Crystalis Week: Things To Do

I don’t hesitate to call Crystalis the most rewarding game from the NES era. I never grow weary of replaying it and noticing something new each time. It’s fun just to mess with the game, and here’s how to mess with it most effectively.

Crystalis has a few interesting glitches and codes, including a warp trick that lets you jump to a dozen different locations in the game. Simply hold A and B simultaneously on controller one and then press A on controller two, and you’ll warp to a new area. This is useful in some ways, though you’ll often run into enemies beyond your level.

My favorite warp spot is an underground cave where the hero is stuck in the water. He’d normally have a dolphin to ride, but the warp trick plants him in the canal by himself and leaves him immobile. There’s nothing to do but listen to the gentle music and ponder life until you decide to warp somewhere else.

Crytalis Week: The Search for Crystalis 2

Any discussion of Crystalis and its unfairly short legacy brings up a question: Why didn’t SNK make another one? The answer is usually “Because SNK threw all their weight behind arcade games and Crystalis might not have been a huge seller anyway.” Even so, there’s some evidence that SNK might have at least considered another Crystalis.

The first news of SNK revisiting Crystalis apparently emerged in early issues of Gamefan. Other Stuff served as the magazine’s catch-all column for news, rumors, and outlandish speculation, much like EGM’s Quartermann. In Other Stuff one would see credible information printed alongside reports of Super Street Fighter II introducing 14 new characters or Mortal Kombat 3 declaring Baraka the winner of the previous tournament (THAT would have been daring). And it’s also here that we see mention of a Crystalis follow-up in Volume 1, Issue 3 of the magazine.

Gamefan describes a Neo Geo version of Crystalis as 100-meg action-RPG, due out the summer of 1993. It never materialized, of course, and neither did any screenshots for it. In the grand specious tradition of video-game rumors, most of Gamefan’s Neo Geo preview didn’t come to pass. Magician Lord 2 was a no-show, there’s no Champion Edition of Art of Fighting 2, and that World Heroes sequel has no revolutionary 3-D gameplay. A new Crystalis might have been just a fever dream, as real as that violent, profanity-filled Sonic the Hedgehog game described by the most hyperactive kid on the bus.

If the Neo Geo edition of Crystalis was just a rumor, it was a persistent one. Gamefan mentions it again in Volume 1, Issue 4, giving it a 200-meg size and a fourth-quarter 1993 release date. Six months later, Volume 1, Issue 10 is vaguer, merely stating that “talk of a Geo version of Crystalis continues to linger.” Of course, no screenshots were shown, and GameFan was the sort of magazine that would’ve run pics of a new Crystalis no matter how blurry they were.

Reports of a Crystalis follow-up did not end here, however. The January 1995 issue of Next Generation (and the Edge of the month before) runs down the latest news for the Neo Geo CD, a disc-based version of the Neo Geo. The article described “Krystalis” as an upcoming game that was “held back for the format.” Once again, no solid news or actual images of the game followed.

Even in rumors, the path of this new Crystalis makes sense. The original Neo Geo prioritized arcade games: shooters, action titles, and fighting games that came on arcade-exact cartridges for a few hundred bucks each. An action-RPG like Crystalis would be a hard sell in the arcades, even if it used the Neo Geo’s rarely exploited memory cards, and SNK wasn’t in the habit of making $200 games exclusively for the home. If a Crystalis revival existed, the cheaper format of the Neo Geo CD was a better choice. That was where SNK put its Samurai Spirits RPG, after all.

The Neo Geo CD also may explain why a Crystalis title never arrived there. The system was to be a cheaper version of the Neo Geo, but the CD drive’s long loading times and an overall busy marketplace made it a limited engagement. Only a handful of exclusive Neo Geo CD games came along, and by the end of the 1990s SNK dropped the system entirely, supporting only the cartridge-based Neo Geo.

One will note that the reports of a new Crystalis don’t call it Crystalis 2 or imply a direct sequel. This mystery game may well have been a remake of the NES original, which often seemed too ambitious for its hardware. SNK could have revisited it on the Neo Geo with gorgeous pixel art, no slowdown, more complex dungeons, bigger bosses, and, say, an extra mode where you play Mesia’s side of the story. She was hiding something.

