Crystalis
  • Genre:
    • Action RPG
  • Developers:
    • SNK (NES)
    • Nintendo Software Technology (GBC)
  • Publishers:
    • SNK (NES)
    • Nintendo (GBC)
  • Released:
    NES
    • JP 04/13/1990
    • US July 1990
    GBC
    • US 06/26/2000
Score: 85%

This review was published on 02/14/2017.

Crystalis, known in Japan as God Slayer: Haruka Tenku no Sonata, which roughly translates to "Sonata of the Far Away Skies," is an overhead action role-playing game developed and published by SNK for the Nintendo Entertainment System and Famicom. It was originally released in Japan on April 13, 1990, and North America in July 1990. Nintendo Software Technology later developed a slightly altered port of the game for the Game Boy Color, which was published by Nintendo in North America on June 26, 2000. Since Crystalis was originally released a little late into the NES' existence, it wasn't too popular. It was fairly well received among gaming publications of the time, but never managed to elevate itself above obscure status. That's sad, because this is easily one of the best games on the NES. Nowadays, however, Crystalis has a cult following, so it did eventually get some of the recognition it rightfully deserves.

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According to the game's gorgeous intro sequence, the world became engulfed in a massive war in the incredibly distant future of 1997. Well, it was somewhat of a distant future back when the game came out. Anyway, the war ended with the total destruction of civilization and the near extinction of mankind. This war was so catastrophic that it tilted the axis of the Earth, resulting in all the creatures on the planet becoming horribly mutated. The survivors of this devastating conflict vowed not to repeat the same mistakes, and erected a floating tower in the sky armed with powerful weaponry to protect the world from future cataclysms. 100 years later, humanity managed to rebuild itself, but most forms of advanced technology have been forgotten and replaced with magic. However, evil has also returned in the form of the Draygonia Empire. Led by a man known as Emperor Draygon, the Draygonia Empire is attempting to enter the tower to conquer the world. Someone must find the four elemental swords to forge the ultimate weapon, Crystalis, in order to defeat the Draygonia Empire.

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Once you get into the game proper, you're greeted by a computer that asks for your name. After inputting a name, your character wakes up from a 100 year long cryogenic sleep with no memory of his past, signaling the start of your journey. Initially, the game will look like a graphically improved version of the original The Legend of Zelda on the NES, what with its overhead view and sword bearing hero. You even get your first sword from an old man, though this happens inside a village and not a cave. However, the game plays far more smoothly, allowing for free movement in all eight directions using the d-pad on the controller. Pressing the B button allows you to attack with your sword in one of the four cardinal directions, and you can even attack while moving. Not many games let you do that, but it's rather nice. This combined with the fact that you walk pretty fast gives the game a far faster pace than Zelda.

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The most prominent feature of Crystalis is the fact that you can shoot magical projectiles out of your sword based on its element. Unlike the sword beams from Zelda, you don't have to be at full health to do this. All you have to do is hold the B button for a few seconds to charge up the meter at the bottom of your screen, then let go once it's fully charged. The only stipulation, other than having an elemental sword equipped, is that you must stand still in order to charge up power. Nearly all the elemental swords start out with the same basic projectile attack, but wearing special accessories allows them to charge up to higher levels to do different attacks. The third and final charge level for each elemental sword generally does a bigger magical attack that hits large portions of the screen, but these cost MP to use. Additionally, some enemies are immune to certain elemental swords. Acquiring new elemental swords is integral to progress, as they can destroy certain walls, or in the case of the water sword, freeze some rivers. This makes the prospect of obtaining new elemental swords quite exciting.

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This game is a bit closer to the Ys series than Zelda, as it has a slew of lightweight RPG elements. For one thing, you gain experience points when killing enemies, and getting enough will cause you to level up, increasing your stats. Your stats are HP, MP, Attack, and Defense, all of which may increase when leveling up. The maximum level is sixteen, which is totally reachable by the end of the game. That's good, because it puts a hard limit on how much grinding can be done in the game, so you'll never have to grind too much. A little grinding here and there is certainly necessary, though, because the game does get quite hard during certain parts. Even when at level sixteen, the last bits of the game are rather tough.

