Release: July, 1990 | Developer: SNK | Publisher: SNK
It’s funny how growing up with video games can fragment your perception of them in retrospect. I vividly remember my mom picking up a game for me on her way home from work from Acme Video on a regular basis, and hastily grabbing the most visually pleasing box from the shelf devil-may-care, as she always did.
That habit led to my introduction to Crystalis, which I remembered really liking, but when the time came for the game to return to the store it fell away to new anticipation – would the next game to come home be another Crystalis, or merely a Captain Comic?.
Looking back at the game my appreciation for Crystalis has grown exponentially. Unlike my child self, by this point I had slugged my way through a fair (and financially reasonable) chunk of the Nintendo Entertainment System library, and suffice to say I now have a fairly accurate barometer of what is good and what is not when it comes to NES games – let it be known that Crystalis is exceptional.
I absorbed more of the story this time around, playing as an unnamed hero who regains consciousness after being in a cryogenic sleep for a century.
Even though he’s lost his memory, he isn’t long discovering that he was placed in cryostasis just prior to the onset of a global thermonuclear war. Players awaken to a world in which, due to the war, all technology has been lost and life has reverted back to a medieval state. The world is overrun with monsters and mutants, and primitive magic is the only powerful weapon man possesses.
You are primarily guided in your quest by four wise men, who believe you to be the hero from the past prophesied to destroy the evil Draygonia Empire – it seems the Empire has been using its military in an attempt to seize a mysterious floating tower. According to myth, this floating tower houses an array of weapons built by the early survivors of the apocalyptic war. Those who constructed the tower and its weapon system intended it to be used to prevent a future cataclysm, but it is Emperor Draygon’s intent to use it to dominate the world.
The only way to defeat the Draygonia Empire is to obtain the Swords of Wind, Fire, Water, and Thunder and combine them to defeat the power Emperor Draygon.
Confusing at times? Yes – but what 8-bit game isn’t when it tries to shoe-horn a cohesive story in amongst blocky character sprites and color palette limitations?
As you progress through the game you acquire different magic spells while accomplishing tasks and advancing your stats in typical RPG fashion – you receive these spells and abilities from the aforementioned four wise men, as well as various other NPCs you encounter along the way.
The overarching goal is to obtain the fore-mentioned elemental swords and their additional power-ups. The power-ups, when equipped, grant you special abilities when the sword is charged. These include the ability to use the Sword of Fire to melt ice bricks and use the Sword of Water to create water bridges over streams and rivers.
Crystalis can best be described as the perfect marriage between The Legend of Zelda and Ys: The Vanished Omens. Developed and published by SNK, Crystalis combined the frenetic pacing of Ys with the free-range, top-down vastness of Zelda. Much like Zelda, you battle enemies in real-time on a world map, but you can also enter towns in which you stay at inns, interact with NPCs, and purchase items and armor. Add to that an exceptional musical score and an elemental magic system that lends itself perfectly to dungeon puzzle crawling and you have what seems to be a mash-up of classic action RPGs.
Playing the game again was like finding a priceless painting in your attic – had it been here the whole time, right under my nose?
I still hold fast that Crystalis serves as the definitive old-school action RPG. It is the game that Zelda 2: Link’s Adventure should have been. The weapons, the magic swords and magic spells – it all works so well within the context of the ultra-fast if some-what repetitive combat system. Loose controls? They just take some getting used to and you’ll have no idea what you were even thinking an hour in.
The best thing about Crystalis, which can be said for very few Nintendo games, is that the story grabs hold and drives the game forward.
I ended up caring about these characters, these blocky avatars – intrigued by the mysterious ones, infuriated at the traitors and threatened by those most sinister.
I catch myself thinking about what will happen next when I put down the controller and pull back the curtain to my real life. After all; retro or not, 8-bits or true-to-life texture models, isn’t that what video games are supposed to do? Engage you?