I Finally Get My Paws On One : Crystal Castles Rebuild (Part 1)
Updated: Apr 12, 2019
Anyone who collects anything has a "grail", or that one item they vow to possess for their collection over all others. Sometimes the item is so rare, maybe only a few exist within the realm of their hobby. Other collectable items can be worth such crazy amounts of money, only a few collectors are willing (or able) to drop big bucks on say that copy of Action Comics #1 (The first appearance of Superman, just in case you're not up on that sort of thing). But for many of us, the collectors of things that grail we seek in our collection might has more of a deeper personal meaning rather than a monetary one. Many years ago I finally parted ways with my rather immense comic book collection, but I did keep a single book. It was a well worn copy of Justice League #211, which is not a valuable book by any means. Nor is it a book where some major new character is introduced. No, it was important to me because since was the first comic book I ever bought. I was in the 4th grade, it was 60 cents, and I bought it at the People's Drug store in Sterling, Virginia. Justice League #211 was my gateway to the hobby, and even though I no longer collect comic books it left me with a lifelong love for Batman and Wonder Woman in its wake.
I was 10 years old when Crystal Castles was released in the arcades, which I played non-stop during the Fall of 1983 where I spent my time at the beach side town of Ocean City, Maryland. A combination of Pac-Man maze play dynamics, early platform gaming principles, and the best looking cabinet ever made in the classing arcade era made me fall in love with it at first sight.
I was a bit heartbroken the following summer when it was no longer in the Playland arcade. I guess it just wasn't a big enough draw for the busy ocean side arcade. I was able to grab a discounted copy of the surprisingly decent Atari 2600 version from a bargain bin during the great gaming crash of 1984. Some years later, I would buy a much more accurate conversion for my Atari ST computer. As I grew up owning arcade games seemed like a far away dream, but I had a mental list of ones I would seek out if I could.
Once I started collecting arcade games in the mid/late 90's I had my share of run ins with Crystal Castles machines. The dedicated cabinet version was not a largely produced game for Atari in comparison to some other titles, but also not rare. They did also made conversion kits for Missile Command, and other Atari games. Most of the Crystal Castles machines I would find at auctions were either conversions, or missing key components. This nice looking one on the right was from an auction in 1999, but I can't remember why I didn't pick it up. I might have just been outbid, or had already bought a game that day (My funds were pretty limited for the hobby in my youth). When I started to collect again about 4 years ago I promised myself I would not miss out on a Crystal Castles again. Several years of Dallas auctions and internet hunting proved disappointing.
About a month ago, what I would call a "picking house" or vintage antique/game room equipment "flipper" I follow on Facebook showed off a decent haul from an old game equipment warehouse. One of the games pictured had that unmistakable M.C. Escher inspired side art I so desired. I immediately contacted them and told them I would buy it as is. (Please picture in your mind your favorite Meme of Fry from the TV show Futurama) One of the advantages I have in my older years is a better skill set to repair games, so technical problems that might have scared me off in the 90's aren't such a big deal anymore. I have discovered one of my biggest joys of the arcade game collecting hobby is fixing these technical (and woodworking) issues. The game arrived at the transfer station/location of the shipping company Fastenal all wrapped up like a Christmas present. The fine people at Coin-Op Warehouse in Maryland did a fantastic job keeping it safe for its coast to coast journey, and I was shocked at the speed in which it arrived.
Once we got the game out of ye old van, was discovered it was very dirty and smelled like most things that have been sitting in a warehouse for the last 20 plus odd years (terrible in other words). I'm always amazed when these old games still work despite sitting God only knows where for years on end. After securing all the plugs and cables inside we went ahead and turned the old bear on, and it came up like a champ... kind of. The graphics were a bit scrambled (Some bad Ram on the main board), the monitor desperately needed to be rebuilt, and the best news came in the form of a giant rat's nest in the bottom of the game. Soon the monitor blew a fuse as the flyback blew up, time to roll up the old sleeves.
On the upper left we see the serial number plate to the machine. According to Atari documentation, 4880 upright Crystal Castles made it out of the Atari factory in July of 1983 with an original price of $2085. Making this particular machine with its serial number of 04700 one of the final group to leave the factory. Atari also manufactured 500 copies of a cocktail version of the game. 1983 was a tough year for video game manufactures, with huge completion in the arcades and a coming upheaval in the home video game market. Atari would only have one other arcade game post-Crystal Castles with a higher production output for the rest of the 1980's, the 1985 hit Gauntlet.
The first real technical thing I decided to attack was rebuilding the audio regulator board. This is a pretty common component in most Atari arcade games from 1979-1985-ish. I changed all the capacitors on the board, some transistors, and the high output transistor. I also re-soldered all the solder joints for the connectors, since these become brittle over time. There are several versions of this board over the span of Atari arcade titles, so if you are buying a cap kit for one make sure it's the right version.
