There was a magical, fateful time in my childhood, a moment where I played an amazing game that would set an indelible mark in my brain. It was a classic adventure game, packed with levels to explore, dungeons to navigate, treasure to find, and magic swords that flung forth amazing and destructive power. I was but 8 years old, and when my attention wasn’t focused squarely on learning my times tables, it was focused on my NES. One incredible summer, my aunt and uncle — who were seasoned video game players in their own right — introduced me to the greatest 8-bit top-down adventure game I’d ever play. Furthermore, it was not The Legend Of Zelda. It was a game that outdid it in every way, shape and form.
The year was 1990. The publisher was SNK. The game was the legendary Crystalis.
Crystalis isn’t anything amazing to most people at this point in history. By now, it’s just another relic of a bygone age. So much, in fact, that introducing one of my friends to it yielded the response “oh, so it’s like A Link to the Past, okay.” They’re not entirely wrong, except the comparison is backwards; The Legend Of Zelda: A Link to the Past is like Crystalis. See, the game itself was much larger than the Zelda games on NES, with multiple areas connected by network of caves and vast overworld areas.
There’s dangerous swamplands, much like the Lost Woods before retrieving the Master Sword. Magic powers of fire and ice. Crazy items that would protect you from poison, boots that would allow you to jump, flutes that would call animal rides and magic sword powers you would actively charge in order to use — all of these things, Crystalis did first. It took a whole new console system for Zelda to catch up.
The game centers around a silent protagonist that is named by the player. In the darkest timeline future of 1997, nuclear war engulfed the world. Technology waned, and magic became the new science. The last remnants of mankind, broken and fragmented by their own weaponry, forged a perfect blade to harness the elements — the eponymous sword, Crystalis. They also constructed a fortress that would float in the sky forever, watching over the Earth with advanced weapons systems, all to ensure that any force that ever rose to that level of destructive power again would be swiftly dealt with by the tower’s defenses.
You, the player, wake up from cryogenic sleep in the middle of a sealed cave one hundred years after the war that destroyed the world. You suffer from side-effect amnesia, and you don’t know a thing except for your name. The cave entrance blows open as soon as you wake up, and you find yourself right next to the peaceful town of Leaf. You eventually come to find out that there is an evil force known as the Draygon Empire. They have risen to power due to combining magic with forbidden technology, creating war machines beyond mankind’s worst nightmares.
Bent on recapturing the tower with the military might granted by these abominations, they seek to use the tower in an effort to enslave the rest of the world. But the tower won’t shut off its autopilot functions without a key, and that key is Crystalis. Problem is, Crystalis is a very valuable key with a very powerful safety mechanism — the ability to split into separate elemental blades. As soon as you wake up, you venture into the town, do the whole fish-out-of-water meet and greet like you normally do in video games, then see the village elder. He’s been expecting you, after all. For multiple generations, the Leaf village elder line has been in possession of something never to be used, but merely given to you once your systems woke you. That item is the Sword of Wind. And thus, your adventure begins.
Along the way, you’ll meet a large cast of characters that will teach you magic spells, provide crucial guidance, and point the way to the swords of Fire, Water and Thunder. All of these swords have the ability to be charged, kind of like the Mega Buster in the Mega Man games. Hold the sword button while still, and a rush of power swirls around you, storing the charge for as long as you hold the button. Let it go, and someone’s getting shot with something awesome — and in my opinion, the sound effects that play during the individual stages of this mechanic are some of the best and most satisfying in videogame history.
With the help of sword-specific crystal balls, a second level of charge is able to be used for a much stronger bullet, while a further third level is attainable through the use of magic bracelets. These attacks cost MP to use, but they are downright devastating to enemies, and especially the multiple bosses you’ll face. Through the course of the adventure, you’ll travel through poison gas swamps, slide down ice ramps, hoof it through unforgiving deserts, swordfight on dolphinback to the best travel music ever, explore caves, dungeons, military bases, and even confront the technological terrors of the Tower itself.
So, Crystalis basically fused post-apocalyptic mutant killing with action RPG sensibilities and Zelda-esque exploration. This was an amazing time for video games, because genres were getting blended left and right trying to come up with a unique formula that would be the next big hit. What amazes me is that this game is universally loved, yet nobody ever seems apt to include it in any best-of lists. I’ve never heard someone say that Crystalis sucks — not one single time in an entire quarter-century — and if someone were to say that, I’d start second-guess questioning their taste in absolutely everything.
Even the box art let you know you were in for a wild ride; a dude that looks like a grown-up version of The Neverending Story‘s Atreyu holds a gleaming sword against mutants, surrounded a beautiful but corrupted world complete with a floating tower far off in the distance. I’m throroughly conviced that anyone capable of hating on that in 1990 was simply trying to get attention of the negative variety, because that’s the sort of landscape that any conversion van owner would be proud to have airbrushed on their side panels.
Nintendo licensed the rights to the game and kinda/sorta remade it for the Game Boy Color back in 2000. It wasn’t as good. They changed a lot of the story, reworked some of the endgame, tweaked enemy resistances to certain elements, and did a great job of ruining what was, quite frankly, a game that had previously veered uncomfortably close to perfection. As such, this game needs to be properly reborn. Seriously, we have the tools, we have the talent. It’s a nuclear wasteland game painted in bright colors and wackiness, packs some of the coolest music imaginable and never lets up for a single second. This could all be redone in an incredibly faithful way, and there’s very few games that deserve a second shot at the best-of-all-time list like Crystalis does.
Normally, I’d talk about what could be done to make it better or fit the needs of today. That’s where I’m running into a problem. Really, there’s nothing else you need to do, aside from visually update the look and get Jake Kaufman on the music. That’s pretty much it. I mean, you could expand it a bit, add some more story and locations to the mix. That would be awesome, actually. Maybe you would actually get to use Crystalis in something besides the final dungeon (the GBC version tried this, but failed at so much else that it doesn’t really count in my eyes).
And no, I’m not sorry for the spoiler there. The game is twenty-five years old, twenty-six if you count God Slayer, the game’s original Japanese release. If you haven’t played it before now, the statute of limitations clearly states that it’s on you. That’s okay, though. You can fix that very, very easily. I implore you to go play a copy of this, and I don’t care how you go about doing it. It’s an experience that needs to be shared like a legendary rap battle mixtape. Only after you play it for yourself will you truly understand what I’m talking about.
Only then, will you truly understand how much sense a Crystalis revival would make, or why this song cannot be outdone. For real. Swordfighting on dolphinback, man. Top that. I dare you to do it.