Crap Shoot: The Crystal Maze
Richard Cobbett takes a look at the wonderful world of gameshow conversions, starting with one of the best British programmes... and one of the most disappointing licensed games.
Games based on gameshows are generally a bad idea, and for pretty obvious reasons. No fame, no tension, no prizes, no point. The Crystal Maze had the chance to be different. It was a gameshow about playing games. How could anyone screw that up? Well, let's have a little think, shall we?
For our foreign readers/people who make me feel old/people who've never caught a re-run, the idea was this: a team of six contestants, guided by Riff-Raff from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, taking on four themed zones (Aztec, Futuristic, Medieval and either Industrial or Ocean depending on the series) full of challenges lasting up to three minutes. Challenges were split into four categories, Skill, Physical, Mental and Mystery, with the prize being a time-crystal that was worth five seconds in the final game, The Crystal Dome. If a contestant took too long, or broke a rule of the challenge (from ignoring it completely in favour of a faster way, to touching the floor, or triggering something three times), they were locked in, and it would cost the rest of their team a crystal to buy them out.
It was a great show, thanks to charismatic hosting from Richard O'Brien, excellent sets that actually conveyed the feel of the different worlds and made it feel like a real place, and... bluntly... the stupidity of many of the contestants. You might pretend it was the games, but it wasn't. It was the failure.
And speaking of failure, onto the game version. How could you possibly screw up a Crystal Maze computer game - arguably one of the easiest challenge-based shows to convert? Create the zones, code up a ton of simple but fun mini-games, and there's no reason for the good time not to roll. In fact, it's so easy, let's make it a challenge. Why does The Crystal Maze suck so much?
a) Not enough games
b) Terrible games
c) Not enough, but also too many terrible games
d) All of the above
If you answered 'chipmunk', see a therapist immediately. If not, let's see if you're right! Here's a shot from a Physical game in the Aztec zone, in all its just-like-being-on-the-set glory.
Want to see another Physical game from the Aztec zone? You can't. There isn't one. It's true that this game came out in an era when storage space was at a premium, but if there's one thing The Crystal Maze offered over its run, it was an absolute ton of games. True, not all of them were classics, but for each zone in the computer version to offer the most pathetic handful of challenges that would embarrass a Game And Watch is pretty damn bad. The whole Aztec zone has just six, split over four categories.
The Crystal Maze compensates for this by making most of them an absolute bitch to complete. In this one for instance, you can't make a mistake. Touch the water, and you're done. The Skill games, which involve gagging statues of gods by rolling balls into their mouths and catching pachinko balls, suffer from lousy controls and terrible collision detection, with the latter penalising you for every one you miss. As for this obscenely awful excuse for a platformer, we're not merely talking 'makes Manic Miner look like Mario Bros' bad, but some kind of warped, sadistic punishment for ever mocking those poor contestants on the idiot box. Clearly, The Crystal Maze isn't so easy, it sneers. Eat your words! EAT THEM!
Or maybe Aztec is just a rubbish zone. Let's try a Physical game from... Medieval!
It's the same game! Almost the exact same game! In fact, all the Physical games are the same, except for the zone-specific skin and the slightest tweak. Here for instance you're not jumping on moving platforms, but the gaps between moving snakes. That's literally the only difference. The controls are still god-awful, slow to respond and generally unpleasant. You still only get one shot at it. It's as much fun as eating live tapeworms with a spoon, and about as frustrating. At the very least, you'd think that if the same game was going to be re-used four times, it wouldn't be one of the worst platformers ever made.
Ocean zone! I demand you give me a challenge worth my time! Inspire me!
You know what? I need a break. Here's a quick diversion. Generally, it's gameshows that get turned into computer games, not vice-versa. Family Fortunes/Feud. Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. Even The Crystal Maze's dodgy cousin Fort Boyard got one - a bizarre RPG/adventure style quest that shunned the show's obsession with arachnophobes picking up spiders and busty women crawling across pipes in in favour of some silly story about saving the fort from an army of mutant monsters.
