The Wikipedia article for Crystalis, an NES game published by SNK and released in the US in 1990, calls the game “a cult classic.” I’d agree with that. It’s not Final Fantasy or Zelda big, but the people that love this game, love it, and I’m among them.
This is one of those games that my mother just brought home one day. My sister and I didn’t ask for it. Maybe the box art grabbed her. That wouldn’t surprise me at all, considering the often boring, pixelated, or just plain blank (except for the title) video game boxes of the time.
A young man stands in a strange field full of twisted, bare, alien-looking trees and thick, jungle-like undergrowth, surrounded and brandishing his sword at strange beasts and mutants, a glittering, floating tower of high technology in the background. The title stands out against the sunset-tinted sky in green text that looks slick and futuristic . . . save the “T” in Crystalis, which is a very fantasy looking sword. Technology and fantasy, expertly wrapped into one neat little package.
If there had been a book with this cover, my mother would absolutely have bought it for us (and probably read it herself too), so it’s no surprise this game found its way into my gaming library.
Crystalis (I always pronounced it Crystal-is, but the reviewers I’ve watched say Crys-STAHL-is) is pure old-school action RPG. There are fetch quests galore, with one particularly memorable (and long) chain of them after the city of Portoa: get the Broken Statue from Sabera, find Clark in the zombie town to the Eye Glasses, go to the town of Joel, use the Eye Glasses in the wooden shed next to the elder’s house to find the secret door, go through to the windmill, wake up the sleeping man to get the Glowing Lamp, use it to mend the Broken Statue into the Gold Statue, place it on the altar on a small island in the vast ocean to calm the Angry Sea and allow you to move to the next area (yes, I know if you haven’t played the game the particulars of that mean nothing to you, don’t worry about it, I was just trying to make the “old-school action RPG” point). Lots and lots and lots of grinding for levels. And so on.
So what makes it stand out? That it was a pioneer of the genre? While that certainly is true, the fact that it came early isn’t sufficient to explain its appeal. Its story was surprisingly deep for an NES game . . . and therefore, even more cryptic than usual for a game of the time.
The instruction manual basically tells us there was a Great War and some kind of technological upheaval that destroyed the world a hundred years ago, and since then what people survived have relied more on “sorcery and magic”, though I suppose a lot of the “magic” in the game can be argued to be psychic powers. In any case, a powerful magician named Draygon researched the forbidden ways of science and combined it with his magic to build a powerful empire. The manual says he “created a computer capable of simulating his magic powers [and] placed it in a floating, fortified tower.” From there, he began to spread his control across the land.
The other magicians tried to combat Draygon’s spreading evil by creating four elemental swords that, combined into the sword Crystalis, could hope to defeat him. Soon after, Draygon took the swords and stripped the magicians of much of their power. He was unable to destroy the swords, so he scattered them, knowing they were only a threat if they were brought together to make Crystalis.
Desperate to find a way to defeat Draygon, the magicians scoured the writings of the Great War. They found that the greatest magician of all time was still alive, but asleep and imprisoned. The evil forces of the Great War had hoped to make use of his power after the war was over. The immense task of waking the great magician– a mere boy, it turned out– took all of the magicians’ remaining power. When the boy awoke, his mind was a complete blank, and he was alone to find his destiny in this strange new world.
. . . so the instruction manual says, anyway. The game itself does things a bit differently.
If you don’t press start right away, the game tells you a few things. “1997, October 1, The END DAY.” Is that a Terminator reference? Not the same Judgement Day, but . . . ominous. Anyway, the game goes on to inform you that “Savage war engulfs the world. Civilization is destroyed. An evolution had taken place. The earth’s axis had shifted and all creatures became mutated. Life would never be the same. Those surviving vowed not to repeat their mistakes of the past and erected a great tower in the sky. To oppress evil forever . . .”
So, did Draygon make this tower? Find it? If he did find it and just place his computer in it, what was the tower for? Oppressing evil forever . . . how does one do that from or with a floating tower?
Well, in the course of the game you’ll find some answers. Not of all them will line up or make any sense, but the game tries pretty hard to give you something to think about. The game goes on to confirm that a hundred years have passed and the Earth is full of mutants. People have rebuilt, but they fear the return of evil and remember the floating tower and the “consequences once activation had begun.” If evil emerges, what will they do? Apparently, there is still one hope . . .
And then the hero wakes up in a very obviously technological cryopod of some kind and stumbles out of the cave it’s in. The townspeople say they expected you, give you a sword, some money, and some hints about what to do next, and off you go! It’s very Zelda that way. Well, Link only got a sword, I suppose our hero here gets a bit more than that.
I relayed in detail what both the game and the instructional manual say about the plot to illustrate a telling point. Normally, the story you get in an NES instruction manual and the actual game localization don’t line up that well. Yes, the game doesn’t give you as much information up front– if you didn’t read the manual you have no idea who Draygon is, no idea why these magicians woke you up or who they were, and no information about elemental swords. You’re just in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world with a high tech floating tower that does . . . something bad if you turn it on? But the points that the game and the manual share don’t contradict each other, which in my experience of NES games is unusual.
So the opening story isn’t confusing, but don’t worry, there’s plenty of confusing stuff coming; they save it for the plot reveals in-game. Which I’ll try not to spoil for you, because I want to preserve some hope that, old school and dated though it is, you might want to give Crystalis a try if you haven’t played it. Some of the confusion may be because of not-so-great localization. Possible. But I honestly think some of it comes from the fact that the writers of this tiny NES game were actually trying to tell a compelling story with high stakes, consequences, weighty themes, and intriguing characters. To be perfectly honest with you, when the game gets to the big plot twists near the end, I’m still not entirely sure what exactly happened or what the writers were going for.
