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My First Game: Franz Lanzinger and Crystal Castles

Everyone has to start somewhere. Even the most dedicated and renowned game developers begin with a straightforward idea, polishing and honing it until their first game duly appears. Sometimes these were released virtually unnoticed; on other occasions, they’d be a smash hit of epic proportions. In either case, it’s a start, and for the next entry in this series, we present coder and designer Franz Lanzinger, telling us about his first fully-published game, the brilliant arcade coin-op Crystal Castles.

The Game

Format: Arcade

Year released: 1983

Publisher: Atari

Genre: Maze

Plot: Crystal Castles begins with an eloquent poem that outlines its plot:-

“Once upon a time there lived a bear named Bentley Who wandered o'er the land in search of fortune plenty. Picnic baskets and such were not his bill of fare. Only ruby gemstones could content this clever bear. While roaming the lands of Crystal Castles, Bentley gathered his jewels with the greatest of care. A snatch here and there by a swift paw or two Showered fame and fortune on this rarest of bears!”

Throughout its 37 levels, Bentley Bear collects gems and dodges enemies, not least the wicked witch Berthilda. Get the gems Bentley Bear!

Crystal Castles Tips And Tricks

  • Don’t forget that Bentley Bear can jump! Not only does this help him avoid danger, it stuns his enemies too.

  • Occasionally, a honey pot will appear; Bentley loves honey like most bears. Grab it for a 1000-point bonus, but watch out for the bees!

  • As their name suggests, Gem Eaters eat gems and are only concerned with Bentley Bear if he gets too close.

  • Conversely, the evil trees will actively seek out Bentley Bear and take the most direct route towards him.

  • Almost every level includes a magic hat for Bentley Bear to grab. Wearing this makes the hero invincible for a short time.

  • Berthilda The Witch and her cauldron also appear on some levels. Avoid both – unless you have the hat on!

The Author

Franz began his videogames development career in 1982 at Atari Games, where, once settled, he devised his first game, Crystal Castles. The game was successful, but Franz left Atari in 1984, eventually joining Tengen in 1989 and programming Ms Pac-Man and Toobin’ for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Shortly afterwards, he co-founded the development house Bitmasters, designing and coding more games for the NES and the 16-bit consoles. Franz is also an arcade game player of some pedigree: at various points, he has held the world record high scores for both Centipede and BurgerTime. Today, he’s a published author with several books on game development under his belt and the principal piano player for soprano Lisa Egert-Smith. In between, he even finds time to develop new games!

Antstream Arcade: Hello, Franz! Did you play videogames as a kid, particularly arcade games such as Pac-Man?

Franz: Hello! Yes, I played many games, mainly board games and some pinball as a teenager. I was a scientific programmer in my first career after getting a math degree. During that time, I spent a lot of time in the arcades, and luckily, I got hired by Atari to work in its arcade division. I played pretty much all the arcade games from 1972 until 1984, but I wasn’t actually a huge fan of Pac-Man, although I did play it when it came out.

AA: Yes, you played a lot of arcade games and even held the world record in them, didn’t you?

Franz: Yes, Centipede and BurgerTime were favourites, however only the Centipede record was legitimate – I felt that I cheated on the BurgerTime record because I had access to the game at Atari well before it was released, which gave me a huge advantage, but my record there only lasted a short time once other players were able to learn the game. I played Centipede a lot, which in turn made me a big fan of trackball control.

AA: What was your coding experience before Crystal Castles?

Franz: I actually had about eight years coding experience, with three years of full-time professional coding. But I had no game design experience at all, so Crystal Castles was truly my first game.

AA: How did you join Atari?

Franz: I was coding during the day and playing arcade games at night. I was in a group of friends when one of my friends was hired by Atari after being part of a focus group. He recommended me.

AA: How did you get the idea for Crystal Castles?

Franz: I had coded a 3D graphics display a few years earlier, which I thought looked good – so that was the start of it. The game itself evolved day to day with a lot of help from my co-workers. At that time I really liked the trackball controls, which led me to the control scheme for Bentley Bear. I wanted the trackball controller, and the management said I could choose between that and a joystick.

AA: Is it true it began life as a follow-up to Asteroids?

Franz: To start a game at Atari, you had to choose an approved project from the ‘big book’. When I arrived, I picked Toporoids, a re-imagining of Asteroids. The backgrounds were data-driven – I’d type in numbers for the heights and colours of the 3D structures, which evolved daily. You could see there was a game there, so a group of us threw around ideas and came up with the fairytale theme of the witch, moving trees, and it being like The Wizard Of Oz.

AA: What did your folks think of your career at Atari?

Franz: I was already 26 years old when I started working at Atari. My parents were mostly oblivious and didn’t know anything about videogames.

AA: Unlike many of its peers, Crystal Castles has a definite ending – how did that go down at Atari?

Franz: It was controversial because, at that time, Atari didn’t want its arcade games to have endings. The objection was that other big hit games like Asteroids didn’t have endings, and there was quite a bit of publicity when players played marathon sessions. However, I felt that games should have endings so that the best players would get world records, not players with exceptional endurance. It took quite a bit of convincing to get that approved.

AA: Finally, Franz, what does Crystal Castles mean to you today?

Franz: Well, as can sometimes happen, my first game is also my best-known and most successful game. If it wasn’t for Crystal Castles, I probably wouldn’t have had a career in game development, so it means a great deal to me.

Our thanks to Franz for his time – stay tuned for another veteran videogames developer talking about their first game soon. To keep up to date with all the retro gaming chat surrounding Antstream Arcade and for exclusive reveals of new games, please visit the Antstream Arcade Discord server:

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