Crystal Castles is a 1983 arcade title that invented videogames. Doesn’t that seem important? Doesn’t that seem like a reason Crystal Castles should be remembered as more than a Wikipedia article titled “Crystal Castles (video game)”? Crystal Castles defined gaming, and you’ve got to sort through a disambiguation page to even find it? Bah!
Don’t believe me? Here’s a partial list of how Crystal Castles was a might more important than some yellow hockey puck that clearly had a better publicist.
There are 37 levels, and that’s it!
Remember playing Donkey Kong? Pac-Man? Space Invaders? Remember beating those games? Yes? Liar! You may have dropped DK from the highest tower, or witnessed the birth of Pac Jr. in Ms. Pac-Man, but you can’t beat those early arcade hits. Why? Because they literally never end. They’re programmed to loop forever and ever. This was a deliberate move, as this was back in the day that the longer a game went on, the more quarters it could suck from unsuspecting pockets. Who would ever want to play a videogame they had already finished?
Well, the designers for Crystal Castles decided that maybe a videogame should, ya know, end. Crystal Castles has a level structure that should be very familiar to modern audiences: there are nine “worlds”, and each “world” contains four “stages”. Difficulty progresses as you climb higher in the worlds, and every fourth stage features a sort of quasi-boss when Berthilda the Witch stalks the land.
And if that sounds like the exact structure of Super Mario Bros, congratulations, you understand why Bentley Bear should be just as popular as Mario. … Okay, that might be a stretch, but Berthilda should at least be allowed to come to Bowser’s kart races.
There’s an actual ending!
If there are a limited number of stages, there has to be a finale, right? Something to find at the end of the rainbow to confirm you’re worthy of that pot of gold? Well, after clearing 36 stages, there’s the END level, a simple stage that seems to be an outright reward for making it to the furthest possible point in Bentley Bear’s world. Clear this (surprisingly) easy denouement and you’ll be rewarded with a special message broadcast directly from the black void of the arcade cabinet.
You must be a video whiz
Oh man. I’m a video whiz? Screw modern day achievements and trophies, I just want to be a video whiz! It’s not enough that the other guys at the arcade know I’m on the high score table, now the fourth wall is broken, and Crystal Castles itself knows that I’m the goddamn best there is. This simple message makes it all worth it!
There are secrets to find!
But if the game ends with the declaration that the player is a whiz, then why would said player ever play the game again? Points? Bragging Rights? No, of course not, the greatest design secret is secrets. There are secrets to find in Crystal Castles, and you have no way of knowing how many there are. Some are straightforward, like jumping in secret locations to find extra lives or a warp between stages. And those might be ideal for speed runners and alike, but they’re not on the same level as secrets that are completely meaningless. And bonus points if the secrets are meaningless and sound like playground rumors. Jump in one particular spot in the first level a hundred times (!), and you’ll see the words ATARI appear over and over in the following stage. Mysterious letters will appear if you jump in a precise location on level 5-4. Why would Franz X. Lanzinger, creator of Crystal Castles, flash the initials FXL across the screen? It’s a secret to everybody. But you’re going to keep playing Crystal Castles to discover all those secrets! Hey, is that castle shaped like the initials at the top of the high score table? Is there anything else like that? Maybe you should try jumping around that nondescript corner over there. You might find something cool!
There are Unique Monsters (with unique weaknesses)!
But then again, assuming you’re going to see the finale of Crystal Castles at all is a bit of a stretch. Crystal Castles takes a lot of practice, as, like many modern games, you need to “learn” the game before you can make any headway. Sure, you might be able to conquer a level or two with your first few quarters, but you’re going to hit a brick wall about as soon as the later stages ramp up the difficulty. You might not have to face the Bed of Chaos, but attempting to round up all the gems (yes, Bentley Bear collects gems, not edible dots like his gluttonous contemporaries) quickly becomes perilous when nefarious crystal balls are rolling around at Mach speed. This world gets more and more dangerous as the castles grow in complexity, so seeing one of gaming’s first endings is unlikely for a novice player.
