Doesn't look like much, this building, does it? Certainly doesn't look like you could fit a full-sized Crystal Maze replica inside it. But that's pretty much what those crazy people at The Crystal Maze have done. "How?", is a mystery worthy of a 3-minute automatic-lock-in game. Cross my palm with silver and ask Mumsey nicely if you want to know more... Or, you know, just carry on reading.
It's a cold and gloomy Sunday afternoon as I head up from a London zone 1 tube station and make the short walk to the top secret address I've been given for today's mission: to be a "Crystal Tester", a perk of the crowdfunding campaign that basically means I get to go in and play a week before the place officially opens. They've been running tests for a week now, so I'm hopeful they'll have got it somewhat right by now.
What I'm less hopeful about is my ability to perform under pressure - what if I end up being the person that shouts "I'm coming out!" with 30 seconds still to go, with everyone around screaming at me to just slide that last puzzle piece to the left and grab the damn crystal? I'm doubly worried about this because this new iteration of The Crystal Maze is a game for teams of 8 people, and I'm here on my own, so will be paired up with strangers, some of whom already know each other. And nobody wants to be "that random guy who messes everything up" under those circumstances.
Luckily, my team mates are all very nice, and just as excited as I am - something that comes across quite strongly as we all stand about chatting in the locker room, donning our green boiler jackets with Crystal Maze logos on the breast and excitedly waiting for our 4pm slot. We are a varied bunch - two Irish people, an American who's never seen the show ("It's just like Fort Boyard, right?" Yeah, without the dwarves...), two ladies originally from Hong Kong, a lady from Stratford-Upon-Avon, one from Canterbury/Halifax, who seems to be the biggest Crystal Maze geek of the lot, and little old me.
I've decided before I arrive that I'll leave the physical challenges to the others, not exactly being at peak physical fitness, and preferring to show off my superior intellect. It's therefore a bit disconcerting to find that all my team mates have the same idea- and I suddenly imagine myself being forced to swing across bars with only my upper body strength to rely on, falling in a big pile of sand and getting locked in on the very first game.
|Perhaps obviously, we're not allowed any cameras inside, so this entire review will be accompanied by pictures stolen from the internet. Sorry about that.|
Anyway, it's time to go in- and being Team Green, we enter via the Medieval zone. This is make or break time - will we be able to shake that "corporate training centre" ambiance from the locker room area, or will it be quite obvious that we're still running around in an office building?
In through the door, to a chamber where stone walls, plush velvet rugs and a chilly breeze signal our trip back in time - and the goosebumps and inane giggling from the entire team begins... We're in the Crystal Maze. A brief video intro from TV host Richard O'Brien (and I do mean brief, really don't come just to see it) hands custody of the maze over to our new dungeon keeper, and then he arrives, a kind of Gaul-ish warrior guy who does an amusing monologue about his character, gets us all to introduce ourselves to each other (yeah ok, a bit more corporate team build but it helps), and teaches us all our new team victory move: the double skull-crush. You probably had to be there, but it was pretty legendary and we all looked WAY COOL.
One more piece of business to take care of: "Who's going to be your team captain?", asks the Dungeon Keeper. The other 7 people, as one, all immediately turn and look at me and say: "Him!" Alrighty then.
|None of us are quite rocking the hairstyles or glasses of the original series. Probably just as well.|
As team captain, it's my job to decide which type of games we will play (Skill, Mental, Physical or Mystery), and who will play them; so as we head on into the Medieval zone proper and towards the banqueting table in the main hall, I'm immediately forced to make a choice. We go first for a mental game in which one of our crew has to assemble a sundial on top of a large plinth made of puzzle pieces that only fit together one way, and whilst she tries her best to do this, the rest of us watch through windows all around the cell and yell out helpful advice. "That one! No, that one! Other way! Come out!"
We narrowly miss out on this first crystal, but not to worry, there's a physical game coming up and since I know nobody else wants to do it, I bravely put myself in to bat, don the crash helmet of doom, and step into my cell.