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Another RPG element this game has going for it is equipment. On top of the different swords, you can equip different armor, shields, and accessories. Most of these are bought at shops in various villages, with later towns having better gear. Besides increasing your defense, armor and shields occasionally have other passive effects, such as resisting status ailments like poison, paralysis, and petrification. There's even armor that slowly regenerates your HP when standing still, furthering the Ys comparisons. Then there are items that can be equipped in the menu and used with the B button, most of which are consumables, like medical herbs to replenish some HP, rings that restore MP, antidotes to cure poison, and so on. You can only carry eight consumables at a time, which helps balance things a bit. Some non-consumable items can be worn as accessories to bestow passive effects, however, like a ring that doubles your attack power, a necklace that doubles your defense, and a pendant that gradually restores MP while standing still. The equipment and item system is simple, yet there's enough depth there to keep things interesting.

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In addition to the items and weapons at your disposal, you also learn magic. Magic is equipped in the menu and used by pressing the A button. Unlike consumable items, however, you don't lose a spell upon using it, though casting spells certainly saps varying amounts of your MP. The spells do various things, like heal your HP, cure various status ailments, erect a barrier to protect you from harm, telepathically communicate with the four wise men that guide you on your quest, transform into other people, and even teleport you to previously visited towns. That last one is easily one of the most useful spells, as it replicates the function of the warp boots, which are consumable items that must be bought at shops. Like everything else in the game, the magic system is extremely simple, but that works to its credit, as it's very intuitive and doesn't slow down the game's pacing.

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Exploration involves towns, the dangerous outdoors, and dungeon-like areas that typically consist of caves. For a simplistic action RPG, there are quite a few towns in this game. The towns are what you'd expect, having friendly folk to converse with, shops, and the like. There's no over world map or anything; exiting a town simply transitions to other screens, and everything is visually consistent. Obviously, the outdoor areas beyond towns have enemies roaming about, and they usually connect to other areas like caves and such. Things start off fairly linear, but the game opens up a bit later. Unlike Zelda, there are no real puzzles, so the focus is entirely on fighting enemies, bosses, and navigation. You usually need to find a key item to advance the game, some of which merely exist for plot purposes, but others serve practical functions, like the gasmask to survive in the poisonous forest. If you ever get stuck, you can use the aforementioned telepathy spell to figure out where to go next. One nice thing is that you can always go back to previous locations, except for when you reach the final area. You can also save your game nearly anywhere, which is convenient.

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While they're mostly the same game, there are quite a few differences between the NES and Game Boy Color versions of Crystalis. The most immediate difference is the reduced resolution, which is obviously due to Game Boy Color being a portable. Secondly, the soundtrack has been almost completely redone, and it's considerably worse than the NES original. Thirdly, the plot was slightly altered, and there are some new cut scenes, but the artwork for them is atrocious. Not all of the changes are negative, however. For instance, enemies are no longer immune to certain swords in the Game Boy Color version, saving you the hassle of constantly entering the menu to switch swords. The ending portion of the game has also been extended with an extra dungeon, and the last few bosses had their places swapped. However, even with these improvements, the Game Boy Color version is still mostly inferior to the NES original. In particular, the reduced resolution makes the game even harder than it already is.

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You should play Crystalis. It's one of the best games on the NES and a remarkable example of the action RPG genre. All the kind of mechanics you'd expect out of an RPG are here, like leveling up, equipment, items, and magic, but everything is simple enough so as to not detract from the action part of the game. Despite all the RPG conventions, micromanagement is kept to a minimum, allowing the game to maintain its fast pace all throughout the adventure. Also, being able to charge up and shoot magical projectiles out of your elemental swords is pretty fun. It almost adds a slight Mega Man vibe to the game, like you're playing a Mega Man action RPG or something. Aside from its extreme difficulty at certain junctures, Crystalis is exactly what an action RPG should strive to be.

Word Count: 1,699

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