As I mentioned once before on this site, almost exactly eleven years ago to the day, I really fucking like Crystalis. It's fun, it's challenging, and it's one of the most unique RPGs on the NES; it's also one of the absolute prettiest games on the console. And like most SNK games, the soundtrack is fantastic. And since today is the 20th anniversary of the game's fictional doomsday, I figure this is my one shot to finally discuss the game at length, assuming I even remember to how to write anymore. So then, here we go.
So I forget if I've ever given you my backstory before, but in the glory days of early 90s, I was in a unique position to try nearly any video game my little heart desired. In 1989, when I was in third grade, my mom was hired as the manager of the new video store that had opened across the street from my house, Endless Video. I forget exactly what the story with Endless Video was, but they were a local chain, and then I believe what happened was the owner bought a Blockbuster franchise and rebranded them all. He might have actually just straight-up sold the stores to Blockbuster; my memory is little wonky as to when they changed the name. Here is a chain of events that happened:
1. My sister is born in May of 1993.
2. The Endless Video owner guy, who was a complete piece of shit, fired my mom while she was on maternity leave.
3. On August 5 of that same year, the Family and Medical Leave Act goes into effect, making it illegal to fire women for taking maternity leave.
4. It is unclear whether my mom could have successfully sued, but she chose not to try, because rich people can draw out court cases forever.
If they rebranded before 1993, then Blockbuster would have had to have been a franchising deal, because the original owner was still in charge. If they rebranded after that, he might have actually just sold the stores. But that's not important right now. What *is* important is the fact that for almost four years, I could take whatever games and consoles I wanted out of that store for the standard three day rental period - provided that my brother and I were in agreement on them - and then play the ever living fuck out of them. And I could technically rent movies too, I guess. But I wasn't allowed to rent R movies at all, and I could only rent PG-13 movies if my mom had screened them first. Luckily for me though, the ESRB didn't exist yet, so I could rent any video game I wanted! Well, almost any game. Taboo: The Sixth Sense for the NES had a big warning taped the box about how you had to be some age older than I was - probably eighteen - before you could use the game to open a portal to Hell and be subsumed by Satan. But other than Shitty Digital Tarot Cards: The Game, I had dominion over every fucking game in that whole store. I got to play new Mega Man games the week they came out at a time when pretty much no kid had new games the week they came out. Unless I pissed my mom off, there was rarely a day when there wasn't a rental game in our house. And because there was this constant flow of games into the house, and because I owned most of bona fide classics, I was able to explore the far reaches of the NES library. Did I play Dudes With Attitude? You bet I did. Kid Kool? Yup. Destiny of an Emperor? Loopz? Rainbow Islands? The Immortal? Hatris? Yes across the board. Now obviously, some of those games are amazing, some of them are garbage. But I didn't have a whole lot to go on. I was a fairly gullible nine-year-old boy, and the only clues I had as to whether a game was good or not were the box art, screenshots, and description that a marketing team specifically assembled to make the game look cool. That being said, I have no discernible explanation whatsoever for what could have possibly motivated me to rent fucking Hatris. I was apparently at a point in my life where the promise of matching hats was just too enticing to pass up, I guess? Possibly there was some latent homosexuality that I successfully prayed away? I don't know. What I do know is that being easily seduced by box art is what lead me to Crystalis:
Look at that shit. That's fucking rad. You're fighting giant eyeballs, giant slugs, rock monsters, and wolfmen. And the game logo has a totally badass sword in it! Also, the main character looks kinda like Atreyu from The NeverEnding Story. Like, how could I *not* rent this game? How could ANYONE not rent this game!?
This is the game's iconic cold opening, which autoplays when you start the game. Let it be noted that despite its similarities to the apocalyptic visions of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Crystalis was originally released over a year before the James Cameron film. The fact that both stories foretold late 1997 as the end of the world and warned against the dangers of technology is simply pure coincidence. It was not uncommon for a video game to mine popular films of the day for inspiration - nor is it now - but it is INCREDIBLY unlikely that Cameron ripped off Crystalis. You can skip nearly all of this opening by mashing the Start button, save for a brief flash of that first super memorable line of the text. This game was never a huge hit, but it is generally respected by NES fans, enough so that Nintendo actually published a remake of it for the Game Boy Color in 2000 under license from SNK. Unfortunately, while it was cool that Nintendo considered this underrated classic good enough to bring to a new generation of gamers, they ruined a lot of the things that made the game special. In addition to adding in the blatant hand-holding that would become a mainstay of many modern Nintendo games, they also gave the game a completely new soundtrack and changed its storyline. Why? Because fuck you, they're Nintendo, that's why.
