The Crystal Maze at 25

the-crystal-mazeThe first episode of The Crystal Maze was broadcast in the UK on Channel 4 on Thursday 15th February 1990, twenty-five years ago to the day. Happy silver anniversary!

For those who don’t know, in each hour-long episode, teams of six contestants went around the titular maze, visiting each of four zones in turn. In each zone, they would face three or four games, played by a team member of their choice. These games would last between two and three minutes in length, and would be chosen from categories entitled physical, mental, mystery and skill. Each game would see the player have to enter a cell, attempt to retrieve a crystal and exit the cell within the time limit, but (generally) winning the crystal would require successfully completing a test of strength, agility, dexterity, balance, problem-solving, ingenuity, lateral thinking or sometimes just plain following instructions. Failure to escape within the permitted time, or sometimes making sufficiently many errors within a game, would see the player locked into that cell and would require the team to, optionally, relinquish a crystal won from another game in order to rescue the player from the cell. One all four zones had been visited, remaining team members aimed to collect certain foil tokens blown into the air within the Crystal Dome, having a time limit proportionate to the number of crystals they had remaining.

The show was distinctive and gained sufficient cult following to last six series, with much to commend it:

  • The games were frequently brilliantly designed, mostly great fun to watch and their sheer variety of games (typically close to fifty per series) meant that there’s a good chance, unless you’re a dedicated fan, that you’ll frequently be pleasantly surprised by something new.
  • The pace was tremendous; if a game is not to your taste, something different will come along within the next three or four minutes. (There were no artificial pauses, or replays, or contestant asides to camera, or any of the other modern additions which might feel dramatic but really just waste time.)
  • The set and soundtrack were elaborate, atmospheric and gorgeous; it’s fun to watch people enjoying themselves by playing with elaborate toys, and the show had some of the most spectacular vicarious fun to be found on TV.
  • The hosting by Richard O’Brien (in the first four series) was irreverent, witty, fantastic and didn’t take itself seriously. (Ed Tudor-Pole in the last two series? …if you ain’t living it, it ain’t coming out of your horn.)
  • The show had vast play-along-at-home value when you were able to work out what to do more quickly than the contestants; if you’re the sort of person who needs to make yourself feel superior to the contestants on-screen struggling and occasionally slightly suffering as a consequence of their mishaps, there were usually opportunities to do so.

The show has a certain timeless quality to it, by virtue of its time-travelling motif, and the production values were so high that it stands up on its own merits decades later. The show is sufficiently well-loved that the game show-focused Challenge TV channel here in the UK still show repeats from time to time; indeed, they are celebrating the anniversary with eight episodes in a row today – a classy, commendable touch. It would not be at all a surprise if the show were to go on to be repeated for decades further.

The Guardian has a story (from a couple of days ago) about the anniversary. The content is excellent, though the tone of the piece is a little incongruous and strained in places. The show is so well-loved, particularly among the game show fandom, that from time to time people discuss whether it might be remade; remade game shows, no matter how lovingly or accurately recreated, often tend to struggle and be brushed off with “It’s not the same“. Perhaps what people really mean is “I want to feel young again, and the show reminds me of when I was young”; the solution to that is something exciting and new… though possibly evocative of the hits of the past, and drawing upon their strengths. (It’s rare for a second host to match up to the original, and you couldn’t expect an increasingly frail 72-year-old Richard O’Brien to be nearly as kinetic as he was in his late forties and early fifties.)

The piece in The Guardian does perceptively touch upon the link between The Crystal Maze and the explosive growth of exit games; this site completely concurs. The Crystal Maze has become a byword (or, perhaps, a byphrase – a byname?) for any sort of TV challenge where part of the puzzle is to work out exactly what to do, or where the instructions may not be completely obvious. The “collection of minigames” format is not original to the show – see, for instance, the format that the world knows as The Price is Right, dating back at least a couple of decades earlier – but that is another familiar niche that the show has carved out as its own.

This site is convinced that The Crystal Maze‘s popularity and familiarity have contributed to the rapid public acceptance of exit games in the UK and Ireland. (It’s far from essential, though, looking at the success of the genre in countries which have never been exposed to the show.) Every country has its own favourite sort of intellectual game, but the phrase “it’s a bit like The Crystal Maze” has so immediate and familiar as to convey the key message of “go into a room, work out what the puzzles therein want you to do, solve the puzzles and get out within the time limit” in concise shorthand. Some sites refer to it explicitly when describing how their game works; even when they don’t, those who have played it will often make the comparison when describing the game to their friends – and it’s a comparison that is often so well-received as to make people want to play.

