Crystalis (NES) Review

Click here if you wish to view the Crystalis description page for screenshots, save files and more information.

Review by tankMage (February 2016) 

Score: A-

    I first became aware of Crystalis in the early nineties after reading about it in Nintendo Power Magazine. For the most part, it was lauded for its quality and I very much wanted to play it. Unfortunately, I did not locate a copy until 2000. To make matters worse, my NES gave up the ghost a few days after I acquired the game, leaving me without any means of playing it. Years past and I had forgotten about this gem until now. This title excels in nearly every category and could have managed a higher score if not for a few problems. Regardless of its minor shortcomings, Crystalis is one of the best NES games I have ever played. Let’s take a look at why…

Graphics

There are better looking NES games, but not very many. This game is colorful and lively looking and the developers threw in a lot of nice details as well. My favorite graphical features are by far those associated with the swords. While each sword does not have a unique sprite, their magic spells do. There are four swords in the game, each with three unique spells that have their own look (granted, some of the level 1 spells look like palette swaps). Some of the effects for these spells, especially the thunder sword, are impressive as NES graphics go. There is also a wide variety of NPC and monster sprites. Monster death animations even change depending on what sword you use. This game also boasts some cool looking areas like the swamp, which was inspired by a famous anime, Nausicaa and the Valley of Wind. Crystalis’ graphics aren’t perfect, though. There’s a lot of caves, which get repetitive, and the magic spell animations for things like refresh, telepathy, and flight are either very simple or non-existent. With that in mind these issues were more due to limitations imposed on memory size by NES cartridges than laziness on the part of the devs.

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Story

This game’s story is fairly decent even by today’s standards, though it lacks in detail. In general, I can figure out a game’s plot after a few minutes of playing, but Crystalis managed to pleasantly surprise me. As good as the story is, it’s held back a bit by translation issues and there’s not much character development, but the setting and concept are excellent. I cannot say much more without ruining the surprise.

User Interface

I wandered around this area for a while before I figured out how to use the boots.
I wandered around this area for a while before I figured out how to use the boots.

    Crystalis struggles in this department and it is the primary reason the game didn’t score higher. The actual gameplay control is clean and responsive, the problem with this game is its poor menu layout. In order to  change weapons or use an item (which you will do frequently), the player must hit select and navigate one of two pages. In itself this is not bad, but to change swords not only do you need to equip the blade, but also an orb or bracelet that corresponds to the weapon which you should equip as well. You will need to switch weapons constantly to pass obstacles and fight enemies that resist certain swords. Having to do this every few seconds or so breaks the momentum of gameplay and I can’t help but, think SNK could have handled this better. Another issue is that you cannot use certain items if you have a spell equipped. This would only be a minor issue except for the fact that the game fails to explain how to use such items. As a result I got stuck for sometime, because I did not know that I had to unequip my spell to use a special pair of boots to jump up a ramp.

Finally, the save/load interface is a mess. In order to save or load your game, you must hit “select” then “start”. This can be difficult to figure out if you don’t have a manual. SNK made an odd choice with the continue feature as well: upon selecting the continue feature (if you turned your console off) the main character is spawned at the beginning point of the game. This scared the hell out me the first time I restarted, because I thought the save was corrupt. Turns out hitting select and start allows you to load your save after you spawn. I’m baffled as to why SNK did this instead of just allowing the player to load directly from the start screen.

Music

    This game’s music is adequate and pleasant. Crystalis seemed to borrow a few sound effects from other games (like the fire ball sound from Super Marois Bros.), but at least they made good use of them. Aside from that it did not really make an impression on me and is rather forgettable.

Gameplay

    An action RPG with Zelda elements as well as the beginnings of the hack and slash genre? Yes please. Crystalis features a style of gameplay that I love (I spent many years playing games like Diablo, Secret of Mana, and the PS2 Baldur’s Gate games). Your character finds new items and abilities as well as gaining raw strength through level ups, but the action elements require the player to use some skill to defeat monsters and stay alive. This game even reminds me of Mega Man in some ways, because many boss fights require you to find out what sword will damage your foe.

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    While Crystalis does have an experience system, the grinding required to advance is fairly light compared to other NES role playing games. The only sections of the game that really require much grinding are the very beginning, where enemies give you very little experience and near the end where you will have to be at a relatively high level to damage some of the bosses. There were also a variety of interesting areas to explore (a few of which were inspired by movies) and enemies to fight. Palette swapping was done sparingly with mobs, which was refreshing after coming from a number of games that had extremely repetitive monsters.

Exploring the game and finding spells, items, and weapons as well as uncovering a surprisingly well done plot was fun, but there were a few problems with the gameplay. While I liked the fact that bosses were immune to certain swords, common enemies boasted immunities as well. In a game where you could not quickly cycle through weapons, this became a minor liability (minor, because you could just run from most monsters anyway). There were also a lot of caves in the game and I tired of trekking through them. To make matters worse, everything looked the same in the caves and you either need a good memory, guide book, or a handmade map to avoid getting hopelessly lost. Finally, some of the puzzles were a bit cryptic and it could be a pain to figure out where to go next.

All in all, Crystalis’ core game play is great and even its flaws only hurt it slightly.

Final Thoughts

I waited twenty years to play this game and was it worth it. Crystalis rivals some of the major NES classics like LoZ and demonstrates just what could be done on an 8-bit console with some imagination and elbow grease.

Recommendations

Who should play this? Anyone who likes 8-bit gaming. The only people I would advise to avoid this game are those that absolutely hate RPGs and/or running around mazes.

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