The logo said “Atari,” but Crystal Castles may as well have been designed by the Brothers Grimm. In this storybook-style adventure, a bouncy bear took on an evil witch and her group of exotic servants in a race to collect precious rubies.
Our furry hero was Bentley, a happy-go-lucky bear who had somehow been transported to the magical Crystal Castles of Berthilda the Witch. To get out, Bentley had to collect rows of gems from a 3-D maze, racing a group of hungry, centipede-like creatures who wanted the jewels for themselves. Bentley had no weapons, but if he caught the Gem Eaters while they were still digesting their precious rubies, he could wipe the baddies out.
The bear also had a mean vertical leap, which came in handy while avoiding the other assembled monsters—living trees, skeletons, ghosts, crystal balls, angry bees and Berthilda herself. Most levels also held a magic hat, which turned Bentley invincible for a short period, allowing him to take out the wicked witch. Gooey honey pots could also be snatched for extra points.
In one sense, Crystal Castles was merely doing a Pac-Man riff, with rubies replacing power pellets and the other monsters standing in for Pac-Man’s ghosts. But Crystal Castles was no mere clone. The game’s most striking feature was its innovative 3-D playing fields, seen from a three-quarters overhead perspective. The 3-D design allowed for multiple playing levels, with elevators carrying the bear and his enemies to higher or lower ground. Secret passages and other tunnels were also available, allowing Bentley to take shortcuts across the playing field or even warp to a higher level.
Even without the 3-D effects, the game’s graphics were striking. Taking a page from contemporaries like Donkey Kong and Dig Dug, Crystal Castles went with a cartoony look—bright, colorful and not at all scary (even Berthilda was strangely cute). Atari’s Trak-Ball control (which had a flashing light to attract business) allowed players to move Bentley with precision, altering his speed for a slow creep or an all-out sprint.
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Crystal Castles was also one of the first arcade games with an actual end. Once the levels were finished, Bentley was allowed to return home to his own world, and players were free to pop in another quarter and experience the adventure again. Apparently, they did, as Crystal Castles became one of Atari’s biggest hits of the year and an all-time favorite of many.
This post originally appeared on the long defunct website, Yesterdayland. It now appears here as a way to preserve it.