The Game: You are Bentley the Bear, cuddly defender of a vaguely 3-D fairy tale realm just loaded with ruby-like crystals. While this would seem like an idyllic existence for many sentient stuffed animals, it is, of course, not that easy. Berthilda the Witch has sent her evil minions to seize the crystals for her. Walking trees, upright centipedes, and animated skeletons prowl the geometric vistas to keep Bentley from claiming the crystals. Finding the wizard hat will briefly give Bentley the power to dispose of Berthilda if and when she makes an appearance. Bentley also has a weakness for the pot of honey that appears on each level – and if he grabs the honey, a swarm of bees suddenly has a problem with him. Clearing each screen of crystals advances to the next level. Keep in mind that the enemies can also consume crystals, so they may actually clear the level – Bentley gets a bonus if he’s the one who nabs the last gem on the screen. (Atari, 1983)
Memories: A bizarre little game with play elements of Pac-Man set in an almost Q*Bert-like perspective, Crystal Castles was actually quite the quantum leap forward for graphics back in ’83. (It would later be blown out of the water by Atari’s own Marble Madness not long afterward.) It was also one of the earliest games to utilize Atari’s System 1 hardware.
The biggest frustration with Crystal Castles was undoubtedly its trackball control. A red trackball with a flashing light inside was obviously intended as a connection to the red gems lining the mazes on the screen, but it sure didn’t make it easy to control Bentley. Think about it – games like Zaxxon, Q*Bert and Congo Bongo were hard enough to get a handle on with clearly-marked joystick controls. Imagine a game set on a 3-D isometric playing field with a free-rolling trackball as the controller. Not cool.
Atari, stubborn as always, did try to cash in on their latest arcade title. An Atari 2600 version of Crystal Castles proved to be a bomb, with vastly watered-down graphics and sluggish controls adding even further to the game’s inherent frustrations.
The balance was redressed much later, though. While playing Crystal Castles on MAME is about as adequate an experience as the arcade game was, the best version yet is the arcade-perfect emulation appearing on Midway’s second volume of Atari Arcade’s Greatest Hits. (Why Midway and not Hasbro? During the controversial Tramiel management era at Atari, the company’s arcade division was made a separate entity, Atari Games. When Atari blew apart, the Atari Games division was bought by Midway; the remnants of the home video game division was what Hasbro later bought out.) The AGH version of Crystal Castles on the Playstation still falls victim to the control nightmares that plagued the game since day one, but it also replicates the audiovisual finesse that drew attention to Crystal Castles in the first place – even if only for a few fleeting moments.