kept searching through the comic until I thought I saw the tenth word. I picked five words out of the ten I had found but only four out of the five were right so I didn't qualify for the contest, although I did receive a certificate.

    What about Waterworld?

    I bought the Waterworld game through the Atari Club after the Fireworld contest. I played the game and found all the clues. They were a lot easier to find than in the other games. I found all the words in the comic, picked the four I thought were correct, and entered the contest. Apparently I didn't pick the correct four words so I didn't quality.

    When you first started playing Swordquest, was it your intention to try and win the contests? Or did you happen to think to yourself "Hey, this is easy. I should enter."?

    I wanted to enter all of the contests and hopefully qualify for the finals so I could try for the prizes.

    How many finalists were there for Fireworld?

    There was a maximum of 50 people who could be in the contest but a lot more than that qualified. I know that because they had to have a run-off. They sent everyone a piece of paper with some questions and we had to write in so many words or less, what we liked about the game. Out of those entries, the judges picked fifty contestants. I told them that I liked Fireworld better than Earthworld and talked about the sound, graphics, and challenge of the game.

    Did you think you had any chance of being selected as one of the fifty finalists, let alone the winner?

    I thought I had a pretty good chance of making the finals because I've always been good at writing. I was pretty honest in what I said. Some of the other people I met at the contest said they bullshitted about what a wonderful game it was even though they didn't really think that. I didn't have a lot of confidence in my ability to actually win the contest, because although I found the ten words in the comic book when I played the game at home, I had only found one number clue. I pretty much went to the game thinking "I'm going to lose this, so no problem." There wasn't a lot of pressure on me, which was good since I wasn't on the edge of my seat all tense while playing the game. I didn't feel I had as good a chance as some others who had found either all the clues, or more than I did.

    Can you briefly recall the order of events after submitting your essay that lead up to your arrival in California for the contest?

    Steven Bell
    Steven Bell
    Atari sent me a letter stating that I had qualified as one of the fifty people. They sent me a travel itinerary and I flew to San Francisco. When I got there, I grabbed my luggage and was standing around waiting for the person who was supposed to meet me. As I was waiting I recognized Steven Bell, the Earthworld winner, from his picture in the Atari Club magazine.

    Was Steven friendly to you at all or did you guys not really say much to each other?

    I'd say it was pretty cordial. It wasn't really friendly at first.

    Did you feel intimidated at all? Did you say to yourself "Jeez, he's in this one too!?"

    I guess a little bit. I had pretty much given up on my chances of winning anyway. I just thought it was nice to meet him. He had made friends with some of the people in the Earthworld contest and they were more close-knit as a group; I'm a bit of a loner anyway.

    What happened after that?

    A few other contestants arrived and the people from Atari came and drove us to our hotel. People were arriving throughout the day. The first day, we had the afternoon to ourselves and I walked down to Fisherman's Wharf and wandered around before the evening banquet.

    How many days were you there?

    I believe it was three days total. We all arrived the first day and the next morning was the contest. After the contest they took us to lunch and we had a whirlwind tour of San Francisco and Alcatraz. The last day, we all got up and went to the airport to leave.

    Did Atari ever offer to show you around their headquarters at all or give you any kind of behind-the-scenes tour?

    No. They never offered and we never got to see any of the buildings where they worked. They had us in a Holiday Inn downtown by Fisherman's Wharf.

    Is that where the actual contest was held?

    Yes, at the hotel.

    Did you bring your 2600 system along so that you could practice before the event?

    No. Honestly, I didn't even think of that. They had told us that we couldn't use our own joysticks during the contest and I guess I figured that I wouldn't be able to hook it up to the hotel TV anyway.

    O.K. The day of the final competition arrives and I imagine you were a little bit nervous. What were you feeling? What was going through your head?

    Well, I was excited to be in the contest. I wasn't too worked up about it, I was just enjoying the experience.

    Were the other contestants friendly to you? Did you share strategies or tips with each other?

    There were a lot of different personalities present. Some people were timid and others were more friendly. A lot of people were talking about the different clues they had found at home. They asked me "How many did you find?" and I said "Well, I found one." I was sort of embarassed to admit that. Some of the contestants had found one or two clues and others had found all ten. Everyone had been able to pick the words out of the comic whether or not they had actually found the clues in the game.

    What was different about the specially-programmed version of Fireworld compared to the retail version?

    I think the contest version was actually easier. One thing about the home version was that you had to have four different objects in one room and another object in another room in order to trigger a clue. In the contest version, you had to have four objects in a room but you didn't have to have another object in some other room. They had a list of ten riddles, kind of like a clue sheet, to help point you in the right direction.

    Did they let you keep any of this stuff? Riddle sheets, custom version of the game?

    They took back the riddle sheets. Some of the contestants were asking about keeping the custom version of the game but they said they needed them back. I think the reason for this was because the competition for the grand prize would require each of us to play all four games. So they probably planned on re-using the games.

