Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Game 227: Crystal Castles

Buy Crystal Castles and about 90 other Atari games in the Atari Vault on Steam:

What if Pac-Man was axonometric 3D, had a completely forgettable cartoon bear antagonist, and kitchen sink design that threw as much crazy nonsense as the designers could cram into its PROM instead of polishing a handful of elements to perfection?


I've played Crystal Castles at ACAM, and the cabinet is a sight to behold, with its striking M.C. Escher-inspired artwork all over; the sides, the front, the speakers, and the control panel, where a glowing red Atari trackball sits in right in the middle, standing out from the icy cool design. This, of course, is lost playing on an emulator.

The game is set over 36 castles divided into nine levels, plus one final level consisting of a single castle. You control Bentley Bear with the trackball for movement, which feels oversensitive and slippery at first, but it's crucial for survival later on when enemies move incredibly fast.

Enemies include:

  • Gem eaters, the most common enemy. They don't seem to have a movement pattern, though when they start eating gems, they'll tend to gather them in a straight line. They never move very fast, but their random movements and numbers make them troublesome for the entire game, as places you need to be tend to be patrolled by roaming gem eaters who get in the way but also don't finish eating all of the gems in the pockets they block off, forcing you to get around them. They can be killed and their ranks thinned by touching them while they eat, but starting around level 3 they eat so fast that this is nearly impossible to pull off unless you anticipate this.
  • Trees move fast, eventually ridiculously so, but always make a beeline for you. With clever maneuvering they can be trapped in corners while you work at clearing the parts of the stage that's safe from them. Trees destroy gems, absolving you of the need to collect them.
  • Whereever there's honey, there will soon be bees, which behave like trees except that they buzz off eventually, but they'll be back. Collecting the honey slows their return, and should be a priority in most levels.
  • Crystal balls also behave like trees, except they have a momentum to their roll, possibly foreshadowing Marble Madness of the next year. Trees and bees will instantly hone in on your position, while crystal balls can't change their direction so immediately, which can make manipulating their behavior more difficult, but also allow strategies that wouldn't work otherwise. They also destroy gems.
  • Berthilda the Witch is set up as Bentley Bear's nemesis but actually one of the least dangerous opponents, moving slowly and randomly. She can be killed by collecting the magic hat and touching her before the magic runs out, which it always does far too soon. Said magic hat has a very nasty surprise in the penultimate castle.
  • Ghosts and zombies also move slowly and randomly but they can't be killed. Coaxing them away from their corners to get at the gems near their feet can be a problem.


Unusually for a golden age arcade game, Crystal Castles has a definite ending and doesn't loop once you beat the final bastard of a level. It also has continues of a sort; three secret warp zones to skip most of the castles, and the locations are revealed when you reach the level that the warp skips to. The third and final warp goes to level 7-1. Good luck beating the last 13 castles one one set of lives - I needed save states to pull this off, almost on a per-level basis, though I might have been able to beat the game without saves on 8-4 onward if the final castle weren't clown pants ridiculous.


All 37 castles aren't unique, though. In fact, there are only 16, and levels 5 through 9 consist almost entirely of repeats, the sole exception an "Impossible Staircase" stage in level 9.


GAB rating: Average. To answer my own rhetorical question posed at the start, it would be overbloated and would wear out its welcome shortly after you've seen its whole bag of tricks.

As for Bentley Bear, Atari would put him on furlough until 1995, when he'd be revived as the mascot for Atari Karts.

Stare into his eyes hard enough and you can see Sam Tramiel's dead dreams.


  1. I've always wondered... what do you think is the appropriate control scheme when emulating this game? What best approximates the trackball?

    1. If you can't use an arcade trackball, then a laptop trackpad is the next best thing. Sensitivity should be as high as it can go without causing backspin (i.e. Bentley moving backwards).


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