However, occasionally things go the other way too, and a game makes the jump to televised gameshow instead. By far the most successful conversions were the Carmen Sandiego shows, based on the edutainment series from Broderbund, which aired on American public-broadcasting stations during the 90s and as far as I know, never got exported anywhere else. While the format had nothing to do with the actual games, the premise was the same - tracking down the world's greatest thief, and retrieving her impossible swag. The Eiffel Tower. Jazz. The Chief's lunch. Whatever she felt like, really.
The first run of shows was based on Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?, later followed by Where In Time Is The Person Of The Same Name? They were followed by an unrelated cartoon series, Where On Earth Is Oh, You Know, Her?, which was actually pretty good by edutainment standards, and gets bonus points for the subtle joke that Carmen apparently stole her own theme tune from Mozart.
The gameshows were pretty standard kids' show stuff - trivia, geography/history, and a final round that involved running around a huge map against a brutal time-limit, and basically being impossible. Check them out on YouTube if you like. What everyone who ever saw it remembers though is the evil, pun-filled theme song. Once you hear it, you can never forget it. It's almost cruel to inflict this on people.
So of course, here it is:
Another game that made the gameshow leap was You Don't Know Jack, which had the advantage of being a quiz on the PC. It made it to roughly 20 instalments, on PC, console, and online, with a new version coming to consoles next year. The TV version lasted six episodes. Watching it, you can probably see why. It's not often that a gameshow would be improved by throwing everything out and just filming the corpse of Orson Welles decomposing for an hour, but this was definitely one of those cases.
(This was another. But now I'm clearly just playing for time.)
Right! Break over! Back to the misery that is The Crystal Maze!
As with the show, the most interesting games tend to be the Skill ones. Most of the Mystery games are simply picture-hunt affairs, while Mental are dull. A sliding puzzle. A Lights Out game. A magic square. Skill at least adds a sense of pace to the action, even if they're not much more fun than playing the Platform Game From Hell again. The Futuristic Zone's offering is the old Snake game. Aztec has Gag The Gods and Pachinko, as mentioned earlier. Ocean has Walk the Plank, which I will now put as much effort into describing as it appears went into making it: "..." If it seems like I'm not explaining these in much depth, it's because there is no depth to explain. They're all dirt-simple, which you'd expect, and embarassingly cheap... which in fairness, you'd also expect, but didn't have to be the case.
In total, as far as I can tell, you get just 24 games across the zones. That's simply not enough, even ignoring the fact that most of them are - to be incredibly charitable - 'very similar' to their counterparts in other zones. The time limits and weak controls make them brutally hard, with the game's idea of mercy being to simply let your current team-member out when they run out of ammunition or chances rather than automatically locking them in and costing you a precious time crystal.
You need both time and team-members to have a hope in the final game, The Crystal Dome. This was pretty lame even in the actual show, requiring players to collect a hundred gold tokens from the middle of a giant swirling crystal, and deducting one for every silver one they collected. A few teams were smart enough to work out that the way to win this was to have someone by the ticket-slot, actually sorting through them. Others just shoved them into the maw like a fat man with a whole chocolate cake to himself, and usually ended up standing forlornly as they learned that with just -76 tokens to their worthless names, they'd have done better to just stay at home and do likewise.
It goes without saying that the game's version of this is rubbish, although how the hell you'd make a good version of such a fiddly, annoying round eludes me. Still, the obvious question has to be asked: just how rubbish is it, really? You may be surprised to learn that it's very rubbish. In fact, it's this rubbish:
Your prize for finishing the game is to play it again and try to beat your high-score, much as the prize for licking random needles you find in the park might be Hepatitis-C. One playthrough won't show you all the games, but it'll show you most of them, and are all you need to run away screaming.
If you want more 90s British gameshow action, there's an iPhone Crystal Maze out now, although I haven't tried it. Still no sign of anything based on Interceptor though, and we never did get a game based on Knightmare for PC. (Don't feel bad though, all the attempts to make one were terrible.) Do you remember any other nostalgic gameshows that deserved to make the interactive jump? Comment!