“In nuclear war all men are cremated equal.”
Ironic a game called Crystalis would be a hidden gem. Known in Japan originally as God Slayer: Sonata of the Far Away Sky in 1989, this NES action RPG of 1990 is a remarkable mash-up of Studio Ghibli’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and the first The Legend of Zelda.
In fact, it fits the bill of what we commonly think comprises a Zelda game so well that it should have been the second Zelda game rather than The Adventure of Link. Despite it nailing the highly successful Zelda format, and with only two Zelda games in existence when Crystalis was released, Crystalis itself is a largely forgotten and underrated game. It was later re-released on the Game Boy Color with drastic changes to it, such that it’s practically a different story.
SNK took the basic setting of Nausicaä and the gameplay of The Legend of Zelda to craft this unknown classic. It’s a match made in anime/video game heaven but was it a worthy result?
Crystalis is set 100 years after the events of a cataclysmic war, set October 1st (which just so happens to be my anniversary), 1997: the End Day. This echoes the Seven Days of Fire from Nausicaä.
Crystalis’ post-apocalyptic world saw the downfall of human civilization and a kind of devolution back into more primitive, kind of Dark Ages society. As the Earth’s axis tilted, bizarre biological mutations were triggered. Survivors created a protective monument: a tower in the sky (Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky?). The tower contains enough firepower to dissuade warfare or to destroy the world. This basic premise is told through an opening title sequence:
The game begins with a young man awakening from some kind of mysterious machine, a kind of chrysalis. (spoiler: highlight to reveal) He is a scientist from the world before the war who helped create the tower, preserved in a cryogenic slumber until the day the tower would be activated. When the tower’s cycle began and he awoke, the scientist would be tasked with judging whether there’s hope or not for the future human race, what’s left of it. The nameless man has no memory of his origins but must seek the guidance of four sages as a new threat has arisen in the Draygonia Empire, which has revived the horrors of science and fused them with magic in an effort to control the tower in the sky. The man receives the magical Sword of Wind from Mesia, a survivor from his time. His quest is to forge the legendary sword, Crystalis, by combining the four elemental blades of wind, fire, water and thunder.
The gameplay of Crystalis is surprisingly enjoyable considering how early of an action-RPG it is. It’s fast paced. Gaining experience and even farming is made more tolerable. But the delight of it is due in large part to how it emulates the free-roaming exploration of The Legend of Zelda, set in a top-down perspective. A large array of items, shields, swords, armor, and talismans can be gained throughout the game alongside magical spells that must be learned in order to progress. The number of these collectibles means the gameplay of Crystalis has much variety to it.
The spells are creative. Rather than just being different elemental attacks, there are spells like Recover for healing, Telepathy to communicate with the sages, or Change for shapeshifting. The items too are diverse and have several different uses such as allowing jumps, breathing toxic air, or raising stats.
With each of the four Swords in the game, modifying items can be obtained that tap into the inner power of the blades. A ball or bracelet particular to an elemental weapon (ex: the Sword of Wind gets the Ball of Wind and later the Tornado Bracelet) allows you to charge up the Sword and shoot out different projectiles. Enemies throughout the game have different elemental weaknesses and resistances, meaning you’ll have to switch your weapon and equipment configuration around in order to make it through any of the many, many labyrinthine mazes in the game.
Mechanics like an array of weapon/item combinations, free-roaming, top-down perspective gameplay, as well as gaining experience push the Zelda-esque format to a whole new level before Zelda had even found its legs. This is the direction that the Zelda franchise could have taken instead of its misstep with Zelda II. A missed opportunity, Nintendo. This is a Zelda RPG.
Solving the game’s puzzles and conquering its hordes and dungeons is quite the task. I was surprised at how long and how involved Crystalis actually is in terms of both its gameplay and story. This really deserves a true remake. The atrocious high fantasy cover art specifically is in need of a facelift:
The 8-Bit Review
Crystalis possesses a sense of cinema and pacing and dynamism that was missing from most role-playing stories of the time. Telling its story in a few brief and evocative images was an excellent decision. These were some great graphics considering Crystalis appeared in the 8-bit era on the NES, and then it was still several years before the end of that system’s lifespan when its most advanced games appeared. We can expect games like Kirby’s Adventure that was released late in the NES lifespan to be among the most visually impressive. Crystalis came three years prior to Kirby’s Adventure and it holds a bit of a candle at the very least. Of course its best graphics are reserved for cutscenes and not dungeon crawling or talking with NPCs in villages, and unfortunately the game does suffer quite a bit from typical 8-bit flickering and slow-down. Especially when fighting bosses. Still, given its early appearance, its visual achievements stand resolute.
While the graphics of Crystalis can be praised, there isn’t too much to like in the music department. I’ve literally posted three of the handful of good songs from this soundtrack and even as Crystalis “borrowed” from Ghibli and Zelda, these tracks seem as if they’re lifted directly from Mega Man with their fast “jogging” rhythm and harmonics.