    How long did it take you to finish this special version of the game? Was anyone close to catching you?

    I think they told me afterwards that it took me like 45 minutes and I remember asking if anyone was doing as well as me. The guy supervising me said there was another person that was close.

    Were there any strategies that you used to help get you through the game?

    Fireworld Screen
    Swordquest: Fireworld screen shot
    Well, I started out using the riddle sheet and looked over a few of the riddles. You have to realize that I didn't expect to win anyway so I decided to ignore the riddle sheet, which I couldn't make heads or tails of anyway, and play like I did at home where I would just wander around collecting objects, and putting them into each room systematically. I put the riddle sheet down and started playing the game the way I always did and as I was collecting the different objects and moving through the various rooms, I got a clue. I wrote down all the information like where I was and what objects I had and continued on until I had about three or four clues this way. While playing at home, I had made some maps and figured out that the layout was based on the Tree of Life, which is in the Jewish Cabala. I knew about the Tree of Life because I had dabbled in Tarot cards when I was in high school and one of the Tarot spreads is based on the Tree of Life. The Tree of Life is comprised of ten circles arranged in three triangles and in the Fireworld game, each room was one of the points of the triangles and the tenth room was at the base of the tree.

    So, your knowledge of the design of the Tree of Life helped out a bit. How did things progress from this point on?

    At the contest, I was numbering the rooms in the same order I had used at home. I was finding the clues and writing down where I was and I noticed there was a pattern, as far as which room had which clue. I figured if this pattern held, I would find clue #1 in a particular room, so I moved everything into that room, but I actually found the last clue instead. After thinking about it for a minute, I realized that maybe the first and last clues were swapped and everything else was the same. I looked at the different riddles on the clue sheet and it seemed to me that the rooms they were talking about did fit this pattern I had detected. So I went to the room where I thought the last clue would be and got the first clue. From that point on, I just started finding all the different clues in order very quickly. After about the first six or seven clues, I started to get a little more excited. Every time I would find a new clue, my heart would beat a little bit faster. When I finally did find the last clue, I was about to fall over.

    What were you feeling when you realized you had won? Shock? Disbelief?

    Michael Rideout
    Michael Rideout (right)
    It was a shock! It seemed like it was unreal. I kept thinking "O.k. I'm going to wake up any minute and I'll be in bed in the hotel waiting for the contest to begin." So I was totally out of it. When they handed me the chalice to hold so they could take my picture, they practically had to hold me up because I was literally about to fall over. My legs were rubbery and I jokingly said "Gosh, I feel like I'm going to have a heart attack or something" They were like "Do you want us to call an ambulance?"

    What were the reactions from the other people at the contest?

    Some of them were happy for me. I'm sure all of them were disappointed that they didn't win. I can imagine how they would have felt because I didn't expect to win either. I think some of the people who had been doing well were especially disappointed because they were almost there. When some of the other players found out that I had just played the game and not really used the riddles, they seemed to think that it wasn't fair, like maybe the riddles had actually prevented them from winning. The reason I did choose that way to play was because I had no expectations of winning. I thought I had no chance at all of winning so I figured "Why not just play the game the way I always do?"

    - THE PRIZES -

    You were crowned the Fireworld champion and awarded the Chalice. The first thing I'm sure everyone will want to know is.... Do you still have the Chalice?

    Yes. I have it in a bank vault. I've considered selling it from time to time although I'm more inclined to keep it as a family heirloom due to its sentimental value. I consider it like a little nest egg where if push comes to shove, I can always sell the Chalice.

    Can you describe the Chalice for us? What's its composition, etc?

    It's around seven to eight inches tall. The cup part of it is platinum and is maybe three or four inches across the top. The base is made of gold and has little diamonds on it. It also has three jade rings, two around the middle and one around the base. It has rubies and pearls going around the middle of it. There are five sapphires and some citrines in the middle section, as well as five lapis lazuli stones near the base.

    Mike, is there anything on the Chalice that would associate it with this contest? Perhaps the Atari (fuji) symbol, the word Swordquest, or any other markings?

    Nothing like that. It has no markings on it at all. It doesn't even say "made by Franklin Mint" or anything.

    The prizes for Swordquest were manufactured by the Franklin Mint, who are known to sell items that many would call "overpriced." The individual game prizes were valued at $25,000 and the grand prize at $50,000. Now, I'm not trying to belittle your prize in any way, but I have to ask... Do you think the chalice is actually worth $25,000?

    At the moment, definitely not. When I received the Chalice, I also got a sheet for taxation purposes that stated its value at around $21,600 or $22,600. Something like that, I forget exactly which it was. That was the value I had to put down on my income taxes.

    Do you think it's possible that Atari or the Franklin Mint inflated the value of the prize at all?

