Review: Crystalis for the NES

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Background

The Hero encounters some tiger-men in the opening area.

Crystalis is an ambitious Action-RPG title developed by SNK and published in July 1990 for the Nintendo Entertainment System.  Despite being routinely overshadowed by classic genre ancestors such as Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy, Crystalis has achieved a cult-classic status due to its unique blend of arcade action, RPG mechanics, and retro-futuristic narrative.  When one considers the graphics, sound, gameplay, and story, there are qualities to each which ultimately add up to a singular gaming experience.

To learn the backstory of Crystalis, we must consult the original game manual, as this is the only place where it’s explained.  Therein, we learn that this is a post-apocalyptic and post-technology  world where civilization has slowly re-emerged following a Great War.  Magic and sorcery has supplanted technology during the world’s reconstruction.

One powerful magician, Draygon, has begun to wield technology and machines again in an effort to subjugate the world for his own designs.  The wise men leading the resistance against Draygon discover that the world’s greatest and most powerful magician (our Hero) was frozen in a cave long ago during the Great War, and they pool all their might to wake him.  Enter our Hero (named by the player), who wakes from his cryogenic stasis ready to seek his destiny.

The World of Crystalis

Charging to attack one of Draygon’s guards.

Crystalis follows familiar patterns established by its Action-RPG predecessors.  You command the Hero from a top-down vantage point, exploring a variety of overworld and underworld locations.  Each major section is anchored by an overworld “field” that serves as a hub which ties together the entrances to the more interesting towns, dungeons, mountain passes, and other key areas. The fields, while beautiful and varied, are typically just battlegrounds for grinding out experience points, and only very rarely will the story advance based on an event or item found there. My slight disappointment when I found that there are no bushes to burn or mountain sides to bomb was quickly relieved by the sense of high adventure found in each environment.

The variety of settings is impressive.  Within the first couple hours of play, you’ll fight a series of enemies in meadows and forests, explore cavernous dungeons, destroy a huge insectoid boss in a poisonous swamp, encounter a town of dwarves who refuse to welcome humans, and conquer an icy mountain.  By the time I reached the third town, the game had me swept up in its momentum.

Finding a dwarf child in the poisonous swamp

The game’s nature and mechanics are mostly revealed in the first hour of play.  This is a strictly linear game, and the player progresses by working through the events of a scripted narrative, solving puzzles, and building the character’s power.  To advance, you often must acquire a certain item, or journey to a specific place, or talk to a key NPC.  Usually, finding this next step is a straightforward logical deduction, but it’s likely that you will encounter a few spots where you just can’t progress and you can’t imagine anything else to do.  In these cases, the cause is often some simple but rigid trigger that’s required, such as talking to the right person or visiting the right area.  These moments are typical in retro RPG games, and many gamers will have experience dealing with them.  The trouble with Crystalis is that sometimes the triggers seem over-specified and on some occasions, unintuitive.   I would not fault the players who, after exhausting all their ideas, just grab a walk-through and move on to the next step.  I consulted a walkthrough a few times during my first playthrough.  You can also try referencing the manual, as SNK included several spoilers and explicit instructions under the “event item” descriptions.

Dungeon complexity ramps up slowly over the course of the game.  Most of the early dungeons are fairly linear with a few branching paths.  You are usually able to take a branch, follow it to the terminus, and then double back to explore the next branch.  Often you will find items and equipment at the end of these branches.  Later in the game, the dungeons become more complex, with non-linear and nonsensical paths between stairs and rooms.  You will be disoriented and may need to either draw a map or reference one online.  It is definitely possible to play with just the map in your head, but some later dungeons may present a significant challenge this way.

A Unique Combat System

The combat in this game is a lot of fun, which is partly due to the smooth 8 directional movement of the Hero.  At some points, the fighting mechanics are so dependent on your character’s movement, that it begins to remind one of playing an arcade shooter.  You slide backwards, forwards, and in sweeping evasive arcs, the same way you would control your ship in a space shooter.

Preparing to fly over a field of lava.

Over the course of the game, our Hero collects the swords of Wind, Fire, Water, and Thunder.  Each sword has a basic forward slash and a charged projectile attack, which is a welcome addition to the genre.  Charging for a projectile requires that the character stand still, but you are free to move about and charge it using incremental pauses, as long as you are holding the B button.  Fighting generally follows an alternating rhythm of charging the sword, and moving, charging the sword, and moving.  Each sword can further be upgraded by acquiring equipment, which gives the player additional projectile attacks.  Projectiles also have utility outside of combat, as they become necessary tools for either destroying dungeon blockades or building bridges to access new areas.

SNK has made a few novel design choices with the fighting and equipment system, most notably the system of different elemental swords.  Many enemies are tuned to be either vulnerable or invulnerable to the different elemental attacks.    It’s an interesting mechanic, but it leads to tedious equipment management when enemies with opposing vulnerabilities are stocked in the same dungeon area.  The player must choose between avoiding half the enemies, or constantly switching swords, even on a single viewable screen.  By the time the player encounters a room that requires 3 different swords to clear, the tedium is overwhelming.

Aside from the four swords, the character also acquires a variety of helpful items which are typical RPG fare.  Success in Crystalis requires a focus on inventory management as you will quickly succumb in the early dungeons if you don’t have the proper restorative items on hand.

