Monday, March 26, 2012

The Crystal Maze UK: Season 1 (Part 1, Aztec Zone)

As you maybe aware if you read the previous post, I was originally planning to recap and analyse the first half of The Amazing Race 20 today. Unfortunately, circumstances beyond my control mean that will have to wait for another week. So instead, I've decided to analyse part of a British reinvention of a French game show that once made Eva Longoria stick her hand in a jar of rats. Oh, yes. Neither The Crystal Maze nor Fort Boyard (which I also plan to discuss at some point) is really a reality show in the usual definition of the word, but as part of the spate of "adventure" game shows of the 1990s - which would also include things like the original versions of Gladiators throughout the world, the Japanese game show Sasuke, and Australia's very own Who Dares Wins - they can fairly easily be considered the ancestors of reality shows as we know them.

The Crystal Maze has kind of an odd yet awesome backstory. Channel 4 in the UK had wanted to make a version of Fort Boyard after seeing the French pilot, but were unable to when the set (a real-life white elephant Napoleonic fort) was being refurbished for the French debut season when a pilot was needed. Because the French don't do anything by halves. Except wars. The show's creator, Jacques Antoine, then worked with British producers to develop a variant of the same format that could be filmed at an available studio in Britain. The Crystal Maze was then created, adapting the game to make it more compatible with British television but keeping a fairly similar format. Naturally, there's some overlap between the individual games, and I'll try and remember to bring it up if it's relevant.
The maze itself was divided into four temporally-themed Zones - an Aztec village shortly before it was conquered by the Spanish, a Industrial chemical factory, a Medieval dungeon, and a long-abandoned 23rd Century space station - and teams of six spent roughly ten minutes in each before switching to an adjacent zone. Throughout an episode, a team participated in about 13-15 games, each lasting from two to three minutes and with a participant and genre (mental, physical, skill, or mystery) of their choice. Succeeding in the challenge earned them a "crystal" which could be exchanged for five seconds in the final round; however, a player was locked in a game's room if they failed to leave (successful or not) within the time limit or if (depending on the game) they breached some other arbitrary rule. If a player was locked in, the only way they could be released was by buying their freedom with a crystal, giving them an extra player but costing them five seconds. And who do you get to host such an intentionally "wacky" format? Well, Riff-Raff from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, of course. And as much as you can argue that Grant Bowler was perfect for The Mole, or Phil Keoghan is perfect for The Amazing Race, Richard O'Brien was absolutely PERFECT for this show. Although his replacement Ed Tudor-Pole (who had coincidentally also played Riff-Raff on stage) was good during the show's final two seasons, he just couldn't compete.

A number of changes were made throughout the show's history - the Industrial Zone was replaced after three seasons and became the Ocean Zone, for example - but the basic format remained the same throughout. Although most games were repeated several times throughout a season, the overwhelming majority were removed after one season so contestants in future seasons couldn't gain any advantage by watching them. As a result of this recycling, and with a total of well over 180 game playings per season, it would be impossible to analyse a season by episode. Rather, I'll cover each season in four posts, with a zone each - using the order they were visited in both the first and last episodes (Aztec first, then clockwise around the maze to Futuristic) and covering the games in order of their debut appearances. The recap for the Futuristic Zone, as with all relevant season-ending posts, will also contain a link to a PDF file detailing the mental challenges and their solutions where possible. So let's go already. The Mexicans are waiting to see how this compares to the Aussie version of Big Brother deliberately drenching their flag in chili con carne.


ROPES & LADDERS (Physical): Cubicle maze. Most of the cubicle walls in the 3x4 grid have knotted ropes or ladders attached, which must be used to travel between them. Three minutes to find the crystal on one of the twelve cubicle floors and get back out. (Six playings.)

