Excursions: Not as seen on TV: It's just you, the clock and a lump of quartz. Dominic Cavendish takes the Crystal Maze challenge

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The Independent Culture
Arriving at the squeaky clean Superbowl in Maidenhead ('The Ultimate Games Centre'), site of the Cyberdrome Crystal Maze, the child in me thought that perhaps it would be all right after all. Opposite the tenpin bowling alley, the arcade games and fruit machines, a disco mirror ball spun flecks of light temptingly across a plastic crystal entrance. It wasn't until the neon-lit, fluorescent-carpeted lift had deposited me inside the maze that my adult self took over and asked, 'Well what did you expect?'.

There was no way that the 'as-seen-on-TV' Crystal Maze, with its acres of themed obstacle-course zones, was going to transfer easily to a 4,000 sq ft space in a Maidenhead leisure centre. Nevertheless, a game which can get teams of people to collect crystals by performing bizarre, mainly physical challenges against the clock, must have a certain marketability. Not only does the Channel 4 programme regularly attract five million viewers, but every year over 30,000 people actually ask to appear on it.

To Cyberdrome's founders, Carl Nicholson and David Owers, the viewing figures were a clear sign that there are people out there just itching to go crystal-snatching down their local maze. They set up their own maze in Blackpool in 1991 and 300,000 have since played it. Last week trend-spotter Steve Wright unveiled the third maze in Maidenhead; the leisure games revolution was official.

'The Crystal Maze gets the adrenalin going without involving violence or gambling,' Owers, 37, enthuses. 'Whereas laserquest-type games soon pall, people come back to this because it offers greater interaction and a different game each time.'

My chances of interacting with another player were pretty slim. When I exited the lift to a blast of the theme tune, I found the maze entirely devoid of life. Instead of bald TV presenter Richard O'Brien, there was a computer host with the reassuring voice of Martin Jarvis. Once you have swiped your identity card into a monitor, the 'Mazemaster' gives you two minutes to reach a destination in one of four zones (Ocean, Medieval, Aztec or Futuristic) where, as in the TV version, there is either a physical or mental 'challenge'.

The decor is the most impressively reproduced feature of the series. Although the Ocean Zone is as dry as a bone, at least the walls in the medieval section look as though they're made of old stone. Even the Aztec Zone is vaguely tropical, though a close inspection revealed the sticks in the Bamboo Tower to be painted scaffolding poles.

I was commanded first to go to the dimly-lit Sensor Cell in the Futuristic Zone, where I was told to touch a 'crystal' button without knocking into suspended neon-lit poles, a task which did not require a partner. I achieved this with plenty of time to spare. The voice of Martin Jarvis congratulated me and sent me off to the medieval section where I quickly demolished a castle with a computer-generated catapult.

Getting to places via stepping stone and labyrinth proved to be more satisfying than the games themselves. The physical ones seemed determinedly safe, while the mental ones were often computer games in disguise. Devotees of the large tumble dryer full of gold paper in the TV version's final Crystal Dome here have to be content with lots of randomly flashing buttons.

'They can spend a couple of days filming an hour of television whereas all our games have to be instantly reusable,' insists Owers, adding that the screen-based games will be phased out as the maze develops. 'We've got to appeal to as wide a range as possible without becoming too bland, from the average eight year old to forty-year-old lager louts.' Some might find the idea of eight year olds running into lager louts a slight turn-off, but then, as the TV series has already shown, there's no accounting for taste.

Crystal Mazes: Blackpool (0253 408100), Southampton (0703 511511), Maidenhead (0628 783355) and, opening soon, Pembrokeshire (0834 891373)

(Photograph omitted)

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