What follows is two and a half minutes of me rolling myself up and down the length of the cell inside a giant plastic tube on a track, using only my body weight for leverage - picking up three "cannon balls" at one end and throwing them into a receptacle at the other end which then releases the crystal to roll back down a pipe to the entrance. With 30 seconds to go, I need to roll myself back to the entrance one more time and pick up the crystal, but I'm struggling to get the tube to budge. I like to think I'm fairly dignified most of the time, but as I grunt and moan my way back down the track towards the exit, this goes completely out of the window. "HUUUUURRGGHHH", I gasp. "How long have I got?", I pant between every breath... With about 7 seconds left on the clock I fall out of my tube onto the exit platform only to find that the crystal's fallen off its perch and is somewhere under a piece of hessian sack or something else equally medieval. "I CAN'T SEE THE CRYSTAL", I yell as many times as physically possible in the remaining 5 seconds, thereby using up my second classic game catchphrase. Eventually, as the dungeon master opens the door, my fingers find that glorious piece of glass that I've dreamed of winning since I was 11, and I launch myself back out of the cell as the timer ticks down to zero.
(Or that's what I tell myself, anyway. I actually suspect that as we're in testing phase, our fearless leader is being a little lenient on timings to account for things like crystals falling off their perches, or maybe just for the sake of us having a good time...)
|I'm not quite this epic, but obviously not far off.|
Sheer elation overtakes me as I rejoin my team for another mighty skull crush manoeuvre and we put the Irish lady in to do a Mystery game with pub signs while I catch my breath (which takes a surprisingly long time.) As I watch our team guide our intrepid volunteer to a very narrow defeat, it strikes me that this, as an experience, is exactly what I wanted. I'm sure if I cast a more cynical eye over the whole thing, started looking a bit more closely at things, started comparing the exact layout of the TV set to the exact layout of this place, I could find some fault with what they've done here, but to do so would be to miss the point.
The fun of watching The Crystal Maze, and the things that made me want to be on it more than anything in the whole world when I was a teenager were the sheer variety in the games; the way the people worked together as a team to crack the puzzles, to pick each other up when they failed, to celebrate together when they won; the way the dungeon master and the team bantered together to the extent that you could never tell whose side he was on; and most of all, the feeling of being in a mysterious place removed from the everyday world while yelling instructions at total strangers. And this new version has got all of that spot on.
Is it an exact recreation of the original TV set, with the exact same cells in the exact same layout, and the exact same styrofoam Aztec bricks in the exact same sand? No. Did they say it was going to be? Um, they might have hinted at that right back at the beginning of the funding campaign, yeah, but even then I thought that was extremely unrealistic on a budget of a million quid, especially if they wanted a venue that people could easily get to. Does it capture the feeling of the original whilst being a bit new and interesting? Yes. Is it fun? HELL YES. Does it feel like you've stepped inside the TV show? Yes. Does it feel like you're in an office block in Zone 1? HELL NO.
Back to the game, then, and following our single-crystal start in the Medieval zone, we climb up the wall into the Aztec zone and down into the sand. The Aztec zone was always my favourite, and this version does not disappoint, with its real sand and familiar fake iconography.
|The Computer generated "artist's impression" of the London version. It looks a lot better in real life.|
With the step into this warmer clime comes new fortune for our fearless warriors, as we make our way through 4 more games and bring home 2 more crystals, with much whooping and high-fiving... The industrial zone is next, with its drab grey interior and utilitarian pipes (how they got this one so spot on in a mundane office block in London, I'll never know...) - and we manage another 3 victories.
One of these is my second attempt at glory - playing one of the classic games from the series where I have to wire up a giant doorbell to a giant battery with giant cables (making sure not to get my + and - mixed up), by means of standing on a giant matchbox and using a giant spanner to turn giant nuts. It's not very hard, really, but as a demonstration of how much like the TV show this feels, it's great - I'm really there, locked in a cell, playing this game I've seen on TV. The scale feels right and there's nothing cheap feeling about it at all (well no more than the '90s original; and let's face it - that was a lot of its charm.)
An easy but exceedingly fun second victory - and much more easily won than when one of the ladies from Hong Kong has to climb up a room full of giant spider's webs to retrieve the crystal without ringing the attached bells and risking automatic lock-in. We manage to send her completely the wrong way to start with but eventually realise our mistake (thanks to helpful hints from our dungeon guide) and have her start all over again; and yet somehow she still wins it.
|A bit like this, only better actually!|
Last up - the Futuristic zone, which does quite a nice job of recreating the 90's idea of a really modern spaceship, with lots of white plastic and bleeping noises. There are physical games with fricking laser beams, and a mystery one with a problem to solve in a lab, which due to us not being able to see much to help doesn't go very well. But never mind that: because we're running so ahead of schedule, we have time for a bonus game, where we're challenged to see how quickly we can do the laser beam game again- so we send our smallest player in and she romps home victorious in 22 seconds with yet another crystal by means of doing a snake-like shimmy along the floor back and forth.