    Supposedly, the value is based on the ingredients alone. As far as the diamonds go, they look very small to me so I wouldn't think that they were worth all that much, although I think there's like 65 of them. I would think that even if the price of gold went down a lot, that the Chalice would retain its value as an object of art, based on its workmanship. But as far as the actual meltdown value, I know it's not worth $25,000. In fact, I don't think it was worth $25,000 ten days after they made it because the price of gold was dropping.

    Have you ever had the Chalice appraised?

    No. I've had people urge me to do so but I haven't since I'm not really ready to part with it. I'm sure that jewelers, for the most part, are honest people, but I've heard a couple of stories of people who have taken things to a jeweler to have them appraised and when they got it back some of the stones had been replaced. Maybe I'm being paranoid...

    Did Atari award you the Chalice on the spot or was it sent to you?

    After the first contest, Earthworld, they gave the Talisman to Steven Bell and let him take it home on the airplane. During the Fireworld contest, they explained that they figured that wasn't such a good idea. So what they did was to award me the prize and let me hold it for pictures and everything and then the security people took it back to the bank vault. They had Brinks deliver it to the bank where my brother worked in Atlanta and he signed for it and they put it in the vault there. My brother took it home and we all went to his house where I picked it up.

    What other prizes or promotional items were given out to yourself and the other participants?

    We all got Fireworld t-shirts. We were allowed the opportunity to order the Waterworld game at the contest where we also learned that it would only be sold through the Atari Club.

    Philosopher's Stone
    Philosopher's Stone
    As far as the prizes go, we know that Atari awarded the Talisman and the Chalice. Do you know if the other prizes exist or were they made to order as Atari needed them?

    They did exist. All of the prizes were on display and well-guarded at the Fireworld contest. The Philosopher's Stone really took my breath away. All of the pictures showed it with the cover on but they had the cover off at the contest and the actual stone was this large chunk of white jade.

    Before the collectors out there start scouring the earth looking for the other prizes, let me ask you if you know what happened to them?

    To be honest, I don't know. I kind of suspect that after the contest was called off, Atari either sold them or had them melted down.

    So you know Steven Bell, winner of the Earthworld contest. Do you keep in touch with him at all?

    I only knew him from the Fireworld contest. After the contest, we exchanged photos of ourselves with our prizes, but that was it. That was the only contact I ever really had with him.

    Are you aware if he still owns the Talisman?

    My understanding was that he had the Talisman melted down and sold to a coin dealer or something. He did keep part of it. There was a little sword on the Talisman that he kept but the rest was melted down and he used the money for other things like school. I remember going out with him and some others after the Fireworld contest and I think he said he got something like $15,000 for it. Remember that he kept the sword, which was made of white gold, and also that gold was dropping in price at that time.

    So do you think it's possible that the Chalice is the only surviving piece from the Swordquest Challenge?

    I don't know because I don't really know what happened to the other pieces. I would certainly hope that they were left intact. I would imagine their value as art pieces would be worth more than if they were melted down and the pieces sold.


    Atari cancelled the contest as Waterworld saw a limited release through the club. Do you know if there were any finals or was a prize ever awarded for Waterworld?

    They chose the finalists although if I remember correctly, they reduced the number to 15 instead of 50. This caused a lot of people to get upset. This was right at the time Atari was sold and everything went into limbo. I don't think the Crown was ever awarded.

    Steven and yourself, and two future winners were supposed to compete for the grand prize, a $50,000 sword. How did Atari get out of the contest? Was there any legal obligation to you or Steven, or for them to finish the contest?

    When I was in the Fireworld contest, there was a group of people that had been in Earthworld, that said to me "Now, if Atari ever comes to you, make sure you don't agree to anything about cancelling the contest." I guess they had a suspicion that Atari might try to do that. After a while, I got a letter from Atari stating that they wanted to cancel the contest. They offered Steven and myself $15,000 each to agree and they offered a smaller amount, maybe like $2,000 to each of the finalists for Waterworld. I think the reason Steven and I got more than everyone else was because as winners of the first two contests, we had a definite chance of winning the Sword. Everyone involved had to agree or else the contest would continue. I tried to call Steven and some of the other people from the contest to see what they were going to do but I couldn't get in touch with anyone. I talked it over with my father and decided to accept the offer, figuring that someone else would decline.

    So you figured the money was a safe bet compared to getting nothing if you didn't win the grand prize?

    That was a consideration. I figured if the contest would continue, I would love to play Airworld and have a chance to get the Philosopher's Stone. In fact, I think I would have enjoyed having the Philosopher's Stone more than the Sword. The money was a sure bet. If we continued the contest, it was no sure thing that I would qualify for the fourth game; I already didn't qualify for the third game. If I did compete in the grand prize contest, there's nothing to say I'd win that either.

    Did Atari ever offer you anything else for your troubles?