Or perhaps it would’ve been a different game entirely. The original Crystalis wraps everything up neatly, but it could very handily support a spiritual successor, one with the same gameplay systems and capable progress but with no more narrative connections than Final Fantasy IV has with Final Fantasy XII.

SNK had a second opportunity to revamp Crystalis when the Neo Geo Pocket Color came along. The handheld invited single-player RPGs, and Crystalis could’ve fit the format well (SNK even greenlit an impressive Magician Lord sequel that, sadly, went unfinished). Unfortunately, Nintendo optioned the title for a Game Boy Color port, one that crunches the game into a small screen and erodes the appeal of its futuristic-medieval blend. The Neo Geo Pocket Color might’ve managed it better. For a taste of how an overhead action-RPG like Crystalis would fare on the handheld, try out Dark Arms: Beast Buster.

Did a Neo Geo version of Crystalis ever exist? Was it just a magazine rumor? Did SNK abandon it at the drawing boards? Did someone just confuse it with Crystal Legacy, an early title for Breakers? The lack of any screenshots is daunting, but all hope is not lost. In 2016, a collector uncovered an unreleased and incomplete Neo Geo fighter called Dragon’s Heaven (no, not THAT Dragon’s Heaven) never before shown in magazines. Perhaps someone will turn up an early version of Crystalis for the Neo Geo and prove all of those old rumors at least partly true. And then we can fight over it.

Crystalis Week: Counselor's Corner

Was Crystalis a big success? I would guess not. SNK never revisited it, and this was a company that gave Prehistoric Isle a follow-up. Crystalis might’ve gone without a sequel just because SNK emphasized arcade projects throughout the 1990s, but it’s true that the game wasn’t the biggest NES release of its day.

Perhaps kids like me were to blame. I certainly don’t remember Crystalis as a staple of grade-school Nintendo discussions; we never analyzed, debated, and fought over it as we might Super Mario Bros. 3 or Mega Man 2. Nor was it one of those games everyone owned but hated and never played, like The Adventures of Bayou Billy or Milon’s Secret Castle. Crystalis had a TV commercial and some favorable reviews, but as far as I could tell it didn’t break into the collective unconscious of young Nintendo nerds. I wouldn’t even buy it until it was twenty bucks at Kay-Bee.

I discovered Crystalis slowly and primarily through Nintendo Power. It wasn’t the initial coverage that hooked me. The magazine ran good-sized features for the game’s mid-1990 release, with gorgeous art possibly by Katsuya Terada, but I was much more interested in reading about Super Mario Bros. 3, Super C, The Mafat Conspiracy, Final Fantasy, Ninja Gaiden II, Rescue Rangers, Maniac Mansion, and that second Ninja Turtles game that looked like the arcade deal and was therefore much better than the first one.

Hmm. Maybe that’s why Crystalis didn’t do huge numbers: competition.

It was a different section of Nintendo Power that sold me on Crystalis: the Counselors’ Corner.

Nintendo’s game counselor hotline was a major cog in the company’s market dominance, and even those kids who didn’t call it very often still thought the counselors had the coolest job on the planet. Nintendo Power promulgated that idea with Counselors’ Corner, a monthly feature that covered some of the more difficult or commonplace questions put to the call center.

Crystalis was a regular here. Counselors’ Corner fielded questions about it for months on end, covering everything from getting the Psycho Shield to defeating two sun-and-moon lion statues with, unsurprisingly, the Bow of the Sun and the Bow of the Moon. The solutions gave away a lot of the game’s more perplexing puzzles, which might have ruined the challenge.

Yet the opposite was true: spoiling pieces of Crystalis made the whole of it more interesting.

As with all things in Nintendo Power, this was a calculated pitch. Nothing drew kids in like learning the deeper mysteries of a game, and nothing made us more confident than knowing how to beat a boss or uncover a secret in something we hadn’t so much as played yet. And for a complex game like Crystalis, the extracted tips hinted at a bigger world and even greater mysteries. Why would casting a paralysis spell on every patron of a bar reveal the sage Kensu, and why would he be angry? Well, we’d just have to play Crystalis and see.