This is the game's actual opening. A hundred years have passed since The Very Bad Thing That Happened and now dinosaurs roam the planet. Except not really. There are zero dinosaurs in this game, so if you really like dinosaurs, prepare for disappointment because that opening graphic is full of shit. The rest of the introduction is correct though. Well, except for that one part where they use "it's" instead of "its". You see that? I can catch other people's grammatical failings! Be sure to e-mail me my grammatical failings though because I absolutely cannot stand to proofread my own stuff. I hate reading things I wrote.
So as you may have read above, the world has one hope left to save it from evil. What evil exactly? That's not important right now. Look, do you want to play as the dude depicted in that sweet box art or not? Because here he is. He's been in cryostasis, I guess. That, or he's a robot that giant green computer thing just built; we may never know for sure which story is correct. Except we do, and it's the first explanation. Let's take a moment to appreciate the really cool shading techniques the developers used here. That is one damn fine looking cave. As you may have noticed, you get to name your character; I obviously decided to call mine Syd. If you do not choose a name, your character will be called SNK by default. However, if you choose Continue instead of Start on the title screen and skip the naming process, your character will be called ------. And now, just like in so many other great video games, it's time to complete the first challenge: walk forward.
A guy? In my cave? It's more likely than you think. That was a really funny joke from like a thousand years that probably none of you remember. I remember it though, because I haven't written anything in a thousand years. Just like the protagonist of this game, I was trapped in cold storage, with nothing to do but mull over outdated memes. Also, look at that explosion effect. That's pretty cool.
I'm not huge into Japanese cartoons, but just like every other lazy casual American anime fan, I am familiar with the works of Hayao Miyazaki. You know why? Because I don't live under a fucking rock. So remember earlier when I was mentioned that video games often look to other media for inspiration and I compared this game to Terminator 2? Well, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that Crystalis's plot is strikingly similar to that of the Miyazaki film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. In fact, the first town in the game, Leaf, is referred to as Village in Wind Valley in the instruction booklet.
One of the most important lessons you can learn in Crystalis is this: talk to everyone. Many characters will give you useful - and sometimes vital - information as to what you're supposed to do next. For example, look at this bearded motherfucker right here is the village elder; he gives you a sword. But even though Crystalis Hero Guy proudly holds his new sword aloft in celebration, he doesn't actually equip it. You will have to go into your inventory and equip it. You may notice that the sword has an elemental theme, and there are slots for three more swords. And if you're wondering if the other three swords will continue and complete the elemental motif, the answer is this: OF COURSE THEY DO, IT'S A FUCKING JAPANESE ROLE-PLAYING GAME. Well, technically. Most media define the elements as wind, fire, water, and earth. Crystalis defines the elements as wind, fire, water, and thunder. So we've got storms (wind) and even angrier storms (thunder), which is a little redundant, but oh well. So now you've got a sword, and you might think, great, I'm gonna stab the shit out of everything. Well... not yet. First you've got to open up the menu and equip that sword. Take a good look at that menu screen. Do you like it? I hope you like it, because you're going to be spending a decent amount of time here. But we'll talk about that later.
Another guy in town gives you 100... gold? The game uses a dollar sign for its currency, but enemies drop classic gold coins. Also, it's a damn RPG. Look, if I'm buying armor and trips to a magicall all-healing inn, I want to do be doing it with gold. Semantically, it just makes more sense. But anyway, 100 gold is a fairly generous amount of money. It's exactly enough to buy the most expensive item sold in town, the Leather Armor. Or you could get the Carapace Shield for 80, which also leaves you with the 16 gold you'd need for an eventual trip to the inn. Or you could just wait, since you're inevitably going to grind money and levels anyway.