This one's a simple concept, but it doesn't really work too well on television. There are two main problems here - firstly, that the cubicles wound up being too small for the show's two cameras to look into effectively, and that the ropes were too time-comsuming (especially for the game's sole female contestant). That said, I'm not sure the producers could have fixed either of these without sacrificing another part of the game. Having fewer, larger cubicles to fix the camera issue would make the game less physical and more of a crapshoot whether the player would find the crystal hidden among the debris on the floor, but replacing the ropes with more ladders would make the game too quick. Perhaps, with so many other maze games in the other zones this season, it would have been better to save this game for a future year and spend some extra time thinking it through.

BLOWPIPE (Skill): Stand behind a bamboo fence and use a blowpipe and ballbearings to break nine glass targets covering tubes of sand, which will pour into a bucket to counterbalance a weight, releasing the crystal. The smaller targets cover more sand. Two minutes. (Seven playings.)

Standard "primitive culture" challenge seen on shows like Survivor, and yet certainly the game most closely tied to Aztec culture this season. The added complication of the counterbalance made it more unpredictable regarding when the crystal would be released, in turn making a failing contestant's decision regarding when to leave the cell more important. The actual challenge itself was nothing spectacular, so this extra wrinkle was a nice distraction from a design perspective.

BRICK WALL (Skill): Jigsaw puzzle. Fit nine uniquely-shaped blocks, each with a letter on them, into a wall filled with 14 holes. If correctly done, the letters will spell a word and the crystal will be released. Two minutes. (Five playings.)

Even with the decoy holes present, it amazes me that anybody managed to lose this game. How hard is it to find a giant golden letter on one of two flat sides of a given block, spin it so it's the right way up, and fit it into the matching hole? The fact that the correct holes formed a pyramid shape, and that the letters formed a word, was even worse. I know there are some games that are designed to be very winnable in order to not make the final round a foregone conclusion, but... come on, guys. And... why was it a skill game?

SQUARE TO RECTANGLE (Mystery): Four giant puzzle pieces on the ground are arranged to form a square. Two minutes to rearrange them to form a rectangle. (Three playings.)

While the previous game was far too easy, the difficulty was exactly right here. It's easy to say, now knowing the solution, that arranging four pieces - in two identical pairs - into a rectangle is also on the simpler side of things, but I was struggling to figure it out the first time it was played, and I probably wouldn't have gotten it for another few minutes afterwards had the answer not been revealed with the magic of time-lapse filming. It's a deceptively-difficult game, a type which always makes for the best challenges on any show, and it has the added ability for viewers to play along at home. What's not to love?

WALK THE BEAM (Physical): Cross a slowly-rolling log over a pool and grab a pole, then use it to snag an elevated cage containing the crystal and carry it back across to the door. Two minutes to succeed, but the game is over if the crystal gets wet. (Ten playings.)

The most-played game in the show's history. Part of that may be to do with how the first season contained about a dozen fewer games than other seasons, but with two other Aztec physical games this season that clearly wasn't the only reason. Perhaps it had something to do with how many women were chosen for the genre, given only one of the ten players here was male? I can understand the producers thinking a game that amounts to "cross a balance beam and come back" was better and fairer than watching more women completely fail Ropes & Ladders. From a design perspective, this offers an ingenious approach to "breaking" a challenge. Many contestants weren't quite lanky enough to reach the pole directly from the log, and wound up standing on the very narrow ledge around the cell wall designed to hide the support at the far end of the log. Arguably it made coming back with the crystal a little bit harder, as the player had to step backwards onto the log, but the tradeoff just exchanges one difficult element for another. And it was well within the rules as presented (which amounted to "keep the crystal dry"), so why not?

TREASURE HUNT (Mystery): A literal treasure hunt on a diorama divided into a 6x12 grid. The starting cryptic clue leads to a second clue, then to the crystal. Two-and-a-half minutes to find it. (Three playings.)

I could try and provide a detailed analysis of this game, but my distaste for it is such that... can we just say "blecch" and move on? It's not even that it's a bad idea (it's the same basic thing as the murder mystery game that turned up in five zones in five seasons) or that it's that hard (it was won all three times it was played), or the cultural link (which is far less strained a link than in many other games), but there's something here that makes me want to hate it on sight. And I don't know what it is.