Enjoy these because most of the other tracks are senseless and repetitive noises. The dungeon songs are particularly annoying, like bad circus music, and they loop horrifically. Then you realize this is a very limited soundtrack. This is extremely counterproductive to enjoying the slew of other enjoyable things in Crystalis, considering how long of an NES RPG it is.
Crystalis excels in taking the Zelda format and running away with it, adding more items and equipment and spells to the mix than the first two Zelda games combined. The protagonist has a massive wealth of attacking techniques available to him late in the game, what with the various elemental Swords and their multiple modes of attack. Unfortunately, it’s the emphasis on the elemental nature of the four Swords that makes for the biggest downfall in Crystalis’ gameplay. Namely that you have to keep switching between Swords to attack different enemies.
Doesn’t sound too bad until you realize that you’ll run into a bunch of enemies in the same hallway, with half of them weak to wind and resistant to fire, and the other half weak to fire and resistant to wind. You can’t kill all of them with the Sword of Wind, nor can you with the Sword of Fire. Once one or two are down, you have to open your start menu and switch not just Swords but they’re respective Balls or Bracelets, slowing down the otherwise hurried action. Crystalis could’ve benefited from a simpler, single-button weapon-switching mechanic. Then you remember that the original NES controller only had eight buttons and four of them were solely for movement. I understand this was alleviated in the Game Boy Color version but it came at the cost of meddling with the storyline.
One of the many redeeming factors for Crystalis’ gameplay is its emphasis on exploration. The dungeons are all quite large and complex, easy to get lost in, and there are several areas and villages to reach, many of which are off the beaten path. By the end of the game you can backtrack to many different places and even continue to discover more.
Post-apocalyptic settings were not as prevalent in RPGs around this time. Crystalis is mostly typical fantasy thoroughfare except the plot extends beyond mere good versus evil and literally places the fate of the human race into the protagonist’s hands once he ascends the tower. The reveal there answers several questions of the game and the nature of the tower comes as a surprise. (spoiler: highlight to reveal) The tower was created to judge humanity on whether it progressed beyond the evil that caused the wars in its past and the decision of whether our race survives or needs to be put down is placed in the hands of the protagonist. A complicated, lengthy and thematic story like this one was not a common sight on consoles in this era. Though it borrows so many beats from other predecessors, it doesn’t do so in vain. Crystalis is no mere bandwagon jumper. It has its own story to weave.
As I understand it, the Game Boy Color version severely undermines the story by changing things around to make it a clichéd technology = bad, magic/naturalism = good. That’s tragic because the original Crystalis isn’t so cut and dry. The tower in the sky is more than just a superweapon to be abused by the Emperor, like a fantastical Deathstar. It’s a symbol of righteous judgment. Play the NES version. The original is usually better.
With so many different items and spells and attacks, Crystalis can be a headache of an RPG. It isn’t easy to get into and there is no early tension in the storyline as the mystery takes its time to unfold. Information is also scarce in the game. Towns are infrequent and villagers aren’t the most helpful. Even the sages, for all their platitudes, aren’t the best guides when you’re stuck or lost or forgot where you’re supposed to go. One such moment in the game requires you to find an item a man said he dropped, and you find it by wandering around aimlessly until you happen to step in the right spot beside the riverbank in a bunch of tall grass. Further, new items aren’t entirely explained to you so some of their uses mystify until you discover them through trial and error. Crystalis is a game that’s truly for the adventurous and the observant.
It’s also a game that’s pretty hard. Enemies cause a lot of damage. Bosses are also very dangerous, throwing around tons of projectiles and dashing across the screen. Your character moves quick and has the agility to dodge attacks, so it’s easy to learn combat but hard to master it, but he only has a bit of HP at the start and it goes up quicker than a house of straw in a wildfire if you aren’t careful. Farming for experience is a bit of a necessity to get through certain portions of the game, ensuring you’re prepared. In fact, I found out I couldn’t even damage this one boss since I wasn’t even a high enough level yet! Instant death sentence.
How is Crystalis, essentially a Zelda game directed by Miyazaki with music from Mega Man, unique at all? Because it combines those elements with success. It’s more than just another Zelda clone. It’s an action-RPG that can stand on its own two feet and oust the other NES Zelda games with flourish and flair.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
Beating Crystalis was hard but worth it. NES RPG’s are kind of tough to sit through. I mean I love me some 8-bit graphics and aesthetics and all, but let’s face it: we’re all spoiled by these new-fangled RPG’s of the modern age what with auto-save features and intuitive controls and voice acting. However, Crystalis was undeniably ahead of its time. A chrysalis with something precious inside. Only hardware limitations held it back. As it stands, the game is an incredible example of what could be accomplished on the NES and it’s one of the more enjoyable early action-RPG’s. Worth your time? Mm, maybe. If you want accessible, nonchalant, easy gameplay, look elsewhere. If you’re interested in retro gaming and exploring the history and development of the genres and video game storytelling, then you cannot miss this hidden gem.
Aggregated Score: 7.0
Did you enjoy this post? Consider becoming a Warrior of Light and join us in restoring integrity and quality to entertainment journalism. We specialize in long-form, analytical reviews and we aim to expand into a podcast and webzine with paid contributors! See our Patreon page for more info!