Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Crystal Maze UK: Season 1 (Part 2, Industrial Zone)

Same as before, just a new zone. Whereas teams starting in the Aztec Zone started by rowing two dugout canoes down the world's smallest, calmest river, teams beginning in the Industrial Zone started by climbing over a chickenwire fence. And really, who hasn't managed to invade a chemical factory by doing that?

RED DOORS (Mental): Another cubicle maze. This time, some of the red walls in the 5x6 grid are actually doors allowing access to adjacent cubicles. Two minutes to find the crystal and escape. (Eight playings.)
Again, a decent idea ruined mostly by the cameras. Although the issues with the Aztec Zone's Ropes & Ladders are resolved slightly with the doors, the main issue here becomes how to film the game. There are two basic camera positions used, both overhead, one tracking the player and the other showing most of the grid, with additional insert shots clearly filmed later and edited in (notice the never actually show the player). Not that the latter's a problem - indeed, some of the best fun in this show is seeing the answer before the contestant and yelling at them to hurry up – but as the stationary shot didn't show the top row or left column, one of the things that got lost was the crystal's location (in, I think, the very top-right corner of the maze). And for a game like this, that's kind of unforgivable. Then again, it's not a particularly Industrial game, is it?

INDUSTRIAL MURDER MYSTERY (Mystery): Exactly what it says on the tin, with the clue in the corpse's hand leading to a second clue, and so on until the crystal was found. (Oh, relax. They used a fake corpse.) Three minutes. (Four playings.)
One has to wonder whether this game's existence throughout the show's history – here this season, in the Medieval, Aztec, Ocean, and Futuristic zones respectively during the next four – functions almost entirely as a justification for the entire “Mystery” category. Certainly, most of the other mystery games could be shoehorned into the mental and physical categories without much issue. It's never quite made clear what mystery games are supposed to entail. The official definition is “logic and cunning”, which really fits just about any of the nearly 300 games from the show's six-year run, but which rather ironically doesn't quite apply so much to a game like this, where success amounts to “the clue mentions smoke, I'll look in the cigarette packets!” That's not to say I don't like the game itself, but it doesn't quite fit in with the rest of this season's games. And that's not necessarily a bad thing for a challenge on any show, unless it involves dressing the contestants up as panto cows.

ELECTROMAGNET (Skill): Using a handheld electromagnet, lift one of two balls along a plastic dome and drop it into one of two small holes on a curved surface below. Two minutes. (Five playings.)
Inventive? Yes. A good idea? Yes. Thematically relevant? Yes. Great television? Not so much. There's something to be said for the learning curve in this game – because, let's be honest, nobody's done this before – but unfortunately that thing is not “Wow, interesting!” We're mostly just watching people try the same fairly quick thing over and over again, expecting different results each time. And while it may have been the literal definition of insanity for them, it also managed to drive me mad, and I'm watching an edited version of it 22 years in the future.

MYSTERY BOX (Mystery): Blind item guessing game, with the items hidden behind a wall and the player sticking one hand through a covered hole to feel each. Two minutes to correctly identify four items out of five, with only one official guess for each. (Four playings.)
This is... not a dreadful game. It is also not a good game. As much as I love games where us viewers get to know more than the contestants do, we were shown the items as players felt them, and I still couldn't figure out what many of them were. Combining the ridiculously obscure items with only being allowed to make one mistake, the game was just too hard. It's not surprising that the sole winner had four very simple items – a film canister, a holepunch, a wheelie chair wheel, and metal bottletops. Perhaps it could have been countered somewhat by adding an extra item and making it four out of six, but the items chosen would still be an important factor in determining the game's success.

JEWEL HEIST (Physical): Using several pairs of parallel braces and several fewer poles wide enough to fit in said braces, build a makeshift horizontal ladder across the cell walls to grab the crystal from its elevated perch. Two minutes to succeed. (Six playings, later used on Fort Boyard.)