Our final, wonderful total: 10 crystals, which will get us 50 seconds of time inside the Crystal Dome - so off we go, running back through all the zones just like on TV, and thence to the majestic structure which may or may not be in the middle of all the zones like on TV, but let's not get too hung up about that really...
Here is where we meet up with the other 3 teams who've been playing at the same time as us, and we realise just what a marvel of logistics this whole thing is - we've somehow managed to play the right number of games through the whole maze, without ever bumping into the other teams. Hats off to our Dungeon Masters, of which there are 4, all playing different characters depending on the team, and filling that Richard O'Brien shaped void in suitably OTT fashion.
|We get to hear "WILL YOU START THE FANS PLEASE!" 4 different times, in 4 different ways, too, which is never a bad thing.|
Because we're all here at the same time, we get to watch each other in the dome, and pick up some tactics tips - the "open up jacket and wait for tokens to accumulate" one seemingly quite popular. The dome's as big as you expect, but there's no jumping about (something which, according to legend, was only ever filmed in post-production to make it more interesting to watch anyway); instead we run around trying to catch the tiny floating bits of cellophane, and failing miserably, or stand guard by the letterbox and shovel in anything that comes along.
In this version of the game, there actually aren't any gold and silver tokens to sort through, so it's simply about getting as many as you can into the box - to be honest, although it's fun and the dome itself is impressive, this finale is actually my least favourite bit. It could be because this was always the least interesting bit for me in the TV show, or it could be because the tokens are a bit small and hard to catch, but whatever, it's an amusing ending. And the fans and flashing lights inside the dome are pretty awesome.
When all 4 teams are done, we have a count up and find out which of the 4 teams have won - although of course it's not the winning that matters, it's the taking part, and I obviously say that because we come 3rd. At this point, we salute the winners and pose for our victory photos in front of the dome before sitting down to fill out some feedback forms (I'm assuming this won't be part of the final experience...)
First question: "What's your main emotion, having just completed the Crystal Maze?" - answer: EXHILARATION! If you couldn't tell from what I've already written, I quite enjoyed this. Ok, I enjoyed it a lot. OK, OK, it was one of the best things I've ever done in my entire life (a definite step up from Go-Karting, Laser Tag or strippers as an "awesome thing to do on a Stag Do".)
Do I have any gripes? No, not really. I might suggest that perhaps some of the games were a little bit easier than they needed to be, but then some of them were bloody impossible, so all in all the balance was probably about right.
Again, it's not an exact replica of the original TV set. The zones are, I think, in a different order, and the transition tunnels and walkways aren't exactly the same, though they're still great fun (sliding into our escape pods to get into Futuristic Zone being a particular highlight). There's no water anywhere to fall in, but really, bearing in mind the health and safety aspect of making this suitable for the general public, that's not really surprising. Plus, they really struggled with the weight of the water in the aircraft hangar of the original TV set, so goodness knows how they'd have managed that in this disused training centre. I'll let them off this one thing.
Oh, one thing that really needs sorting is the "windows" into the futuristic zone games, which being made of tinted plastic and immediately getting covered with fingerprints and face marks are pretty hard to see through. Might be better to make them lift-up flaps like in the other zones, although I can see that some of the games rely on lighting effects inside the cell so perhaps not.
And perhaps, in this selfie and social media-obsessed world in which we live in, once the place is up and running a bit better, there should be more photo opportunities and the ability to spend extortionate amounts of money on taking said photos home with you immediately. Instead of a promise to put the team shot on Facebook, which so far hasn't come through. It's 24 goddamn hours ago, people, I need my bragging fix!
All in all, though, I came prepared for bitter disappointment, and I didn't get that - I got the closest thing to being on the original TV show that I ever could have hoped for. Plus, we didn't have to go back and film ourselves messing up the same games again over and over, nobody yelled "cut" just as I was getting going, I didn't fall in any water, and I didn't get locked in anywhere. So in a very real and important way, I'm actually calling this as better than the real thing.
As I step sadly back into reality, shake the Aztec sand out of my shoes, and bid a fond farewell to my new team buddies, I'm a little sad that my adventure is over, but there's a warm glow inside just knowing that I've cracked the Crystal Maze. Two crystals to my name, lots of "helpful" advice shouted out, nobody punched me in the face, and what's more I got to be team captain.
Surely my life is all all downhill from here?