Crystalis (NES) – A Journey Worth Passing Up

Released on: April 13 1990 (NES), December 12 2019 (Nintendo Switch Online)

Available Platforms: NES, Game Boy Color (remake), Nintendo Switch Online)

Price: Free (With Nintendo Switch Online Subscription)

Published by: SNK  Developed by: SNK

        I have a bit of a history with Crystalis. Having played the Game Boy Color remake when I was twelve, I thought the game was frustrating and confusing. When I heard that the newest update to the Nintendo Switch Online’s NES games library was going to feature Crystalis, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to revisit a game marred my childhood. Is it as bad as I remember?

        Crystalis’ plot involves the player waking up in a post-apocalyptic world with no memory. Guided by four sages, they must embark on a quest to stop Draygon from taking over the world using the last military power. The player accomplishes this by gathering the four swords and combining them together to form the legendary Crystalis. The game’s story seems to take clear inspiration from the likes of the Studio Ghibli film Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind and Square Enix’s Final Fantasy. This description, however, makes the narrative sound much more interesting than it actually is. That isn’t to say the story is bad per se, just unremarkable in execution.

        The graphics of Crystalis are impressive for the NES. The game manages to fit a lot of assets on screen at one time without much trouble. Objects are also clear and easily distinguishable; a rarity when it comes to the NES. There are some enemy and character sprites that repeat (just with different colors) but this is typical of adventure games of that era.

That is a lot of enemies!

        It will not take long for one to notice Crystalis’ gameplay is similar to the famous Legend of Zelda. Being a top-down adventure game where you wield a sword will more than likely give a game the unfortunate label of “Zelda clone”. Being a “Zelda clone” isn’t necessarily an insult so long as the gameplay is good. Crystalis, sadly, does not do other “Zelda clones” justice. Holding onto the sword button will have the main character to charge up a magical projectile dependent on which sword he has equipped. While on paper this sounds fine, in practice this makes using the sword without charging it clunky. The collision detection when using the sword is also unreliable. Sometimes the hit will register, while other times the enemy will ignore the sword entirely and give the main character a nice, old fashioned body slam. Of course, the charge shot is the safer option but not only is it slower, but the level three charge also costs valuable MP that a player could use to recover their precious health. All these issues make the gameplay of Crystalis feel awkward.

Can someone explain what just happened with this interaction?

        Menu management feels clumsy in Crystalis. All too often I face off against an enemy, only to find out that my current sword does not damage them. So I pull up my inventory to switch swords and equip the sword’s ring needed to use its charge shot. I then beat the foe, find another monster, and lo and behold, I have to change swords again. This happens way too frequently and took me out of the game quite a bit.

A lot of effort to defeat… a spider…

        The biggest and most fatal flaw with Crystalis is its cryptic way of conveying information. This isn’t an issue at the beginning of the game but later on, the game has puzzles that, more often than not made me question how I was even supposed to figure them out. Crystalis does give the player a vague clue as to where one should use their newly-acquired spell. The problem is that the hints do a poor job at pointing the player in the right direction. I have not idea how anyone is supposed to beat the game without the use of a walkthrough, a feature gamers in the 90s did not have access to.

Oh! Of course, I was supposed to unequip any spell I had to use the Rabbit Boots that I was not told what it did in the first place to jump up this snow hill. How silly of me!

        I now understand why twelve-year-old Sergie thought poorly of Crystalis. While not as bad as I remember, its unrefined combat, maladroit menu management and poor in-game explanation of where to go next or what to do make Crystalis a slog to get through and a hard pass from me.

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