Well, we've got a sword equipped, so let's leave town and explore. As a kid, I never really understood what those orange blocks that mark the exits on either side of Leaf are supposed to be, but I always thought it looked like tent canvas. I'm still not especially certain what they were going for, walls carved out of the mountainous terrain surrounding the town I guess? Well, let's take a moment to appreciate those big, beautiful tree sprites, and then let's find some stuff to kill!
The first enemies you encounter in the game are cute little blue slimes, and I can't imagine that Enix was pleased with that. Head a little further north in the first area and you'll find bipedal bears. As you may have guessed, the bears take slightly more hits to kill than the slimes, but they give you more gold. That little round thing in the second screenshot is a gold coin, not some sort of mutant bear projectile. You wouldn't know it from this non-animated screenshot, but the coins spin in place, and they actually look really cool doing so. So if you've looked at the status bar at all, you may have noticed that Crystalis Hero Guy has an experience meter and a level. It takes 30 experience to get to Level 2, which is 30 kills, which isn't terrible. Leveling is a very important part of Crystalis, but luckily leveling is not especially grindy. Enemies in any given area will bestow enough EX to get you to the level you need to be at rather painlessly. That's not to say that the game can't feel grindy; gold is a precious commodity, and if you want to always have the best equipment, you will absolutely have to farm gold.
On the western side of the forest/field/whatever, you'll find a blue little cave with a blue little man and everything is blue for him and his self and everybody around him cuz he ain't got nobody to listen... Oh wait, yes he does: you. This is Zebu, one of four wise men who will guide you in your quest. You see that MP meter in the bottom right corner? That's not just for show. This guy's gonna teach you some legit fucking magic if you can fix the windmill. Great, so now we've got a quest! Let's do some questing, motherfuckers!
As I said earlier, talk to everyone; it will save you tons of needless backtracking. So when the dude who was a complete dick to you when you emerged from a century-long slumber in an exploding cave tells you that the windmill guard is always falling asleep, and then you see something called an Alarm Flute in the tool shop, hopefully you'll figure out that you probably need to buy said Alarm Flute with which to wake up the windmill guard. And if you are somehow too fucking dumb to figure that out, I've got some helpful advice for you: don't ever play Myst. Actually, don't ever play Myst is pretty good advice regardless.
Okay, back to the field. Oh hey, I leveled up and got this fantastic too-awkward-to-be-true-English-but-not-awkward-enough-to-be-true-Engrish congratulatory message. So I got that going for me, I guess. Let's head north, because there's a bridge and a cave. And also because I played the shit out of this game and I know where to go. Well, I *mostly* know where to go. As we'll see much later in this review I fuck up a little bit and fail to grab a really cool and powerful item as early as I could have. Therein lies the problem with playing a game you're familiar with, you don't always explore as thoroughly as you should, because you think you're so damn smart. Anyway, into the cave.
They say you should always let sleeping dogs lie, but this is a human being, so fuck it, let's wake him up. So you wake him up, and he gives you the Windmill Key. So... let's think about this for a minute. There's a windmill. The windmill doesn't work. And the reason it doesn't work is because the only guy who has a key for it likes to sleep. This has apparently been a serious problem for multiple years. A small child in the village elder's house says he has never seen the windmill working. Let me reiterate that: NEVER. So in multiple years, no one - including a so-called wise man who knows FUCKING MAGIC - thought to buy an Alarm Flute, get the key from the windmill guard, and turn on the goddam windmill. Wait, is this game basically just Idiocracy and in the eleven years that Idiocracy has existed, I am just now realizing this? One hundred years in the future, you're the only person smart enough to realize that if it's this one guy's job to make sure the windmill works, but all he does is sleep, you should probably WAKE HIM THE FUCK UP? Or better yet, fire his ass. Whatever, let's turn on the fucking windmill.
Abra-fucking-cadabra, I've started the windmill. First off, let's take a minute to talk about how this windmill has the saddest fucking sails ever: this windmill has the saddest fucking sails ever. Second, let's see if we can figure out exactly how it is that a windmill opens a cave. Okay... I've got nothing. I guess this is deus ex machina in the most extremely literal sense of the phrase? Also, I never really thought I'd use the word windmill this many times in my entire life, let alone in one review. I feel like I'm freaking Sancho Panza or something.
