(Appeared in the March/April 1984 issue of "Atari Age")

  • At the Atari Coin-Op Games Division, there is a proverbial magic bag of game ideas, gleaned from countless brainstorming sessions over the years, to which programmers and engineers go to begin a new project. The ideas are usually no more than a few vague phrases or a rough design sketch. For example, the original idea, jotted on a file card, from which Centipede sprang, stated simply: "A segmented worm that the player controls to crawl across the screen." From that basic thought came one of America's most popular games ever.

  • A finished game often bears little resemblance to the original idea. It sometimes seems, in fact, that selecting a game idea from the brainstorming session files is simply a time-honored ritual among Coin-Op game designers, adhered to for tradition's sake. But all good games have to start somewhere, and the ideas in the Coin-Op grabbag are often springboards for greater works of the imagination.

  • Crystal Castles, one of Atari's newest coin-operated videogames, is a case in point. According to the Crystal Castles project leader, Scott Fuller, the original game idea that he and his crew selected was for a variation of the classic Atari game Asteroids. In the variation, the game was to be played in a simulated three-dimensional landscape of mountains and valleys from which the palyer would have to avoid or destroy rocks falling from space. Since the playfield resembled a topographical survey map, the name TOPOROIDS was invented, from TOPOgraphics and asteROIDS. According to Scott, it was the unpopularity of that name, that killed the original idea and turned an outer space shoot-em-up into an adventure maze chase game.

  • Scott and his group retained the basic elements of the idea, though they altered the form considerably. The rugged landscape has become a series of elaborate castles and dungeons; the asteroids have turned into ruby-like jewels that litter the castles' passages; and the player is now represented by a cute but determined little teddy named Bentley Bear. Bentley's foes still descend upon him from the sky, but they have taken the form of witches, crystal balls, evil trees, dancing skeletons, and swarms of angry bees.

  • The object of the game is for Bentley to race through the labyrinthine castles, gathering the scattered jewels while dodging his antagonists who are themselves trying to collect the rubies.

  • Franz Lanzinger was the game's programmer and is largely responsible for how the game appears. "Franz threw in a lot of features late in the game that made a big difference in how it turned out," Scott asserts. "When Franz put elevators into the castles and came up with the magic hat (which allows Bentley to become invincible for short periods) the game really started taking shape."

  • Still, the game had a distance to go before it reached production. When it was first tested in selected arcade locations, gameplay started out high, then dropped off. The project team considered a number of possible reasons to account for this. Players were probably first attracted to the game by its magnificent graphics, they figured, then found, it either boring or too difficult. Scott tended to think it was the latter. "Some of the players complained that the swarms of bees were too aggressive--that it was too hard," he says. So the game returned to the programming lab in Milpitas, where the project members toned down the killer bees and added more creatures and features plus a wider variety of video colors.

  • When they were finished, the game featured 16 different castles which undergo variations each time they appear. After every hundred plays, the game's entire color scheme changes automatically. Also impressive is the fact that the top scoring player's initials in addition to being kept on an electronic score table, are incorporated as large block letters in the architecture of the first castle.

  • The game was sent back into the field for further testing, where player enthusiasm started high and remained high. "It seems that it has fantastic potential for longevity," says Scott. "There have been new games that have earned more at first, but Crystal Castles has been at the test location for several months, and earnings haven't dropped yet." To Scott, this indicates that the game is developing a "following"--much as Centipede and Asteroids did--of video aficionados who may remain devoted players for months, or even years. This could mean that Crystal Castles is on its way to becoming another Atari classic.

    Typed by Keita Iida

  • Go to previous page