Review by UltimaterializerX
You have no idea what you missed if you've never played this.
By many accounts, The Legend of Zelda for the Nintendo is the one game that most deserves to be called "perfect". And it was. Miyamoto designed a game about his dreams of childhood outdoor adventure, and captured his own imagination perfectly. Just a little kid having fun outdoors, saving the world, exploring some caves and having a good time. Now imagine Zelda 1 with graphics, a plot and some wicked gameplay. You end up with Crystalis, arguably the best 2D game ever made. Seriously.
When you think SNK, some fighting game is probably the first thing that comes to mind. In reality, their best game was some overhead 2D cult classic from 1990. The story of Crystalis is simple, but it works. 100 years before the game starts, a massive nuclear war reduced the world to a pretty horrible state. Science is all but dead, freakish mutants are terrorizing the countryside and magic reigns supreme. The few survivors of the cataclysm built a huge, scientific floating tower as a failsafe. Should the world ever act like idiots and start another world war, the tower would activate and basically nuke the entire planet and every living thing on it. No pressure to get along or anything, folks.
Of course, one guy manages to combine magic with the forbidden lost science, and he uses this power to become emperor of the world's last remaining military institution. It isn't long before Emperor Draygon and his Draygonian Empire are lighting up suckers, knocking out chumps, smoking fools and talking noise about it. These guys are ruthless. People are constantly kidnapped from their homes to serve as slaves (or worse), and they rule the world with no regards for consequence or punishment. What is a poor, weak populace going to do? Draygon's goal is to literally sit on an ivory tower and rule the world. He's strong enough to get onto it, nuke the planet and laugh his eternal life away from on high. By the way if you haven't figured out the big plot twist behind this guy by now, you haven't played very many video games.
This is where you come into play. You conveniently awake from a cryogenic stasis as the tower begins activating, the purpose of which isn't at all obvious. As you slowly wake up and barely remember your own name, you're handed a Sword of Wind by the local village elder and told to go save the world. No pressure, bud. But since you're a total beast decked out in your pink armor, you begin this task without asking any questions. Armed with only a weak little sword, you the hero will save the world from an evil empire. This is not at all a common storyline and might never show up again ever.
Obviously the plot is cliche and overdone, but we're here to get our gameplay on. Crystalis is heavily influenced by The Legend of Zelda, but does everything better. Almost all the gameplay takes place from an overhead 2D view, without the constraints of one screen at a time. Crystalis's areas are wide open and atmospheric, and before you kill your first monster you'll fall in love with this game's soundtrack. This game has by far the best soundtrack on the NES. Even if you've never played the game, you've assuredly had a friend tell you how awesome the overworld theme is.
Your 2D overhead fun will mostly be had with a series of swords, items and spells. Throughout the game you'll get four swords of the four basic elements -- wind, fire, ice and thunder -- and each sword has 3 levels of magic that can be cast on top of your basic poke jobs. As you hold down the attack button, the sword will power up and unleash holy hell. Level 3 spells pretty much break the game, and require equipping a special bracelet and a magic meter to use.
Beyond the basic weapons, there is a ton of side stuff to play around with. You'll get a host of armor and shields with special properties, consumable items, plot items, sidequest items, and eventually you'll get 8 very interesting spells to play around with. The spells pull from the same magic meter as your sword's level 3 spells, so there's a real sense of balance about what to use and when. There's no shortage of interesting ways to kill the hundreds of enemies you'll come across, and all of it is done with one button. No fancy-pants crap to worry about, which is surprising given how SNK's fighting games were made.
Where Crystalis truly shines is in all the intangibles. The same is just freaking fun to play, and has so many little doodads strewn about in it. There's an armor late in the game that replenishes your health if you stand still, and a necklace that does the same for magic. There's a bracelet you get at the tail end of the game that lets you spam level 1 sword spells without charging them. Enemies are given immunities to certain elements, forcing you to do a lot more than spam attacks to win. Even that dinky slime from the beginning of the game will hulk up and crush you if you hit him with the wrong thing. There's even an item that lets you talk to animals, and more than a few very heartbreaking plot events. More than once, you'll go "Man, this is really deep for a game made in 1990".
Which says nothing of how nuts the atmosphere is. There's an amazonian village of all women, a noble water town, a two-faced fortune teller, swamps that slowly kill you, boots that let you fly over death spikes, bottomless pits, amazing boss fights against people you cannot wait to rip apart, detailed overworld maps, caves that make you really feel like you're lost in a cave, and so on and so forth. I could go on and on about every little thing that makes this game great, or you could just play it and see why for yourself. It's not like NES games aren't easily accessible these days.
With the boss fights in particular, they're no joke. Several of them can completely wreck you, and most of them have very specific weak points you have to exploit. Two bosses in particular are just completely ridiculous, which says nothing of the evil nonsense the penultimate guy comes up with. Crystalis really forces you think outside the box a lot, and even thrown in some random puzzles now and again. Why not? The final boss is more or less a joke, but the game throws you a bone just for making it that far. You'll deserve it by then.
Overall, Crystalis is just one of those games you have to beat if you want to call yourself a true gamer. You can really tell how much effort SNK put into making this, and it results in an absolutely outstanding game. It's perhaps the greatest game you've never heard of, and even if you're not a fan of action RPGs give it a try anyway. After you're thoroughly blown away, think of how great gaming would be if this and Zelda 1 swapped release dates.
Product Release: Crystalis (US, 07/31/90)
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