If that weren’t sufficiently connected to exit games enough, the first five series of the show each had one game that drew upon the murder mystery party games that had come to popularity in the 1980s – and, indeed, which some exit games can still be compared to. Enter the cell, there’s a dead body on the floor, it’s probably clutching an instruction, the instruction determines where to look within the intricately decorated cell and how to interact with the scenery, follow the chain of clues and eventually you’ll reach the last one which is rewarded with success – and hopefully you’ll do it before the time limit expires.

The show was popular enough to develop its own fan following, with Marc Gerrish’s site an excellent, database-like repository of information about each episode and every game played therein. It has screen grabs and statistics of these murder mystery games as played on the show in series one, two, three, four and five. (There wasn’t one in the sixth series, possibly because by that point each zone had hosted a murder mystery once and a sixth would’ve retrod old ground.) You can find a great many illicit videos of episodes of the series on YouTube; if you don’t want to spend the time looking up particular episodes and then finding particular games within them, you can just look at this wobble-vision off-screen recording of a contestant playing the murder mystery from series four.

If you were sufficiently keen on The Crystal Maze to watch more than a couple of episodes of it, there’s a good chance that you wanted to play the game and feel it for yourself. For years in (mostly) the early- and mid-’90s, there were a number of The Cyberdrome Crystal Maze attractions at bowling alleys and other family entertainment centres in the UK. This site has long planned to try to compose the paean to them that they deserve; their fading suggests that they may have been ahead of their time, or perhaps that they used unreliable technology that proved too hard to maintain, or perhaps they did not have the degree of repeat play value in practice necessary to pay their considerable way, or perhaps – just perhaps – The Crystal Maze might, sadly, have been just a bit too niche an interest after all. Nevertheless, this site is really impressed by Boda Borg, which would seem to have independently developed many of the same essentials. It has several sites in Sweden, one in Ireland and at least one is coming to the US within a few months.

Could the brand still have value in a participation experience in the UK these days? Perhaps, just perhaps. The particular challenges would include the need to establish dozens of different challenges, at a much greater physical location / rent cost than a typical exit game, the potential for much greater need to reset the games between plays (though the Cyberdrome games broadly handled that well) and either an intensive labour requirement for people leading the teams around the maze or an intensive tech requirement to direct people from game to game. There would certainly be some retro chic value to it, if ever it were to happen. We can but hope and dream… and improvise our own games until it happens, if ever it does. Tooooooooo the Crystal Dooooome!

Also happening this weekend: the second, Slovakian-authored, round of the WPF’s Puzzle Grand Prix series runs until the end of Monday, Central European Time. 90 minutes to earn points by solving puzzles of varying difficulty, with four puzzles of each of six different styles available. Take a look at the instruction booklet and see if any of the six types tickle your fancy. Also, if it’s Sunday night, it’s Quiz The Nation night, buuuuuut the official results from last week have not yet been posted and the official results from the week before have not had their prize payouts confirmed, so while these teething troubles are being sorted out, maybe play this one for fun (and, happily, it is fun) with the free credits supplied and more in hope than in expectation of the cash prizes.

6 Comments

  1. The Guardian’s article suggests Isy Suttie and Matthew Baynton as hosts, on the day I was rewatching Series 7 of Peep Show. Lots of my favourite things in one place!

    Reply
  2. Rewatching the shows now with the kids, I’m afraid to say that I think Ed Tudor-Pole does a better job of it than Richard O’Brien did. I think he’s really underrated.

    Reply
    • I can’t remember hearing anybody ever say that before. Go on!

      Different question: do you have anything written up about your game at Manorcon? It would be hard to write it up years after the fact but it would be really relevant here…

      Reply
      • Unfortunately nothing prepared, and with my private genius game starting tomorrow it’s not happening any time soon!

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  3. I’ve watched all the episodes of “The Crystal Maze’ on YouTube. I think that Edward Tudor-Pole is under-rated. But I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that he’s BETTER than Richard O’Brien.

    Tudor-Pol brings something different to the party–a different kind of energy than that displayed by O’Brien.
    And he is not one of those “Brylcreem Boys” that Chatsworth could have gotten.

    Here’s a question for anybody that would like to make a comment.
    IF you were planning to show an episode of “The Crystal Maze” to somebody who had never seen an episode, which episode would you select? I’ve got some ideas on the subject, but I’d not be averse to hearing from other fans of the show.

    Reply

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