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Crystal Castles (Atari 2600) artwork

Crystal Castles (Atari 2600) review

"It’s been nearly two years since I dusted off the old Atari 2600 and allowed myself "

It’s been nearly two years since I dusted off the old Atari 2600 and allowed myself
to sink into some of its unforgettable games. Amidst the Gamecubes, Xboxes, and Playstation
2’s that bask in the glory of the gaming world’s attention today, too many times
gamers, myself included, find themselves forgetting about those classics that still
stand tall amongst the Final Fantasy X’s, Halos, and Metal Gear Solid 2’s of today
s time. So, upon the advice of a fellow reviewer and friend of mine, I went back
to the ol’ Atari 2600, and I came back to Crystal Castles. And let me tell ya, J-dog
had about as much trouble pulling himself away from CC to write up this review as
you’d have trouble pealing masking tape from a hairy arm. It’s that addicting.

Your object, in a nutshell, is to go around all the levels in Crystal Castles and
collect the gems that are scattered around each individual stage. All of the levels
are split up into four sections, and all are littered with gems as well as honey
and the prestigious invincibility hat, all of which give you points when collected.
Accompanying these treasures throughout the levels is an impressive octet of enemies.
These creatures have a world of variation between them, from the gem eaters, who
go around gulping down gem after gem instead of allowing you to collect them, to
the crystal balls that roll after you with the purpose of ending your life, to the
witch of these castles herself, Berthilda. Ghosts and skeletons have been planted
around the castle domains to bar your way, and speaking of planting, some of the
most dangerous enemies you’ll encounter are the lethal trees who are quick as lightning
and can change direction and continue their pursuit of you in a fraction of a second.
Round all these critters up, and you’re presented with a package that not only gives
you a variety of obstacles and challenges to overcome, but in their variations causes
for a lot of tactical thinking in mastering each stage.

Of course, you can do more than simply avoid each enemy, frantically dodging them
in your effort to pick up gem after gem, as if you were in a game of Dr. Dr. Dodge
ball and rushing to rescue teammates. Most of the enemies have a distinctive weakness
that can be used to either eliminate or neutralize them for a time, such as the ability
to kill off gem eaters whilst they’re eating and/or digesting those precious stones.
Trees can be jumped over, which causes them to be temporarily frozen, and the crystal
balls have no way of working against momentum. Let ‘em build up, change direction,
and watch them plummet helpless into a nearby wall or burier. There are even those
enemies whose only chink is being attacked using the brief protection of the invincibility
hat. Mastering all of these skills is crucial to your success in Crystal Castles,
and sometimes being able to perform actions such as collecting a row of gems, leaping
over a tree and coming back to Earth right on a feasting gem eater will be standard
fair once you’ve reached the game’s latter levels.

As if this isn’t enough, Crystal Castles’ control scheme is one of the more creative
ones that the Atari 2600, or any platform for that matter, has come up with. Bentley,
the virtual bear whose technological body will carry out all of your commands, is
very poor at moving vertically on the maze that sets the stages up. However, he moves
adequately from left to right and right to left, and his best direction of attack
is at a thirty degree diagonal. This means that you can’t just move in four directions,
but all eight, and mastering the art of trying to attack as if you were a pawn in
a game of chess is one that you’ll find of unlimited importance as the game progresses,
since eventually Bentley’s foes will be able to outrun his meager speed when moving
up and down, and even horizontally after a time. The gems themselves also seem to
fall into this thirty degree angle quite frequently, making it easy to line them
up as if you were running straight on. As the game progresses though, the gem patterns
become more complex, making you go diagonal, vertical, diagonal, horizontal, and
diagonal again to collect a single strand of them. However, one of CC’s most commendable
pros is its superb easing of the player into this unusual control scheme. The use
of the diagonal directions and of neutralizing the different species pitted against
you is used just the right amount more from stage to stage and from level to level,
allowing for the perfect learning curve. CC is a challenging game, no question, but
it is not at an ungodly difficulty that breaks controllers, furniture, and yes, game
consoles themselves.

In the end, this unblemished learning curve is what bring CC so far above the rest.
Each level is hard at first, dauntingly difficult at times in fact. In truth, sometimes
they are quite tough for a good period of time. However, there is so much joy that
swells up inside oneself when they finally win. The real gold in CC is running around
a stage, jumping and zig zagging like a drunken monkey, and finally completing the
stage (getting the last gem bonus no less) to only find that the next stage has more
enemies, more strategically placed architecture to make your life a living hell,
or the invincibility hat’s new ability to bounce around evading your clutches. Eventually,
all of these daunting tasks can usually be prevailed over using much practice, trial
and error, and taking shots at the stage with many different tactical approaches
and stratagems. And, once hooked, you’ll refuse to turn off the game until you’ve
beaten this level, and then the next, and then the next, and then the next, until
you finally must tear yourself from the game do to exhaustion or some other necessary
destraction. For instance, eating.

Visually, Crystal Castles is one of the Atari 2600’s more prominent titles. Each
background is given a glaring blue, grey, or a duller olive green to stare at behind
the gems, monsters, and your own player. The colors tend to keep bouncing around
your eyes after the game’s been turned off, and it would’ve been nice to see a few
more colors thrown in as backgrounds to divert your eyes from having that striking
blue echoing off the backs of your lids after pulling yourself away from the game.
The rest of the visual department has little to fuss over, as everything is perfectly
visible and clear, not to mention pleasurable to the eyes, considering its age. If
there is one other gripe, it is that during latter levels when the enemies begin
to move faster, the graphics occasionally flicker and cause an enemy to take a few
steps magically unseen. This is not a major flaw though, and it should only cost
you a stage or level one in fifty times.

Crystal Castles is much the same from an audio standpoint as it is graphically. The
biggest note of interest is probably that this, contrary to most titles on the Atari
2600, has some music in it. While the music is certainly no symphonic jewel, it is
something to make note of. Other than that, the aesthetics are nothing more than
adequate, but they really don’t need to be. The mere rush of intensity the game gives
you in the frantic struggle for gemstones is more than enough to grab and keep’s
one attention, so much that you’ll probably notice very little about what you’re
listening to, and what you’re looking at will simply register in your mind as what
needs to be done next.

Crystal Castles isn’t one of those classics that finds its way onto the television
screen once every few weeks, nor is it a game that’ll be the center of attention
whenever a few friends are over for the night. Crystal Castles is more recognizable
about once a year or two, when someone mentions the Atari 2600 or even the game itself.
You’ll pull out Crystal Castles and allow yourself to lavish yourself on deliciously
fun gem collecting for hours on end, perhaps coming back for another day on the game.
Soon enough, the game and Atari 2600 may find themselves back in the storage closet,
not to be touched again for a good long time. But while its out and kickin’, Crystal
Castles may be one of the most addicting classics the system and era had to offer.

jdog's avatar
Community review by jdog (December 21, 2003)

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