SEESAW (Skill): Use a seesaw balanced on a divider wall to reach the crystal, on a small perch high above the far end of the cell. A spade is provided to shovel sand into a box at the "low" end of the seesaw, helping to counterbalance one's own weight. Two minutes to grab the crystal and escape. (Seven playings.)

As far as the games of The Crystal Maze's first season go, this is one of only a small handful of truly inventive ideas, and almost without question the best. It's such a simple idea - "counterbalance your own weight" - and yet the execution of it is wonderful. Too little sand and you wind up too low on the seesaw to reach the crystal; too much and you wind up too high. It really is, to make the obvious pun, quite a balancing act. And yet, one contestant was able to break the challenge by simply using the provided spade to force the crystal from its ledge.

BUCKING BRONCO (Physical): Mechanical bull. While on board, use a paintball gun to hit a light in the bullseye of a large target. Two minutes from the time the bull starts moving. (Three playings.)

This one's a bit of a study in how some challenges really are decent ideas, but are just impossible to make work on a show. There's only two variables here that the producers can actually control: the speed of the bull and the size of the target. Unfortunately, if you make the bull buck faster, the target has to be larger in order to make success plausible. If you make the target smaller to make it more challenging, the speed of the bull has to be slowed down to a point where it becomes trivial. There probably is a point where both aspects are balanced just right to make the challenge hard without being entirely impossible, but with three wins in three playings it feels like the producers erred on the side of simplicity.

WORD PYRAMID (Mental): Using lettered puzzle pieces, build a word pyramid starting with a given seven-letter word and dropping a letter each time until a two-letter word is left. Although each word uses differently-shaped pieces, there are decoys. Three minutes. (Two playings.)

This really wasn't a bad idea. It just made bad television. The structure of the game was such that the pyramid was on a wall, with a jar underneath containing the letter blocks. This meant the most only two real viable approaches to success were to dump the blocks onto the floor and sort them out, or to fit them into the wall as you went and rearrange them until words were formed. The former was a ridiculous waste of time; the latter was too confusing, especially with the decoys. A better approach would have been to give them only the needed blocks, and have them all the same shape. You'd still have contestants who failed to realise that the letter appearing only once needed to go into the six-letter word, for example, but it'd make far better television.

EXCLUDE THE SYMBOL (Mental): Tile puzzle. A 4x5 grid of pieces, each showing 5 cartoon faces, is laid out beneath four additional faces, with five pieces missing. Fit the remaining five pieces in so that the face above each column does not appear anywhere on that column's five tiles. Three minutes. (One playing.)

How much of a challenge's rules do you reveal to a player? That's the conundrum facing producers here. Had they explained the rules even slightly, there would have been no "challenge" in this challenge. But having no explanation at all meant the game's sole contestant spent his three minutes wondering what to do and getting nowhere, just randomly placing the pieces in anywhere. The other issue is that, because there was no identifying mark to differentiate the tiles to be placed from those already in the grid, a single mistake on the first placement would have basically rendered the game unwinnable unless the contestant had a brilliant memory. Perhaps if they'd made the missing tiles a different colour (chocolate brown instead of tan?), the game might have been more successful.


  1. Great post, love The Crystal Maze!

    On the Walk the Beam game, I suspect the reason it's mostly women chosen is because of height. Anyone too tall, and the game is very easy (i.e. the one man chosen does it in about 10 seconds), and anyone too short and it's completely impossible.

  2. That's a good point - in the next season there's an automatic lock-in game in the Industrial Zone (or Futuristic, I get them mixed up in my head, and it doesn't help that most later Futuristic games could have fit in Industrial) that fails pretty much solely because one of the shortest players in the show's history gets chosen for it. The same situation definitely could have happened here.

    The other problem with some of the challenges, which I'll probably discuss when I get to the first-season Futuristic Zone, is that some rooms were just too damn small for games to work.

  3. I know exactly the game you're talking about! The one in Futuristic with the Spiders Web :)

    Looking forward to your next post!

  4. Not the one I was thinking of, but that also counts.