In 1983, the year the video game console industry began heading south, arcades would also feel a bit of the crunch. But they still trudged on in their roles as bastions of creativity on the bleeding edge featuring custom built hallucinations of digital ether and printed circuit boards challenging the reflexes and imaginations of all that dared to test themselves against the latest scores of the day.
Atari’s Crystal Castles landed in the arcade from Atari that year. Immediately it was obvious that this was no ordinary video game. Instead of a joystick, players were given a trackball instead and the one/two player start buttons doubled as jump buttons. Use of a trackball wasn’t unusual — Atari did it in 1978 with Atari Football and a few other times since then such as with 1980’s Centipede and Missile Command.
But this time, it was used in a sort of arcade adventure game instead of a shooter or a sports game and the goal wasn’t to save the world or destroy enemies (although that was part of it, too). Instead, you, as Bentley Bear, had to collect gems and survive long enough to snatch as many as possible while dodging monsters and finding your way through Escher-like, isometric pathways.
The story, on the back of another flyer variant, went something like this:
Once upon a time there lived a bear named Bentley
Who wandered o’er the land in search of fortune plenty.
Picnic baskets and such were not his bill of fare.
Only ruby gemstones could content this clever bear.
While roaming the lands of Crystal Castles,
Bentley gathered his jewels with the greatest of care.
A snatch here and there by a swift paw or two
Showered fame and fortune on this rarest of bears!
As players guided Bentley about collecting gems, the game would toss enemies in his path such as gem eaters and evil bowling ball-like baddies. If you took too long in gathering up gems, a swarm of bees would come down in a certain section of the map to make things more difficult. There was also a magic hat that Bentley could pick up and give him temporary invincibility and it was the only thing that would allow him to kill Berthilda the Witch for bonus points when he ran over her like a fur covered bulldozer. The value of the gems he collected also went up as he snagged more of them, adding to his score, along with doing things like taking out gem eaters while they were busy munching.
Enemies, like the tree and evil bowling balls, could also snag rubies as they walked over them. If Bentley picks up the last gem in a castle, the opening fanfare from Tchaikovsky’s March from The Nutcracker would play. If an enemy picked it up, the same would play out but in a sadder note and no bonus points were awarded.
The game consisted of ten levels. Each level had four “castles” to get through, Berthilda hanging out in the last one in a set. The castles start out easy enough, then climb in complexity with paths leading behind structures like towers and mounds, doorways, lifts, and more obstacles ranging from cauldrons to walking trees. The tenth level consisted of only one level, but once that was finished, the game actually ended in finally admitting defeat (and playing part of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture).
Visually, the game’s rendered castles that were a kind of pseudo 3D format in an isometric setting added to the unique feel helping it stand out in arcades. Sound effects were sparse but a vital part to the experience and the music bits from Tchaikovsky classed things up. Even the cabinet looked great with extensive illustrations all over it showing off the 3D-like graphics as often as possible.
It’s interesting to draw a few parallels between Crystal Castles and other collect-a-thon games like Namco’s Pac Man. Instead of eating dots, Bentley collected gems while trying to avoid enemies with one power up, a Magic Hat, only occasionally available (like the indestructible skeleton, the game even had a ghost appear in some castles). Later, other games would play on the same collect-and-survive concept such as Sonic the Hedgehog in ’91, demonstrating how creative developers could be with a tried and true formula.
Crystal Castles was also ported to a variety of platforms from the Apple II and Atari 2600 to the ZX Spectrum and BBC Micro. It also appeared as part of compilations such as the Atari Anthoogy in 2004 and as part of Microsoft’s Game Room initiative for the Xbox 360 and Windows in 2010. It’s an interesting classic that still provides a clever challenge for the high score crowd, so it’s aged somewhat well in that regard, but continues to stand out as an amazing title in its own right and one of Atari’s more innovative entries into the arcade scene with its 3D, isometric castles, illuminated trackball controller, and a bear that didn’t care for picnic baskets or honey — only the rubies that lay right at his feet.