For most of the game, you experience this world through the perspective of a growing but vulnerable Hero character.  Your character is never so powerful that you feel comfortable entering new areas without a full stock of items and a full rest at the nearest inn.  Seemingly minor enemies can drain your energy quickly if you allow them to close in and surround you.  When you are struck by an enemy, you are not given a temporary invincibility buffer, so the enemies will drain energy with every hit.  Furthermore, there is no low HP warning as there is in Legend of Zelda, so many deaths will come unexpected.  Enemies are also capable of incapacitating the Hero with a variety of status effects such as poison and paralysis, and their status attacks are plentiful.  Surviving a dungeon requires a careful balance between avoiding status effects, carrying antidotes, and managing the magic points you have available.  If all else fails, be ready to warp back to town.

Finally, you’ve become the Godslayer

Our Hero remains a vulnerable character until you approach the end of the game.  The last 30 minutes of Crystalis is your reward for overcoming a frustrating and merciless experience.  You have finally become the Godslayer (the original Japanese title of Crystalis), now armed with the Power Ring and the Storm Bracelet, which enables you to rip through hordes of enemies with a constant stream of lightning bolts.  The final area, Draygon’s Tower, plays out almost as a denouement.  You ascend slowly, level by level, bringing destruction to every enemy in sight.  After 10 to 15 hours of dying and scrambling through dungeons, running out of antidotes and lysis plants, you finally have the upper hand and you make quick work of finishing off the last boss.

Exceptional Environments, Graphics, and Music

The variety of environments presented here is remarkable for an NES game and is a standout achievement for this game.  Yes, graphical assets are often palette-switched and re-used, and dungeon maze sections are remixed and recycled through out the game, but a distinct mood and presentation is achieved through enemy variety, strong palette work, and distinctive musical themes.

Statues fire projectiles to block our Hero’s path.

SNK has managed to create a world here that feels “lived in.”  These characters, with their 8 bit sprites, seem like they inhabit a living world.  There are subtleties everywhere in the graphics.  Cracks in the corners of buildings, and domestic structures like sheds, fences, and gardens.  The terrain seems unpredictable – while you explore the overworld, you may stumble onto a river, swamp, waterfall, or desert.  A massive lava flow falls down the center of Mt Hydra.  Somewhere around 75% through the game, the tone turns dark, and the wild fields are replaced with catacombs and toxic rivers that boil human remains.  You get a definite sense of the nearby evil, which is communicated solely through the graphics and music.

Crystalis has one of the finest scores I’ve heard in an NES game.  The musical pieces display a full range of themes from hopeful, to rousing, to melodious, to anxious, and finally, mournful.  Each musical piece pairs perfectly with the area it plays over, setting the tone and signaling the game’s progression.

Shortcomings

Unfortunately, Crystalis suffers from a crippling technical problem:  slow down.  In nearly every section of the game, there is a chance you will encounter slow down.  This is worst during during the boss fights, where a frantic struggle will often devolve into a slow dance.  This game is beautifully rendered, with well defined sprites and superb animations, but when you put a few monsters and projectiles in a field with grass and trees, the framerate drops quickly.  The slow-down is nearly game-breaking at some points, and while I understand that slow-down is just a fact of life in NES games, Crystalis presents an extreme example.  The slow-down changes the tone of the boss fights and occasionally sucks the life out of the overworld.  The designers and implementers should have been more mindful of working within the limits of the NES.

The character status screen.

One of the strangest design choices in Crystalis is a minimum level requirement for boss fights.  The bosses are literally invulnerable to your attacks unless you meet the level requirement when you arrive to fight them.  In my second playthrough, I reached bosses at a lower level than required several times.  Fortunately, I was able to find a few great spots for grinding XP and could level up quickly, so it didn’t derail my whole game.  This decision seems like a misstep to me, as I don’t understand how using the character’s level as a barrier enhances the gameplay.  It merely sets a leveling pace that may or may not be appropriate for the current player.  It seems that if one is able to reach a boss, one should at least have a shot at fighting that boss.  Sure, you may die quickly without enough HP or equipment, but leaving the fight or grind option to the player seems like a better decision.  This is just another example of the extremely rigid design of this game.

Conclusion

Don’t expect Crystalis to be an easy ride.  You will be frustrated by the relentless status attacks, the flying monsters that can’t be outrun, the occasional cheap deaths, and the linear puzzle solving.  But, that’s what makes these games fun.  I come to these games for the adventure and the frustration, and the thrilling sense of achievement that inevitably supersedes my frustrations.

Ultimately, I have to reward a game where the development team tried ambitious designs, even if they fell short on the execution.  The developers of this game had a 5/5 all time NES classic in their hands and they just fumbled on a few key elements.  The ever-present slow-down problem, a few overly linear puzzles, and tedious sword management are my biggest complaints.  Crystalis is a an expansive action-RPG that is innovative, exhilirating, frustrating, and complex.  As a highlight of action-RPGs on the NES, it deserves recognition and appreciation, and I recommend it to any fan of the genre.

Rating: 4/5

For more Crystalis sites and resources, please check out the following links:

Crystalis Commercial

Mike’s RPG Center – Crystalis

Crystalis Soundtrack

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