One of the things The Crystal Maze was always good at was averting archetypes – the mental challenges weren't always jigsaw puzzles and, more importantly, the physical challenges weren't always weightlifting contests. Sure, there were physical games where that was the focus, but the show always prided itself on having a large variety. It's not really entirely clear what the main physical skill required here actually is (flexibility, I guess?), but there's no doubt it's a physical game, and a cool one at that. There's no link to the zone theme, but between the awesomeness of the game and the zone's kind of lame theme to begin with, it can definitely be overlooked.

METAL DETECTOR (Skill): Use a metal detector to locate two buried combination dials for a safe, and a chest containing the combination itself. Three minutes to find everything, insert the dials, and open the safe. (Eight playings.)
There's just one obvious question here, what with how much sand was needed to hide the items without making the challenge completely trivial: Why wasn't this game in the Aztec Zone? I'll grant you the Aztecs themselves wouldn't have had safes or metal detectors (although the archaeologists exploring the area later may have), but they also wouldn't have had mechanical bulls or paintball guns, and we got them in a game. I suppose the issue could be that they needed a bigger room so using the metal detector wouldn't be ruined by the metallic set walls (which may not even have been an issue in Aztec), but couldn't they have just included a slightly larger Aztec room in the set design if they knew this game was planned? It's not like they had the set built before they thought of the game.

SYMBOL ARITHMETIC (Mental): Use a series of symbolic equations and five given symbol values to work out the remaining two, then use all seven numbers to solve three equations on a second board. Three minutes to solve them all, with no help from the players outside and no passing on an equation. (Three playings.)
One of the main issues with challenge design on a show like this is how you use the space available. The game environment has to be large enough to fill the cell, without overfilling it to the point it becomes too hard to complete... or film. Whereas Ropes & Ladders (discussed in the previous post) was too large for such a small cell, this game is probably too small, with just two wall-mounted displays and the crystal dispenser. Then again, moving the props in front of the wall would have resulted in the room looking too cluttered. The game itself wasn't bad, with just the right difficulty level and decent “play along” ability, but the design ruins it.

HUMAN FLY (Physical): Climb cargo nets across the room and up the walls to collect a crystal from a prop spider's eye socket, then return to the door. No touching the floor or the support frames. Three minutes to succeed, but ringing bells suspended from the “web” three times causes an automatic lockin. (Three playings.)
Um. Okay, then. One of the wackier ideas from the first season, but wacky isn't necessarily a bad thing if the challenge itself is good. The challenge here is probably a teensy bit too hard – the only winner set off two bells, both on her way up the net – but having tight finishes like that is great from a dramatic standpoint. And on any show like this, there are bound to be challenges that are deliberately harder than they should be in an effort to stop players from winning everything. I don't see the problem with having some overly difficult challenges, as long as the producers do a good job hiding the fact that it's not meant to be won. Here, they got it right.

SHUFFLE PUZZLE (Mystery): A 5x5 shuffle puzzle, with the completed design a geometric representation of a crystal. Three minutes. (Five playings.)
I don't mind shuffle puzzles. That said, that's only because I happen to be fairly good at shuffle puzzles. The actual strategy to solving them quickly isn't all that hard – get an edge row aligned correctly, then an edge column, then alternate unsolved edge rows and columns until you're done – and knowing this makes it very, very frustrating to watch reality show contestant after reality show contestant completely fail what is otherwise a simple puzzle. How do so many people understand advanced Sudoku logic, yet so few understand these? That very fact kind of makes it a perfect game to play on this show – it's solvable within the time limit if you know what you're doing (especially with about half of the grid already solved), but if you don't, you still have a chance to get lucky.


Next: I strap on some wooden shoes and climb a diseased elm in search of an elusive subterranean.

EDIT for reformatting and to fix a weird issue with font sizing. Apparently, Blogger is compatible with WordPad but not with Office. Who knew?

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