An article I have long wanted to write is "my top 20 games of all time" - comparing radically different unlike with unlike, trying to compare completely different styles and media of games with each other, partly to challenge the customary wisdom that such a thing cannot at all meaningfully be done. Certainly it would seem to be a remarkable leap of faith to produce a list of best games, but I don't think it's so difficult to produce a list of my favourite games - those which have given me the most pleasure over the years (whether intensely for a short period of time or as a more sustained thrill), or those which have given me the happiest memories. I would argue that "best" lists often struggle to be objective; subjectivity, opinion and bias often slip in, deliberately or otherwise.
On the other hand, this overtly means that the placement of each game will not be dependent solely on the game's merits; the degree to which I like a game depends not only on the quality of the game, but the quality of the participants therein, my tastes at the time and a whole number of other factors completely independent of the game's quality. It's at least as much a case of whether the game is in the right place at the right time or not, not how good a game it is. That's OK; I see games as art to a limited extent, and it's accepted by many that art cannot completely be judged out of context - you have to take into account the society from which (and from when) it is produced to understand its impact. I think that that may be yer actual postmodernism, right there.
While it would be possible to stick down this list of 20 games, that wouldn't be terribly satisfying; because many of them are wilfully obscure, I would like to try to explain why each of them mean so much to me. It's also true that much of the joy in each case comes from exploring the genre to which a game belongs, rather than necessarily reflecting the quality of the game relative to that of other games in the genre. However, this is the only way in which games that are the only one in their genre (for instance, what's in the same genre as Mornington Crescent?) can really be compared to anything else. It's quite possible that a game which defines its own genre may be artificially boosted to a position it does not deserve by this, but that's impossible to stop.
Anyway, I mention this because I seem to be slowly constructing this article over time. In September, I had cause to re-examine the most successful interpretation of the crossover between board games and computer games, Brian Clough's Football Fortunes, which would likely be in my top five. At the top of the list would either be the old fantasy live action role-playing campaign at Oxford University, or The Cyberdrome Crystal Maze. It's the latter about which I'm posting today.
As is frequent, though, to even understand what it is requires a step backwards. There was a British game show on Channel Four between 1990 and 1995, The Crystal Maze, In it, a team of six contestants explore a fantastic-looking set and play mental and physical challenges in order to win crystals which will increase the chance of winning the show's one prize which is played for at the end of the show. There hasn't been a successful show in the US quite like it, and certainly none with nearly the same sense of style. Its six series are fondly remembered as one of a very small number of genuine cult hit game shows in the UK.
Digressing, the show is derived from the French Les Clés de Fort Boyard, about which brigbother is yer man. The show is heavily linked to producer Jacques Antoine, who - I was recently thrilled to discover - has a French wikipedia entry. A dozen British fanboys now scramble for information about Les Jeux de 20 heures - broadcast at 8pm rather than being 20 hours long, I fear, though this fan site's meaning escapes me - and there's also mention of his 1950s radio game Cent Francs Par Seconde, which many name as the source for the US Dollar a Second whose 1981 pilot was pretty widely reviled.
The Cyberdrome Crystal Maze was an attempt to bring the experience of the game show to family entertainment centres such as bowling alleys in about 1992-3, immediately after the height of the laser game fad in the UK and as a rival to laser game centres. There was a spirited attempt to evoke the glorious set indoors, and players rushed around about two dozen PC stations within the centre to play mostly simple video games and a few simple physical games, rather than the grandiose physical games of the TV series. The show's "collecting tokens that are blowing about in mid-air" finale was replaced by a thematically similar opportunity-grabbing button-pushing game. That's the gist of it; you can see this much longer review of it I wrote in about '96 or so - and that, mr_babbage, demonstrates the virtue of my hardline approach referring to keeping vintage web pages online. (Ahem...)
The project was an interesting early attempt to blend physical games with video games and to bring a video and computer game pastime which was still thought of as not just nerdy but obscure to the masses and a general family audience. Admittedly, you had to be self-selecting and somewhat geeky to buy into the whole Crystal Maze premise to begin with, but for those who could, it was unparalleled. For me, the staging and design were exactly the right game in the right place at the right time, and so created some of my happiest gaming memories that I can recall. I made two visits to Blackpool at least partly to play it, playing several times over the course of a weekend on either occasion. The only thing I've seen which might compare are the Entros gaming restaurant in San Francisco and Seattle in 1989, and the recently-opening 5-wits "Tomb" game; the fact that it has opened in Boston strikes me as convenient.
So these things do start up every once in a while, but sadly they have not been able to sustain their appeal for the longer term. The original Cyberdrome Crystal Maze site only lasted 3-4 years, and the other locations I listed little longer. (The Superbowl chain of bowling alleys have now become Megabowl centres, and site listings have nothing to say about it any more.) There are a few other people who make passing mention of it, for instance, this less-than-sympathetic viewpoint. The claim about the lowest score ever recorded is impressive - after all, a high negative score would be just as outstanding an achievement as a high positive one!
Anyway, the reason why this springs to mind at this time of year is this suggestion that one centre may still exist and be operational! The site is not completely clear about it, but the prospect of one of my favourite gaming experiences ever still being available is a thrilling one. Unfortunately, the site's location is not an easy one to reach, and south-west Wales is close to being as far as possible as you can get from north-east England while remaining on the British mainland. Additionally, I don't think I know anyone in Tenby or Pembrokeshire at large. A visit there some day may have to be on the agenda; after all, the clock is ticking, and the chance to relive a glorious experience once more when I thought the game was extinct should surely be grasped.
However, is it better to leave this to the realms of nostalgia? A friend gave me a copy of a boxed DVD set of all 27 episodes of the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon from the very early 1980s as a birthday present, knowing that I had been a very large fan of it in my youth. (The interesting thing is that there seem to be a number of different competing boxed DVD sets, all of which are bootlegs due to the copyight ownership of the show these days being murky at best. Different people are packaging the show on 2-disc sets, 4-disc, 5-disc and 7-disc sets; I'm not sure why the differences exist, as there's only the same 27 episodes to work from, and everyone's identically ripped the episodes from Fox Kids.) Having seen an episode of it for the first time in 15 years, my remembrance was painfully tweaked and I understood the saying "If you love something, let it go". However, watching the 27 episodes of canon as a unit, there is something to recommend it, but it is horribly dated and simplistic.
So the question poses itself again; would it be worth a hundred-pound trek to try to play some games I already know on a network of 386s, when the equipment presumably hasn't been much upgraded for close to a decade? Well, it would certainly be getting into "pilgrimage" territory, and to a strange and obscure member of the pantheon of games indeed. However, even though there may be other cartoons these days, my weather eye has discovered nothing quite similar to this and I find it very difficult to imagine how something similar again could ever come about. (Sure, some of the games could be recreated, but the would-be Crystal Dome, the set and the experience couldn't.) Much to ponder regarding the value of authenticity, I suspect.
strangefrontier, it is of course all your fault for giving me this icon and getting me thinking about it again!