But Bentley Bear is not without options for defending himself. Bentley doesn’t have a punch, fireballs, or some catch-all “power pellet”, but every one of his opponents has a weakness, and knowing what’s super effective is what is going to take you to the top of the league. Evil Trees are vile pursuers, but they will pause if they’re leapt over (which, yeah, if I was a mobile tree, I’d be stunned by someone vaulting over my branches). The Gem Eaters are monstrous beasts that devour your beloved gems, but they can be taken off the board entirely if Bentley tackles them while they’re eating. And even Berthilda the Witch, Bentley’s greatest rival (… that mostly just putters around in a square and doesn’t bother anybody but please don’t think too hard about that), is weak to Bentley if he grabs a magical hat, thus proving the dichotomy of prey becoming predator when a proper weapon changes hands. Bentley is going to get every last gem, and he’s going to do it because he lives in a world where every rock can meet some paper.
There’s inherent Tension!
But not all of Bentley’s obstacles are surmountable. Bentley is a bear, so, of course, his ultimate rival is a swarm of bees. Apparently the bees have been pursuing Bentley his entire life(citation needed), and they are always a step or two behind him. Thus, if Bentley spends more than approximately twenty seconds in any one place, the swarm will descend upon him, and it’s bye bye bear boy. What can Bentley do? He doesn’t have many options other than to collect all of the gems as quickly as possible, and move on to the next wing of the castle as soon as that familiar buzzing starts. Was Crystal Castles the inspiration for later titles that feature continually hunting monsters like Resident Evil 3 or Prince of Persia: The Warrior Within? We have no way of knowing, but I am currently accepting any and all art of Bentley Bear hanging out with Jill Valentine. I think they would be friends.
There’s this Dancing Skeleton!
Skeletons are as videogames as health-restoring apple pie. It is good Crystal Castles identified this fact before Simon Belmont started his eternal quest of skele-cide.
But does Crystal Castles get remembered for anything?
The short answer is no. Crystal Castles was an Atari game, and, much like many of the pre-Mario mascots out there, Bentley was forgotten by the time the likes of Mega Man and Vic Viper flew into town. Like Pitfall Harry or that duck from Adventure, Bentley defined gaming for the future, but was completely forsaken for more marketable heroes. Now he’s doomed to fill out the background of parties and let other stars shine in the foreground.
Bless you, Crystal Castles, and thank you for establishing the standards of gaming.
FGC #512 Crystal Castles
- System: All sorts of ancient systems, like various Ataris, BBC Micro, and the Apple II, but then nothing else for a long time. It often pops up on modern Atari compilations, though, so the Atari 2600 version is on the Playstation 4 with its arcade counterpart, and the 2600 version is available on the Evercade.
- Number of players: Two, but alternating. You have to share this bear.
- Which Version: The home, Atari version of Crystal Castles isn’t as faithful as Dig Dug. The good news is that all the nuance of the arcade version is there (with interesting mazes and unique enemies and all that), but there is a dearth of gems about the titular castles, and that changes the whole game. The arcade version basically asks you to walk everywhere to obtain every gem, whereas the Atari version is more about aiming for those distinct gems that are randomly scattered about. It leads to a lot more precise steering of your favorite bear, and feels extremely separate from the OG version. That said, it’s still a fun time, so give it a shot.
- So is Bentley Bear the most important bear in all of gaming? No. That would be Kuma from Tekken, but thank you for asking. Freddy Fazbear would be right up there if he were an actual bear.
- One Dirty Trick: In the later levels, Bentley’s favorite powerup, the wizard’s hat, bounces all over the stage. Now, I’m not going to claim that Nintendo stole this concept for the eventual, similarly invincibility-inducing Starman, but Bentley’s headwear does bounce around in a pretty familiar manner.
- Further Monsters: The warp zone areas seem to be mostly populated by ghost creatures. This is some fun narrative framing for “you’re somewhere you’re not supposed to be” when cutting across the castle’s shortcuts. Environmental storytelling!
- Goggle Bob Fact: I really thought this was Mr. Do. When Random ROB chose Mr. Do some time back, I legitimately thought to myself “Oh, that arcade game with the trackball and the castles.” I was mistaken. Sorry, pre-Nintendo mascot creatures.
- Did you know? The band Crystal Castles nabbed their name from a line from the old She-Ra cartoon, so they have absolutely nothing to do with this videogame. Forget I brought it up.
- Would I play again: This game is history! Ancient history! And I’m no time traveler, so I don’t think I’ll be revisiting this Age of Atari any time soon.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Willow for the Nintendo Entertainment System! You are drunk, ROB, and when you are drunk, you forget that I am in charge! So let’s go steal a baby! Please look forward to it!