    When they gave us our checks as a consolation prize for cancelling the contest, they also sent us an Atari 7800 and we got our choice of games to go with it.

    Do you personally have any knowledge as to why Atari pulled the plug on the contest? Was any reason ever given to you?

    I don't recall them stating a reason in the letter. I think it was because at that time the 2600 was losing its market niche. I don't think the games Atari was producing for the 2600 were selling as well as expected. A lot of people were coming to expect something close to a coin-op from the games and were getting disappointed. I think they were being unrealistic to expect that something similar to the coin-op could be produced on the 2600. Also it seemed everybody and their dog was making games for the 2600 and that was cutting into Atari's market. Also the fact that Atari was sold during this time may have had something to do with it.

    Have you ever seen any signs of Airworld, the fourth game in the series?

    No, I sure haven't.

    So there were no pre-release demos, prototypes or comics shown at the Fireworld finals?

    No. Not that I'm aware of.


    Once you returned home, what were the reactions to your triumph from the people in your community?

    When I was in San Francisico, after the contest, I went back to the hotel room and called my parents and my mother answered. She asked "How did it go?" I didn't want to break the news to her right away so I sort of hemmed and hawed and told her about pictures I had taken and finally she said "How'd you do?". I told her that I didn't come in last and she asked "Who did win?". I said "Oh, somebody from Aiken, South Carolina." She got really excited, laughing and crying that she almost couldn't talk. My parents met me at the airport and had a bunch of friends waiting at my house for a sort of welcome home party.

    Would you say there was any degree of fame that came with your accomplishment?


    Maybe a little brief period. Not so much fame but extra attention. My father was on a business trip and was talking to another man on the plane. He introduced himself as Mr. Rideout and said he was from Aiken, SC. And the man said, "Do you have a son who won the Atari Fireworld contest?" Apparently he saw something in USA Today. I never really let it go to my head though. There were a couple of months when I couldn't stop talking about it and everybody got sick of it finally. They were like "Oh, shut up already."

    What about newspaper articles, magazines, or anything like that?

    The local newspaper did one little story and took my picture before I got the Chalice. After I got the Chalice, they came and took another picture. Channel 10 in Columbia, SC. heard about it and wanted to do a spot on the evening news. They sent a TV crew down and briefly interviewed me and took pictures of me playing the game. I never got a copy of it unfortunately.

    Did you notice any jealousy or envy towards you from other people?

    Not really. I don't know if there was or wasn't but there wasn't anything I noticed. Most of my friends and people I was associated with were proud of me.

    Did you ever have a problem with people trying to get you to invest or donate your winnings? Charities, lawyers, con artists, swindlers, etc.?

    No, people never really bothered me. Although at the contest, two of the contestants were a husband and wife and he was a minister of a church or something. After I won, they were like "What are you going to do with it?" and I said "Gosh, I don't know. I guess I'll put it in a bank or something." Then they suggested that I give it to the church although it didn't really dawn on me that they might have wanted me to give it to them. I told them if I did that, the church would want me to donate it and not pay me anything for it but I think that was their whole point.

    How did your parents feel about videogames before and then after you won the contest?

    Before, they thought I was spending way too much time on them. I would take all my money and spend it on new games. I had thousands of dollars worth of videogames that I bought. I'd get them and be up all night long playing with them and it was cutting into my study time at college. I was like a videogame zombie. They didn't like that at all. But when I got into the contest they were excited for me. Then after I won, my father said something to the effect of "Well, I'll never complain to you again about playing videogames." Unfortunately, he didn't quite stick to that. For a while he did but when I got a Nintendo and was playing one of the adventure games for hours on end, he made some comment to the effect of "Gee, isn't there something you'd rather do than sit there and play games?"

    Did you ever enter any other Atari contests?

    No, I sure didn't. The only contests I ever entered were Earthworld, Fireworld, and Waterworld.

    Any final words you might have? Thoughts, comments, or stories you might want to add?

    No, that pretty much covers it.

    Mike, I'd like to thank you for your time and for giving everyone a peek into Atari videogame history.

    You're welcome, John.

    Epilogue: Shortly after this interview, John's research turned up a few more facts. He could never see the reasoning behind having the Franklin Mint design the prizes. So he made a couple of calls to them and discovered that they were owned by Warner Communications at the time. There was the link. John spoke with someone in the Public Relations department who checked to see if any records were kept as to the current whereabouts of the prizes. Unfortunately, they had no records at all on the matter. The gentleman who designed the prizes was still with the company but was not available for comment.

    Recently, it was brought to our attention by a friend, that the remaining prizes in the contest are now in the possession of Jack Tramiel, who as we all know, bought Atari from Warner Communications. Whether he cancelled the contest as part of cost-cutting measures he was implementing at the time or he just took a liking to the prizes remains to be seen.

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