If you've read up on the history of US Gold, you'll be aware that it was a UK publishing company that published conversions for British computers of the very best games for American computers. Its games dominated the marketplace (and the gaming charts) for the best part of eight years. From 1984 to 1990, it was a respected publisher for the Spectrum, Amstrad and Commodore computers and it was probably able to draw on a little bit of that good reputation to market the "special limited edition" of Crystal Castles which it pushed onto the market just in time for Christmas 1986.
The game is a psuedo-3D Pac-man variant in which you play Bentley the bear and must collect up the gems from eighteen screens of ramps, spirals and raised platforms. You must also deal with the different types of characters that inhabit each maze. They include trees, Berthilda the witch, gem-gobblers, red balls and a swarm of bees that occasionally beams down into the maze and, after a few moments, beams right back up again.
The odd decision has been taken to expose the build up the 'castles' (mazes) on-screen to the player, so you have to wait about six seconds before each screen starts for it appear. It seems strange to me to see screens named 'Hidden Ramp' or 'Hidden Spiral' building up the "hidden" thing for all to see!
The game itself is pretty straightforward. Bentley can be moved by the usual ZX*? combination of keys and can perform a jump in any direction when these are combined with Return. However, in a very odd effect, you cannot jump over gaps between platforms and have to think of these gaps as "maze walls", separating one section from another. To make matters worse, Bentley isn't the most responsive of bears. He seems to insist, for example, in running at least one space before he performs a jump, so often, rather than sail over the head of an enemy character, he just runs straight into it instead.
As for the characters themselves, well, it's worth reading through the instructions to find out how you might deal with them. Some (balls, bees, skeletons and trees) are indestructible. Gem-gobblers can be erased from the maze by simply walking into them whenever they are "gobbling" up a gem. Berthilda can be erased by walking into her whilst wearing a magic hat.
The 3D effect is an odd one, with the castles rendered as if you are looking down at them from the right in an elevated position. Although there may well be some impressive coding going on to link all the walkways together (and I suspect there will need to be complicated rules governing the game so that it all works as well as it does!), it doesn't feel realistic. Too often you find Bentley gets stuck in a corner, or can't jump or even run to somewhere you want him to be.
The multi-load is annoying too, with only six castles in memory at any one time. Whilst I appreciate that the complicated mazes may need a lot of memory (hence the multi-load being the only solution) but the problem here is that, in playing through the castles, they are far too easy. In a typical game, you'll be playing for about seven minutes before you need to go and make a cup of tea whilst the next batch are loaded in.
When it comes to "limited editions" I think Jerry Seinfeld said it best when he opined "It's limited to how many we can sell". Slapping that label on the cover art, and releasing it just before Christmas, reeks of a rather desperate attempt to persuade the public to buy Crystal Castles right now, rather than wait for the reviewers' opinions. That's likely because US Gold recognised it wasn't much cop and was going to get slated.
And so it proved. The usually optimistic Electron User delivered a scathing review calling it "an old fashioned game that wouldn't keep a termite amused for more than five minutes" and A&B called it "an anachronistic embarrassment that does the reputation of US Gold no good at all". Ouch.
Whilst I wouldn't disagree with these comments, there is some vision on display in Crystal Castles and it's not all bad. The ability to run behind obstacles and in and out of small hidden rooms isn't done in any other Electron game, and the race to collect the gems before the bad guys get them is an interesting, if weird, variation on the Pac-Man theme. The Electron version may be devoid of any fans, but its arcade machine namesake is a lot better.
Collectors of US Gold games have made finding Crystal Castles in the wild extremely difficult so if you're looking to find a physical version, happy hunting. Expect to pay between £2-£5.