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Crystalis (NES) artwork

Crystalis (NES) review

"It's almost like you're playing an arcade game rather than an action-RPG when you're going against a guy like Mado, who regularly transforms into a giant sphere that erratically pinballs around the tight confines of his room. That’s especially true the second time you confront him, by which point he's added "moves at the speed of light" to his repertoire."

Back when I was in college, I really didn't do much gaming outside of the summer and winter breaks. Instead of buying new games to get me through those times, I'd amuse myself by either renting or borrowing stuff that looked cool, but which never made my "buy at all costs" list. Crystalis was one such game and it was glorious. Combining Zelda-like action with an RPG's level-building mechanic, it seemingly contained nearly everything I could have wanted to see… and also some stuff I wasn't used to seeing, such as a somewhat cohesive story where the villains actually did more than simply wait around for you to assault their fortress and leave their bodies in the dust. Emperor Draygon and his henchmen were nasty folks, committing all sorts of atrocities ranging from slavery and hostage taking to quashing a rebellion with a good old-fashioned massacre.

Going through Crystalis was a rush that provided a lot of good memories, thanks in part to the beautiful yet somber music that played throughout a late-game dungeon or two, perfectly capturing the mood created by the losses your protagonist had suffered during his quest up to that point. The forces of good were slowly being overwhelmed by evil (in fact, the game specifically states that Draygon's four generals originally were the top warriors for your side), so it was easy to imagine my character being the last hope; the guy getting intensely trained in a final do-or-die attempt to ward off destruction. I don't know if I'd go as far to say it was the most fun I'd had with my first trip through a game, but it'd be hard to name many that compared.

Crystalis screenshot Crystalis screenshot

I only wish I could say the same things about my more recent experience. This is one game that didn't age particularly well. Damn it…

Part of the problem is that Crystalis was probably a bit too advanced for the NES controller, meaning there just weren't enough buttons on that thing to allow for smooth play. You'll start your quest with a wind sword and gradually collect three more that tend to the fire, water and thunder elements. While each new sword is more powerful than the previous one, none of them ever become obsolete. Each can be used to get past obstacles ranging from walls, to gaps over rivers, to the various enemies which are immune to one or more of them. You'll need to swap weapons regularly.

Today, this would be an easy feat because you'd likely be able to tap a shoulder button or something to automatically click from one blade to the next. However, thanks to the paucity of buttons on the NES control pad, you have to go to a menu to swap out one sword for another. That’s often necessary multiple times even while traversing just one corridor in a given dungeon. The process quickly grows tiresome. Certain usable items are also assigned to the same button as magic spells. If you wish to use the Rabbit Boots to hop across damaging floors, you have to un-equip whatever spell you might have been using or its presence will override your character's ability to get both feet off the ground. Back in the day, this didn't bother me much because I didn't know better, but now that we're in an era where systems routinely feature controllers possessing sufficient buttons to handle a multitude of tasks, this just feels inconvenient and tedious. I found myself searching for areas with one or two monsters vulnerable to the same sword and I would camp there for 10-20 minutes to gain a couple levels, then run through subsequent dungeons while attempting to avoid everything just because combat often was more trouble than it was worth.

Constant sword-swapping wasn't the only annoying thing about fighting monsters, either. The farther you get into Crystalis, the more frequently you encounter flying beasties, which never fail to annoy. Regardless of which sword you use, you have two options: flail around impotently with a blade so small you have to be nearly touching a foe to damage it, or charge it up to send out projectiles. While swords charge quickly, you do have to stand still to make that happen, which tends to lead to one or both of the following end results: you take a hit while charging your weapon, or you wind up missing with your charged shot. That’s just one more reason why I was careful in picking and choosing my level grinding locations. I didn't want to swap swords constantly and I didn't want to deal with flying enemies capable of slamming into me and delivering a status ailment of some sort before I could do much of anything.

Crystalis screenshot Crystalis screenshot

SNK’s developers did do an admirable job with the technology they had, though. At times, this feels like a well-oiled machine in spite of the above limitations. Boss fights are fun, fast-paced battles. Each of Draygon's generals can prove to be a daunting foe, with some of the fights proving to be downright brutal tests of your reflexes. It's almost like you're playing an arcade game rather than an action-RPG when you're going against a guy like Mado, who regularly transforms into a giant sphere that erratically pinballs around the tight confines of his room. That’s especially true the second time you confront him, by which point he's added "moves at the speed of light" to his repertoire. It says a lot about this guy that he provides the toughest challenge in the game when you consider that another of the henchmen (and Draygon himself, during one battle) has an attack that turns you into a harmless slime, which means a trip to the "Game Over" screen if you don't possess at least one of a particular single-use disposable item.

The emphasis the game placed on status ailments actually adds to the fun, to some degree. Even in the very first dungeon, you can be poisoned by a number of foes. As you progress, it'll be commonplace to encounter monsters capable of turning you to stone or paralyzing you so you can't charge any of your swords. Since the magic spell that cures these afflictions is rather costly, you'll want to be careful while exploring dungeons. I don't know that I've played another game where the actual damage a monster can inflict upon you is a secondary concern to the debilitating side effects their touch can cause. A lack of preparation combined with a couple moments of sloppy play can lead to cases where you are left trying to sprint out of a dungeon and back to town before succumbing to poison… or you find yourself simply staring mutely at the statue which used to be your adventurer as your hand reaches towards the Reset button.

Despite the frustration it provides, Crystalis is exhilarating to play once it truly embraces its fast-paced nature towards the end of the adventure. An optional accessory you can find allows you to automatically fire off the weakest charged shot of any sword at will. Combine that ability with the Sword of Thunder, which is both the most powerful weapon in the game and the only one that fires in multiple directions, and you are a killing machine capable of ripping through most anything instantly (at least until you reach the pyramid dungeon and its thunder-resistant monsters, in which case you'll either have to play the sword-swapping game or follow my lead and run past everything until you happen upon the boss).

Crystalis is a quality game that occasionally reminded me why I loved playing it so much all those years ago. The inventory management issues also gave me a newfound appreciation for the way gaming technology has evolved. To play this game today, you have to be of a mindset that is willing to take the bad with the good, making the quest an enjoyable one and a test of patience all at once.


overdrive's avatar
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (September 11, 2012)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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