Now let's go back to Zebu, who promised to teach you magic. He teaches you the magic of Refresh, which lets you summon a delicious glass of Coca-Cola® whenever you want. Except not really, it's a basic healing spell. The icon for this spell - and many of the spells in this game - resemble the art of Keith Haring. Haring was a popular 1980s artist best known for his distinctive cartoonish stick figures. He was also two months dead when this game was first released in April 1990, so he couldn't sue. Oh, and pay no attention to that wall behind Zebu that's colored differently. That's not important right now.
Here's a screenshot of the first inn, just for completion's sake. There are inns in the game; might as well show them. Also, that new cave that opened up is the game's first dungeon, so it's probably a good idea to heal before starting it. Also, I took close to six thousand screenshots of this game, and I'll be damned if I don't use as many of them as fucking possible.
Speaking of inns, another awesome feature of Crystalis is that you can save your game in any town or open field whenever you want. No paying gold to stay at an inn like in Final Fantasy 1, or recording your adventures with a king like in Dragon Warrior; you wanna save your game, go right ahead. You also get two save files, which is more than Final Fantasy gave you, but less than the Dragon Warrior or Zelda games gave you. Being as I had exactly one sibling at the time this game came out, two save files was a perfect number.
Okay, so into that new cave we go. It has exciting new enemies, such as red slimes and wyverns. Oh, and the red slimes can poison you, so you should probably keep some antidotes in stock. And this, unfortunately, brings us to one of the minor flaws of the game: the hit detection can be wonky at times. Sometimes when you try to stab an enemy, you get hit instead. And if that enemy can give you a contact-based status ailment, you get massively fucked over. And from this point on, dungeons are increasingly unrelenting in spamming status changes at you. And this is where the game can get grindy. You may find yourself forced to grind enemies for gold so that you can keep healing items in stock. That, or you will be constantly retreating to towns to cure yourself at the inn.
As you explore the cave, you'll find treasure chests with items such as the self-explanatory Medical Herb and Antidote, as well as Warp Boots, which transport you to a town you've previously visited. And eventually you'll find the Ball of Wind. And this bring me to a gameplay mechanic I probably should have explained already: you can charge your sword. Holding down the attack button charges your force bar. Each sword has a base charge rate of 1 that releases a projectile attack. The Sword of Wind doesn't have a great default projectile, but it can useful in dispatching poisonous enemies while keeping your distance from them. Once you obtain (and equip) the Ball of Wind, you are able to charge the Sword of Wind to level 2, which obviously is more powerful. How powerful, you ask?
With the Ball of Wind equipped, you can blow away rock barriers that block your path by summoning a giant green ball of... wind, I guess? However, you can ONLY remove rock barriers; if you find other barriers elsewhere in the game, you will need to employ different tools and tricks. So maybe you remember already seeing another barrier kinda like this earlier; too bad, you still can't break it. The only way forward in Crystalis right now, is to get through this cave. So let's see if we can find an exit.
So um, no one bothered to mention this to this Crystalis Hero Guy, but there's a vampire in this cave. In the original Final Fantasy, when there was a vampire in the cave near Melmond, the townsfolk wouldn't fucking shut about it... and he wasn't even the main boss of the damn cave. The vampire is a pretty standard first boss. He teleports around the room and summons bats. He can be a bit frenetic, so having a Medical Herb or two in your possession isn't the worst idea. Several good hits will take him out... probably. Do you remember earlier when I said that leveling is a super important part of Crystalis? Well, see, here's the thing, and it's arguably the most polarizing mechanic in the entire game: enemies are completely invincible if you're not at the experience level the game has decided you should be at by that point. And there is absolutely *no* way to know what that expected level is until your attack bounces off an enemy with an angry ding. In this case, you must be at least Level 3 to damage the vampire. If you're not, you're stuck in a battle that you can't win and can't leave; you can't even warp away. You can either die and retry from a checkpoint, or you can load a save file. Now, on the surface, this is pretty shitty. But the reality is this: until *much* later in the game, it is nearly impossible to put yourself in a situation where you are not the level the game expects you to be. Enemies in any given area of the game always seem to give just enough experience points that leveling isn't tedious. On top of that, regular enemies respawn once you get a screen's length or two away, and the game has a focus on exploration, so you're always backtracking into reencounters with baddies you already defeated. So basically, unless you're an impatient fuck who runs pasts every enemy in the game, instead of killing at least a third of them, you are going to have an unpleasant time playing Crystalis.
