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Codex vs Crystal Maze

I watched Channel 4's Codex the other weekend, for two reasons:

  1. Tony Robinson presents
  2. It's billed as a new Crystal Maze

What utter horserind.

Update 2006/11/28: Holy jesustongs! The puzzle designer of both shows replies in a comment below!

The concept is neat enough: a team rushes around the British Museum at night, solving historical puzzles and attempting to crack a code. Tony Robinson has the historical and investigative credentials to host such a task, but it falls down on every other point.

The first thing they show you is the "Codex", a substitution cipher which is slowly revealed as the team completes tasks. Unfortunately, it's designed for morons. If you have a PVR, you can press pause and crack it in about 4 minutes before any of the code letters have been revealed. Since that would obviously be too hard, they give you two letters for free.

The mini games which form the meat of the programme are not-even-glorified trivialities that you might find in one of those puzzle magazines on sale at airports, designed to blunt your mind for a 12 hour plane flight.

They do a spot-the-difference using an image and a digitally altered image of an ancient artifact.

They do a memory test by showing you a picture then asking you about it.

They even play a guess-the-weight-of-the-object game to eliminate players.

The only halfway clever part was the what-does-this-symbol-mean test, where you are shown some kind of ancient ideograph that is still pictorial enough to figure out the object it represents. They could've taken it much further, say, by matching whole sentences to their translations. Blind translation could be a gameshow in its own right.

At the end, more letters of the Codex are revealed and the loser-players attempt to decipher it in order to tell the potential-winner which of five objects to choose.

That's it.

The overall structure does seem to be based on The Crystal Maze - walking around themed zones, players being left behind, mini games leading to a final challenge, the victory message ("I cracked the Codex"/"I cracked the Crystal Maze")... there's even a genuine link between the shows: Tony Robinson's Maid Marian and Her Merry Men did an episode parodying The Crystal Maze.

Unfortunately, the big picture similarities are nullified by details so tame that I am personally offended by the comparison.

The Crystal Maze had Richard O'Brien being his own eccentric self. Tony Robinson is sadly subdued, struggling to fill the boring stretches of time as the tasks are mechanically completed.

The British Museum is an amazing location, but it's not a set, no matter how many blue lights you install.

Most importantly, The Crystal Maze was hard. The mini games had a brutal time limit, and Richard O'Brien wouldn't hesitate to lock players in if they were a second late getting out. The physical games made players pant and sweat. The mental games asked genuinely difficult questions. The skill games had players banging the controls in frustration. There were no practice rounds and no second chances. A victory in a Crystal Maze game actually meant something.

Codex is heart-achingly dumbed down, and I bet it had a huge budget too. Amazingly enough, The Crystal Maze is currently back on TV at 7pm every weekday on "Challenge TV", one of those mystery channels that you only ever get to by accident. It's not listed in most TV guides, and is way, way down the list on NTL's on-screen guide thingy. It's channel 152, if you must know.

And you must!


  1. Sarah, on Saturday 25th November 2006, said:

    I didn't think you'd even deign to watch this programme ;) It's such a good concept but so poorly executed. The Crystal Maze is a classic, although some of the puzzles were so easy I could have done them as a child, never mind as an adult watching repeats on Challenge. I have to agree with you that some of the physical games were bloody tough and I would not have liked to do the one where they had to crawl through a rabbit warren of cages. The Codex was just too easy though and too damn slow. Me and Chris were shouting at the TV to get a move on, how could these people be so stupid? We'd cracked the Codex and chosen the right item before they'd worked out which symbol stood for 'e'. I used to have similar issues with Time Commanders as the team never ever managed to learn from history and rarely beat the opposing forces, leading me to shout things along the lines of "you've got pikemen, have you never heard of a phalanx?" and "what are you doing massing your cavalry together like that? You're gonna kill your own men".

  2. David J. Bodycombe, on Tuesday 28th November 2006, said:

    As the games designer of both The Crystal Maze and Codex, I'd like the opportunity to reply to the points you make.

    Firstly, the show is not the new Crystal Maze - where this idea came from I've no idea. Codex is a family history quiz, CM is an adult game show. They are quite different concepts. Codex is aimed at families with kids - something that adults can sit down to watch with their tweenies. Crystal Maze was an adult prime-time game show.

    The aim of the quiz is not to simply know stuff just to prove how intellectual you can be. Instead, the idea is to use observation, memory and deduction to work out things, the concept being that next time you visit the museum you can try to engage the brain in a similar way.

    You will see over the series (and indeed next series) that the games will get gradually harder, in much the way that they got harder on TCM (everyone seems to forget that the first series had quite easy games).

    Overall, the idea of the show is to make museums appeal to people, not to appease the history experts who know all this stuff anyway.

    By the way, everyone thinks the Codex is easy without any letters in it but so far no-one's solved one of them in under 17 minutes. The extra letters do help. Incidentally, I think a substitution cipher is quite a high-concept idea to get onto a game show, and to call swathes of the British public 'morons' just because they can't solve it immediately like that is a bit harsh.



  3. James, on Wednesday 29th November 2006, said:

    Codex is a family history quiz, CM is an adult game show.

    With this in mind, and with a week or so off my high horse, I'm willing to cut the show a little more slack :) If it was just the Radio Times that tried to compare the two, then I shall redirect my scorn thattaway. I have to give you humongo-kudos for your Crystal Maze work, so I'm sorry for whomping on the Codex puzzles, but I do reserve the right to call vast swathes of the British public morons :)

  4. dave, on Wednesday 29th November 2006, said:

    James has a degree in Maths, so its not unexpected that he thinks anyone who hasn't spend that much time on mathematical games like crypto are morons...

  5. Sarah, on Wednesday 6th December 2006, said:

    I have a degree in Lingusitics, which is why I'm no longer allowed to play 'Call My Bluff' LOL

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