If you’re the type of person who reads reviews of old NES games, then you’ve certainly played The Legend of Zelda. Who knows? You may even be one of the discerning nerds who wishes the series had continued down the route of A Link to the Past instead of regressing into unplayable moribund sludge. Crystalis is a look at an alternate universe where the Zelda sequels went in a different direction.
Here’s something better:
Crystalis is a 1990 action-adventure Zelda playalike made by SNK. (Yes, the same people who made The King of Fighters series and tons of arcade games in the 1980s.) It was known in Japan by the needlessly provocative name of God Slayer: Sonata of the Far-Away Sky, and was bowdlerized as per Nintendo’s standard censorship practices. The Zelda comparison is obvious because it’s a bird’s-eye view of a guy stabbing his sword at monsters while collecting items to progress to new areas. And… it’s even better than the first Zelda!?
Crystalis’ story is about a mute purple-clad man who has been in cryogenic freeze for centuries and just now released by a computer that’s been monitoring him. He awakens from a hole in a mountain to a colorful but bleak world where people live primitive lives with Dark Ages technology and little magic. A generic evil empire in a floating tower is invading towns and kidnapping their citizens. All you know is that you have to stop them with the help of another cryo, a woman named Mesia. If made today, Crystalis would almost certainly have dull unskippable cutscenes with anime teenagers pouting for hours on end, but fortunately in 1990 we were mostly free of that curse and welcome to go ahead and kill more monsters at our leisure. But the plot serves its purpose as flavor and window dressing that you can appreciate if you feel like it; the plot had potential to be better and more detailed but there is fortunately no obligation to care about it if all you want is gameplay, and that is much appreciated.
Two characters from SNK’s early arcade games, (who are more famous for their later The King of Fighters versions) Athena Asamiya and Sie Kensou, show up in early cameos. They even factor into the plot, appearing as two of the four “wise men” you have to find to get spells to progress. This is akin to Nintendo’s early games meshing with each other, like Mario’s appearance as a referee in Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! or Super Mario Bros.’ piranha plants becoming the manhandla/pakkun in The Legend of Zelda.
Crystalis is a blast to play even though the hero’s weapons rank among Castlequest and Lagoon for the shortest swords in videogamedom. This sounds annoying but it actually works to the game’s benefit; it forces you to quickly size up your foes and position yourself properly when attacking. Your enemies hit hard and are relentless—especially the bosses—which will probably take you multiple attempts to defeat. You’ll be mashing buttons if you don’t have the extremely handy Joy2Key program, but there is absolutely more skill involved than there would be at first glance or what is visible from watching YouTube playthroughs.
Throughout the game you collect four elemental swords, each with their own properties and attacks. This is one of the things I like the best about Crystalis. The swords add variety and flavor, as you must use them wisely to damage foes to the greatest extent as well as apply the elemental attacks to destroy various barriers.
The selection of spells is a nice touch, too, though you’ll be using Refresh the majority of the time. There is a polymorph spell that you use to transform into various shapes to make people friendlier to you; there is a town of rabbit people and a town of women who won’t talk to you otherwise. There is a Flight spell, a Paralysis spell, and even a Teleport to make travel easier. This is a great deal of user-friendly functionality for a game of this time.
Crystalis is a beautiful game both visually and aurally. Though some of the levels are merely recolored caves, there is a great enough mixture to keep you enthralled. There is a portion that takes place in the sea while you ride on a dolphin’s back, a maroon fortress where twisted Anubis statues and demonic walls spit fire at you, and the final area, the heavily mechanical and robotic floating tower. I would love to see some of the concept art for Crystalis, if it even exists.
The music is some of the very catchiest to be found on the Nintendo Entertainment System. It ranks with Legacy of the Wizard, Faxanadu, and the Ys series as my favorites. Listen to the Scorched Desert theme; it gives the perfect impression of plodding through a deadly wasteland looking for water, even if you haven’t played the game to understand the context. That’s just plain good music design.
There are a couple things I didn’t like about Crystalis. The fact that it’s sometimes too vague about where you’re supposed to go next and you end up talking to everyone in every town until something happens plotwise (though it’s still quite a linear game). Items and spells being bound to the same button. The irritation of some enemies being immune to certain swords, forcing you to go through the menu to select another sword and orb/bracelet. (I would have liked the ability to press the select button and switch through them, personally.) You have to be a certain level to damage bosses at all, which you won’t know until you face them and hear the “clink” of your sword bouncing off their armor, forcing you to lose. However, these are all relatively minor complaints that do not detract significantly from a fantastic game.
Crystalis was ported to the Game Boy Color in 2000, but you should keep far away from that version. It has a lower resolution, a pointlessly changed story, and new (and inferior) music. Since you’ll be playing this on an emulator anyway, get the original NES version.
Crystalis is a brilliant and progressive work. You won’t believe that an NES game from 1990 can be this complex and still accessible. Pick up FCEU and go.
And what’s the best Zelda clone? You’ll have to wait and find out.