Nintendo Power did its job even when pulling back the curtain, and I knew I wanted Crystalis by the time I saw it on the discount rack. I enjoyed it thoroughly even though I already knew how to beat the disguised Sabera and get past the giant metal guardian wall in Goa. They were tests for which I’d spent months studying, and passing them was all the more satisfying for that.

Would I have liked Crystalis even more if I’d gone in completely unaware? I don’t think so. You can’t really spoil a good story, and there’s nothing like knowing a little of what lies ahead, even if it’s just where to find the Psycho Shield.

Crystalis Week: The Miyazaki Connection

Crystalis gets ideas from many sources, but it most blatantly plunders Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky. That’s OK, since about half of the video games made in the early 1990s owe some inspiration to Hayao Miyazaki’s films. It’s easy to see where Crystalis found its post-apocalyptic jungles, its giant floating tower of destruction, and even the windy village in which the hero awakens.

There’s a long-running rumor about several games based on Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, that cherished post-apocalyptic epic about a princess befriending giant insects. As the rumor goes, these Nausicaä games, released in the mid-1980s, let the player shoot the benevolent bugs. This enraged Miyazaki so much that he despised all video games henceforth and refused to let any of his future films be tarnished by such adaptations. Not even Castle in the Sky, which is practically a video game already.

Well, that rumor probably isn’t true. The part about the Nausicaä video games was debunked by Hardcore Gaming 101’s John Szczepaniak, who documented the ‘80s Nausicaä titles and found no evidence of bug-slaying. Perhaps Hayao Miyazaki disliked the games for other reasons, but I think a blunter explanation can be had: Miyazaki doesn’t let his films become video games because video games are a product of this dissolute modern era, just like smartphones, the Iraq war, and children who have never seen a fish gutted before them at the marketplace.

But there’s another game where the player kills insects straight out of Nausicaä. That game is Crystalis.

Crystalis Week: Memorable Moments

NES titles get guarded praise at best when it comes to storylines. This was a era when video games had the barest of plots, and players were lucky when an actual ending appeared instead of a congratulatory screen about strongth welling in your body. By those standards, Crystalis deserves credit just for spelling its own name correctly on the title screen.

One can’t laud Crystalis as a masterful narrative or call it True Literature That Makes Everyone Take Gamers Like Us Seriously. It lacks character arcs and underlying themes and Aristotelian unities. Yet it gets a few things right. It’s a good example of how video games of this period are Trojan Horses; we never expected any remotely interesting melodrama from a game with simple graphics and threadbare dialogue. Yet we were involved all the same as we played, and when the game spiked its plot with a little tragedy or a moment of invention, it hit surprisingly hard. And we somehow remembered this when better stories from more respected mediums fade away.

I remembered enough to round up my favorite parts of Crystalis. I won’t give away every major twist, but I wouldn’t read this if you want to go in cold. Then again, Crystalis is almost 30 years old, and there’s a statue of limitations on these things.

Crystalis doesn’t beat around the bush when destroying the world. Civilization collapsed on the first day of October in 1997, which means that the human race had less than a month to play the American version of Final Fantasy VII before everything was rent asunder in a worldwide cataclysm.

Crystalis evokes this with a few striking images for an NES game: lighting strikes, burning cities, and a huge tower floating above it all. More intriguing are the establishing shots after you push start; you’ll glimpse dragonlike beasts in a lush forest, followed by carrion birds taking flight over an arid village and the skeletal remains of a surely mutated creature.

Players will note that the game itself doesn’t show anything like this in its ensuing quest. Any cutscenes are scarce until the ending. Yet that introduction is all Crystalis needs.

Crystalis Week: A Rare Adventure

It’s strange that Crystalis even exists. In the late 1980s SNK was a company forged in arcades and accustomed to a diet of eye-catching, quick-burning action fare like Ikari Warriors and Psycho Soldier. Crystalis was an NES experiment, an attempt at courting the action-RPG market that arose on consoles from the success of The Legend of Zelda and Ys.