You can't beat a boss in this game without getting a present, so we now have the Rabbit Boots. The Rabbit Boots allow your character to jump, but like every. This allows you to move through hazardous terrain faster, and also allows you to scale slippery surfaces that you would otherwise slide down. Also, it's just fun to jump around like an asshole for no reason. Due to a programming quirk, you cannot use items if you have a spell equipped. Spells and items both use the A button, and the spell will always take precedence, even if you don't have enough MP to cast the spell. So if you came to get down, make sure you disable Refresh first.
Right, so we've successfully cleared the cave, here we are in the game's second major area. If you wander around your immediate surroundings, you will find axe-throwing warthogs, which you can kill, and blue mushrooms, which you can't. You can grind for levels all you want, those fucking mushrooms just won't die... yet. Just south of the cave you exited is the game's second town, Brynmaer. Let's go there, because you're supposed to.
When you walk into Brynmaer, there's a guy chilling right by the entrance. His name is Akahana, he's merchant, and he lost a statue near the river. Also, he is apparently too lazy to look for it himself. This is especially interesting, because other characters in the game talk about how greedy he is. Greedy enough to procure rare and powerful items, I guess, but not greedy enough to save a few bucks by doing his own dirty work. Well, at least now we have a quest!
You know what they say: there will be plenty of time to look for a statue down by the river... WHEN YOU'RE LIVING IN A VAN, DOWN BY THE RIVER. There will also be plenty of time to look for the statue right now, because you can't progress any further in the game until you find it. The statue is hidden in a stray patch of tall grass by the river, across a bridge. Finding this item was apparently a point of frustration for some gamers, as "near the river" is a fairly vague description, and the item is never visible on-screen; you acquire simply by touching a certain area of the grass. However, if you acted logically and walked along the river bank, you'd eventually find it. And if you weren't quite that clever, Nintendo Power did a feature on Crystalis that explained how to advance past points that some players may have found confusing, including this.
Bring the statue back to Akahana and he'll give you the Gas Mask. This lets you enter the "poison forest", which is most likely an unnecessarily literal translation of "swamp". The reason I say this is because IT'S CLEARLY A FUCKING SWAMP. So, let's go to the damn swamp. Also, is Akahana wearing lipstick? It kinda looks like he is.
Wait, nevermind about the swamp, let's go to the bar. If you've ever played an old school Japanese RPG, you know the bar is a great place to talk to people. But you know what it's not a good place for? BUYING ALCOHOL. For some reason, these games never let you buy drinks. The bartender in games like this is always more than happy to talk to you, but he has no interest in actually selling you anything, making it quite the mystery how he manages to stay in business. The important thing we learn at the bar is that one of the wise men lives up north somewhere. There's also a blue guy who leaves as soon as you talk to him. If you're wondering if this has any sort of payoff later on, it does.
So, if you go north, you'll find Tornel's House. Inside is a guy who we'll later find out is not Tornel, who tells you to go back to Brynmaer. This is not correct. The game wants you to go to Brynmaer so that you can talk to Akahana and get the Gas Mask from him. But we already have that. What we need to do is go to the Poison Forest. And we'll do that. Probably. But if we go northeast from here, we find a map exit that the game won't let us take, and the only advice it gives is that you "don't have enough power to make" the climb. Here in 2017, I find myself to be an adult who has played a great many video games. So when I see text like this, I understand that there are game goals that I must complete before I can enter this area. But as a preteen boy who didn't understand the inner workings of video games, "power" could only be interpreted as "experience level". So I spent multiple hours grinding Crystalis Hero Guy up to Level 9, unable to understand why the hell it still wouldn't let me pass. But eventually boredom and frustration trumped my stubborn desire to see what was up onthat mountain, and I decided to look for other routes. And then I found the Poison Forest.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is not finished and will be updated daily until it is done.
Posted by: Syd Lexia
2017, October 1