I won’t spoil things too much, but the scene that stands out in my mind, over twenty-five years later, is a vivid memory. There’s a certain tragic event that happens when you’re getting close to the end of the game. You’re just starting a dungeon when you receive a telepathic plea for help from an ally. A city resisting Draygon is under attack. By the time you get there, it’s too late. The entire city has been decimated by the enemy. The town is littered with the bodies of the dead, including NPCs that have guided you throughout the entire game. I was nine years old when I first played this game, and let me tell you, it was chilling. My sister and I searched in every house for survivors, in total silence. Normally we read the parts for the characters, but here there was almost nothing to read except, “He is already dead.”
So the plot for Crystalis is at the very least, thought-provoking, if quite cryptic at times. How’s the gameplay? A YouTube reviewer named stanburdman called it “Fallout meets The Legend of Zelda,” though he points out the game isn’t nearly as dark as Fallout. The mighty LordKat of Until We Win (yes, this game is hard enough for LordKat to have taken a stab at it) describes Crystalis as an early Skyrim, where much of the fun is based on exploration and discovery.
They’re both right. For example, Crystalis is one of those games where you have to do things in order, or more specifically, a certain way. If you try to get ahead by going somewhere your common sense dictates you should before you buy the widget you need or before you talk to a certain person, critical plot NPCs just won’t be there. It’s also pretty unforgiving in difficulty. Certain enemies are completely immune to certain elements, and bosses cannot be harmed unless you have achieved a certain experience level. Should you play this game, as LordKat says, you will die. A lot.
Not gonna lie, my sister and I broke out the Game Genie as kids to beat this one. We didn’t go too crazy with the cheat codes, just infinite MP and immunity to the wretched curse status (which is very difficult and expensive to fix). But we were nine and this game was hard.
It was also super fun. Even with the cheat codes this game took thought and skill to play, and you were enticed to keep playing by the deepest and most heartstring-plucking plot we had ever seen in a video game at the time. It was colorful and full of interesting characters, and while there were a lot of fetch quests, there was also a lot of getting to know people and helping people, things to do that felt rewarding and heroic.
If you do know something about this game, you may notice I haven’t talked about the remake of the game that came out for the Game Boy Color in 2000. Well, I haven’t played it, but everything I’ve read about it urges me to warn you not to play it, and especially not to play it before you play or see the original. Apparently they made significant (and inferior) plot changes, and completely changed the music, which in my mind is a travesty. The music for this game was fantastic.
By the way, I learned about a few neat references in Crystalis while researching this article. I’ve never seen the Hayao Miyazaki anime Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, but apparently the game art is influenced by it, including the giant insect boss in the swamp. Leaf, the town you start in, is apparently also a reference to Nausicaä.
Also, SNK references its own games a lot in Crystalis. For example, two of the sages that guide the hero of the game are named Kensu and Asina, and they are based on Sie Kensou and Athena Asamiya of an arcade game called Psycho Soldier that came out in America three years earlier. I’ve never played that, but I have played some King of Fighters, a rather more popular SNK game which came out after Crystalis, where Kensou and Athena are also characters. Kensou is well-known for his obsession with Athena, which apparently happened earlier with Kensu having a thing for Asina in Crystalis. Also, two village elders in Crystalis are named Ralph (Ralf) and Clark, named for characters in an SNK game called Ikari Warriors who also go on to be characters in King of Fighters. Apparently the Psycho Armor and Shield are also a reference to Psycho Soldier, which clears up a mystery for me. Those are the ultimate armors in Crystalis, and the names always seemed wildly out of place with all the other armor names, which were much more pedestrian.
The takeaway here, trivia aside, is that Crystalis is a game of surprising depth, lovely visuals, memorable music, and challenging difficulty. It is an often overlooked gem among NES action RPGs, and I am certainly not the first to say so. When I wrote about Conquest of the Crystal Palace, the memories made me smile. Having written about Crystalis, I am instead itching to dig out the old NES . . . and probably the Game Genie. Hey, no judgement zone, I have a toddler, I don’t have patience to spare!
Should you wish to play Crystalis, may I recommend LordKat’s excellent videos about the game to give you some helpful tips. The spoilers don’t begin until 17:40 in the second part of the review, and he warns you, so don’t worry. He recommended the maps on StrategyWiki to help you get through the game, as do I; this game has some very large and confusing dungeons, you’ll need those maps. Other than that, I urge you to find and play Crystalis if you can– the 1990 version! If you like old school action RPGs, I think you’ll love this game.
Crystalis, Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crystalis
Crystalis Instruction Manual: http://www.thegameisafootarcade.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Crystalis-Game-Manual.pdf
Crystalis – [NES] – Gameplay (Part I): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yvh6MHkaRno
The Best Video Games EVER! – Crystalis Review (Nintendo RPG): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4DYRypg9AH4
Until We Win – Crystalis [1/2]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etDFG-GFIdo
Until We Win – Crystalis [2/2]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MtjJCgwZGMo
Crystalis, StrategyWiki: https://strategywiki.org/wiki/Crystalis
Crystalis, TvTropes: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/VideoGame/Crystalis
Crystalis, SNKWiki: http://snk.wikia.com/wiki/Crystalis
Psycho Soldier, Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psycho_Soldier
Featured Image: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/qd1L8HkRqyk/maxresdefault.jpg