One of the things my parents did really well was encourage my sister’s and my individuality . . . extra important, because I’m an identical twin. They exposed us to all kinds of things, and if we displayed an interest in something, they tended to be really supportive. As with all siblings, sometimes our interests aligned, and sometimes they didn’t.
I don’t think my parents knew what they were getting into when they bought us the NES, though. My sister and I, from that day on, were gamers. We were passionate about it. We poured over Nintendo Power and spent hours in game shops, debating the pros and cons of what was on the shelves. Rainy days were devoted to our video games, not just playing them, but talking about them, writing about them, drawing comics about and portraits of our favorite characters.
My father never really understood the appeal, but went along with it, buying whatever Mom told him to. Mom was the one in charge of my gaming library. When my sister and I got older, of course, we had enough requests to keep her busy for birthdays and holidays. But sometimes, she was left to her own devices. Not being a gamer herself, and console gaming being a very young industry at the time, sometimes she bought us games we didn’t ask for and didn’t know anything about. Neither did she, other than the cover art and what she read on the back of the box.
Sometimes this turned out hilariously badly, boring or incomprehensible games with terrible play control. But sometimes it had us playing games we’d never have picked out for ourselves that turned out to be a lot of fun. This article series will be about the windfalls to my gaming library as a kid. We’ll start with Conquest of the Crystal Palace.
Never heard of it? Neither had we. But it may very well be where my sister’s and my interest in Japanese culture began. It’s a very Japanese game. Technically it’s in a fantasy setting, the goal is to take your family’s Crystal Palace back from the evil Zaras (who’s from the Infernal Plateau, apparently) but our hero, Prince Farron, is basically a samurai, complete with top-knotted hair and a sword, the level selection screen is laid out on a scroll with very Japanese-looking art, and the levels are full of long-bodied dragon statuary, delicately pillared palaces reminiscent of Japanese temples, and all sorts of eastern critters and demons.
The story . . . doesn’t really matter. The instruction manual lays out how the war spirit Zaras came along one day and took over the prospering kingdom of the Crystal Palace, killed Farron’s parents, turned him into a baby, turned the palace protector Zapolis into a dog, exiled the people to the stars . . . look, all you need to know is Farron is fifteen now and ready to kick Zaras out of his palace. And apparently there’s a Crystal Princess you need to save? The instruction book doesn’t mention her at all, you hear about her in-game. Is she your sister? Your betrothed? Why does she matter? It turns out saving her is optional, you’d do it to get the Moon Mirror, an item that you can use once a level to kill all minor enemies instantly.
Look, it’s 1990. This is an NES platformer. You’re not going to get all that sorted out, that’s not the point. The point is that this game plays pretty well. I saw an article that compared it to Ninja Gaiden, and I think I would have come to that conclusion myself– certainly by level 3, the Lair of Hungry Ghosts, which is the pulsing ghost/bug/alien terrain so popular in NES games of the time. You can’t cling to surfaces like Ryu, but the quick stabby swordplay is quite similar, and the platforming is varied and challenging.
What sets this game apart is Zap. He reminds me of Interceptor, Shadow’s dog from Final Fantasy VI, except you can call him to help (as opposed to Interceptor just showing up to occasionally take a hit for Shadow and counterattack). Zap bounces around the screen, attacking enemies, and has his own health bar, so be sure to stop at the Astral Mart– the girl in pink just standing around alone in dangerous places like the Gateway of Flame— for Zap Chow when his health is getting low.
This game had a lot to get the 80s kid’s imagination going. The game was visually interesting, exotic, filled with Japanese imagery the average American kid probably hadn’t seen a lot of yet, shogun demons, ugly gargoyles, vengeful ghosts. The graphics weren’t trying too hard to be realistic– Farron is much more chibi than Ryu of Ninja Gaiden, for example, and Zap is a blue and white fluffy dog. After beating each boss, Farron does a cute little dance and flashes a peace sign. For me, as a kid, the game was both cute and unfamiliar enough in its look to be attention-grabbing.
The soundtrack was quite good indeed. I watched a longplay of the game while I was writing the article (it’s a bit over forty-five minutes long), and the music made me smile as it made memories spark. I looked up the composer, and no wonder I love this music. It’s Masaharu Iwata, who went on to write music for the Ogre Battle series, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Final Fantasy XII.
The pink-clad shopkeep Kim– who also puts on a pair of glasses and points to a diagram to explain new weapons and a suit to give you the news report– has Chun Li’s hair from Street Fighter and gets sparkling anime eyes if you spend a lot of money in one visit– and gives you a discount next time you stop by. Old hat to gamers and anime lovers now, but the tropes were cute, new, and interesting for me, and Kim’s shop gave the game a lot of character.
It’s a short game, only five stages, and honestly, probably not all that hard (though I invite you to try and get through the Gateway of Flame level, with fire pillars coming out of the floor and ceiling, fire and flying enemies everywhere, and see what you think). But I have many fond memories of trying to get through these levels and discussing the game’s plot (or lack thereof) with my sister . . . and filling in the many, many blanks.
Conquest of the Crystal Palace, Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conquest_of_the_Crystal_Palace
Virtually Overlooked: Conquest of the Crystal Palace: https://www.engadget.com/2008/05/22/virtually-overlooked-conquest-of-the-crystal-palace/
Conquest of the Crystal Palace Instruction Manual: http://www.thegameisafootarcade.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Conquest-of-the-Crystal-Palace-Game-Manual.pdf
NES Longplay  Conquest of the Crystal Palace: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLYhJlolrOM
Conquest of the Crystal Palace (NES) – Gaming Historian: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DBmAMvq9ByA