Crystalis didn’t chase either of those genre leaders, however. It was something else entirely: a hybrid that drew from the best of fantasy RPGs and arcade games.

Crystalis never went to arcades, of course. It didn’t sit in a cabinet and leech pocket change from passersby. It just took lessons from SNK’s arcade roots.

And the first thing Crystalis learned? Hook the player. The game’s introduction grabs your attention with visions of doomsday, declaring October 1, 1997 to be THE END DAY and summoning images of a world destroyed by vicious war and malevolent science. Cities burn, natural life mutates, and technology survives only in a mysterious floating tower, an instrument of peace easily turned into a cataclysmic weapon. Players glimpse the desolate landscapes and monstrous beasts that arise in the eons afterword, and then their avatar emerges. He’s a reticent amnesiac awakened from a suspiciously advanced cryo-chamber in a cave. So it all begins.

The second lesson Crystalis took from the arcade? Never slow things down. Its purple-haired hero scoots across the landscape in eight directions, as though the game’s meant for a joystick. His first sword isn’t a stubby blade, either; improving on a idea from The Legend of Zelda, the Crystalis protagonist can charge up and launch projectiles, making the combat a perpetual mix of frantic stabbing and strategic shooting. He roams and fights with brisk determination, and the game moves to match him.

Crystalis rarely loses that enticing arcade tempo. Each leg of the quest brings a new spell or item, with magic that starts with basic healing and expands into telepathy, warping, and shapeshifting. Even repeatedly hacking through monsters becomes more enjoyable with the game’s expanding selection of weapons and equipment. One early acquisition is the Rabbit Boots, a seemingly minor accessory that lets the hero bound across the landscape. Sometimes this helps him navigate toxic marshes or climb glaciers. Sometimes it’s just fun to jump around.

Like most ambitious games for the NES, Crystalis faces the limitations of the hardware, a seven-year-old system by 1990. Crystalis doesn’t care, though. It delivers large characters, rampant spell effects, and enormous bosses from the Draygonian Emperor’s true form to a giant swamp creature shamelessly filched from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. It’s all out to impress the player no matter the cost, and it succeeds. The action slows down at times, and even something as mundane as talking to townsfolk might make the graphics flicker. Yet it never seems too high a price for the adventure that emerges.

Crystalis Week Begins

Crystalis really needed a comeback. It’s one of the best games that ever appeared on the Nintendo Entertainment System, and I was dismayed that it wasn’t officially available on any modern console despite the recent boom in reissues. Well, that changes next week when the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection arrives on the Switch with Crystalis and a bunch of other games you’ll have to scroll past in order to play Crystalis.

I don’t mean to disparage the rest of the collection, as I’m sure Psycho Soldier and Iron Tank and perhaps even Streetsmart have ardent fans. Yet it’s Crystalis that makes the whole package for me, as it’s a fantastic action-RPG more enduring in quality than a lot of SNK’s arcade-based creations before and after.

Crystalis does not headline this anthology, I’m sad to note. Much of the emphasis falls on well-known SNK arcade titles like Athena and Ikari Warriors. Even the box art sticks the hero of Crystalis and heroine Mesia far in the back. I will say, however, that at least Mesia’s hair is purple, as it is in the game. The Japanese cover for Crystalis, or God Slayer: Sonata of the Distant Skies as it’s so combatively named there, made her hair green.

I’m not about to let the return of Crystalis go uncelebrated. Nuh-uh. I’m dedicating this entire week to entries about it. That may seem excessive, but I think this is a game which deserves to be noticed, analyzed, criticized, and enshrined as a breakthrough in its genre. So please forgive me if I go on a little too much about, for example, the “kyu kyu” sound made by the rabbits in the game. If it gets just one person interested in Crystalis, I’ll have no regrets.

Check back every day for a new article!

Monday: The Legacy of Crystalis!

Tuesday: The Most Memorable Moments!

Wednesday: The Miyazaki Connection!

Thursday: Crystalis Corner!

Friday: The Quest for Crystalis 2!

Saturday: Fun Stuff on the Side!