Most Crystal Castles shipped out of the factory with the rather unloved 19 inch Matsushita branded monitor. They are notoriously unreliable and prone to make many arcade veteran techs drudge up war stories of trying to keep them running. I was pleasantly surprised opening my game to find a familiar face, an Electrohome G07 monitor. Atari must have had either a supply issue getting enough Matsushita monitors for the end of the game production, or had just stoped using them all together at this point. Either way, I was glad to see a monitor I have a good bit of experience with rebuilding in the game.
As you can see in the above photos, the monitor was particularly filthy. If you look at the before and after shots on the left side, the color was pretty anemic. despite the monitor working initially after unpacking the game, it soon blew its flyback along with a few fuses in the game power brick. I re-capped, installed a new flyback, new B+ cap, a new HOT, and cleaned the holy hell out of the monitor. There result was an acceptable image after a good bit of tweaking with the adjustments.
Despite the new parts, it doesn't change the fact the monitor suffers from some pretty dramatic screen burn in. Unfortunately, screen burn in isn't fixable and Crystal Castles is known for its rather harsh treatment of monitors. The smoked glass when installed in front of the monitor helps hide the burn somewhat, but eventually I would like to get a new fresh tube. For now however, the monitor is usable and the colors are true and clear.
The next step was addressing the barely functional trackball controller. The Crystal Castles trackball is unique thanks to both it's red color, and a clever light that makes it blink. This involved taking out the old cruddy and rusted rollers and bearings, and replacing them with brand new ones from www.arcadeshop.com. The trackball itself was rather dirty, along with the cradle it sits in. I hand washed the cradle, and ended up sanding the trackball to regain some of tis lost luster (after cleaning it with a scrubby and goo gone) with some 2000 grain wet sandpaper. With the new rollers and bearings installed, and the trackball cleaned out, it no longer sounded like a 1974 Dodge Aspen trying to start during a winter snowstorm. The trackball now moves smoothy, looks great, and is responsive during gameplay. I also cleaned all the wiring, and blew out the trackball sensors carefully while I had it all apart. Eventually we will replace the old bulb under the trackball with a nice bright LED version.
The control panel was in remarkably good shape for its age, and would only need to be scrubbed down. After about 20 minutes of scrubbing with a green scrubby, windex and elbow grease, the control panel was looking amazing. Despite 35+ years of service, this heavily abused part of the game would live on with its originality intact. I always prefer to preserve as much originality as possible with these games. So it was a welcome surprise to be able to save the original control panel.
As I cleaned the control panel, I started going over the game and giving it a much needed bath. I used windex and Magic Erasers to clean up the sides and front art of the game. The inside got another deep vacuuming, and a deep wipe down as well. I was very happy with how vibrant the side art and kick plate front art were underneath all that grime and gunk. One side of the game was caked in dozens of dead little bugs, which luckily didn't affect any of the original artwork. Why those bugs where there I don't want to know. Overall the cabinet is in excellent shape, and I was feeling very confident that this was going to turn out to be a beauty of a game once I was finished.
Next up, I took a look at the marquee light box and speaker grill. The original one was intact but flaking and chipping badly. I struggled over deciding to change it or not, since the reproductions tend to be a bit more transparent that the originals. After I took the marquee off the game to clean it, it started flaking apart in my hands. The decision at that point was made, and I started the process of cleaning it, sanding it, repainting where needed, and rebuilding it.
The Crystal Castles marquee and speaker box are unique, and share a similar design with several other Atari arcade games. Atari's Star Wars, Millipede, and Tempest use a very similar set up. Instead of a glass logo marquee with a light (usually held in by two small metal brackets), the glass is housed in a wood shell, and the logo design is a giant mylar sticker that wraps around the entire enclosure. The overall effect is unique, but changing a cracked and worn mylar sticker is a bit of work. It requires a bit of sanding, patience, and a lot of care not to break the glass which is only held in by the mylar sticker itself.
Above you can see the new mylar installed on the top piece, which looks amazing. On the top right photo, both the marquee box and speaker box below are removed. This way you can see the unique diffuser which allows light to cascade onto the speakers and light up the Atari logo in-between the speakers. The center Atari logo is also a piece of glass only held in by the mylar sticker, just like the top marquee. These often get cracked much like the marquee mylar, and often the glass behind the Atari logo falls out and breaks. Because of this, it is common for Crystal Castles machines to be missing the Atari logo in the middle all together. The speaker housing itself is only held into the cabinet by one large bolt, which is surprising. Upon removing the old mylar decal for the speakers, I had to sand down the entire metal piece due to old sticker residue and a bit of rust.
The next thing that needed to be addressed were the two slight "wacks" in the cabinet sides, one on each side of the cabinet. The left side was fairly small (about the size of a half dollar), while the damaged area on the right was towards the back and about the side of a child's fist. So it was finally time to take off the old and worn T-molding and break out the Bondo to fix the damaged sides. After the application of the Bondo, a bit of sanding and we should be ready to rock and roll.
Next time in Part Two, I'll rebuild the coin door... finish the marquee box... repair the bottom... and our bear will join its friends in the arcade. Thanks for reading!