More than any other type of game, a remake faces the challenge of appealing to distinctly different audiences: those wishing to relive the enjoyment of the original and those wondering why the original was worth remaking. Despite some needless tinkering, Nintendo's portable version of Crystalis should manage to keep both kinds of gamers happy.
The new introduction, however, will satisfy no one. Gone is the NES version's dramatic vision of a city in flames and a world betrayed by its technology, now the gamer is greeted with a long introduction comprised mostly of standard fantasy shtick. The city is now hit by a giant missile, resulting in the appearance of good wizards and bad wizards. You represent the good side – enough said. This will greatly disappoint those who remember the original introduction and trick those starting with the new one into expecting the usual cast of knights and long-bearded magicians.
Taking a flying leap
For most, that dissatisfaction should begin to melt away once the actual game starts. The gameplay is as tight as when it was the only prominent action-RPG outside of Zelda. There isn't much to know control-wise – the A button attacks with your sword while B uses magic or items – but the deceptively simple system is exploited very well.
Over the course of the game, you will acquire a sword, ball, and bracelet for each of the four basic elements. Holding the A button will charge your sword, unleashing a larger and larger barrages of projectiles as you find the items for each sword. Balance is kept by the bigger attacks draining your magic points as well, and each of the swords is necessary to access certain areas.
Story-wise, Crystalis may have the honor of being the most direct game in history. You are told something is wrong, you go kill whatever is responsible, you get something in return, and you move on. Standard NPC conversations go something like this:
Elder: "You killed the vampire, and I am proud of you. I will now teach you teleport."
"You received teleport."
This may sound like a bad thing, but Crystalis is a title that emphasizes atmosphere over plot. SNK's character and town designs have a unique style and feel that do a fine job of separating the game from the Zeldas and Final Fantasys of the world. It is a testament to the game's lasting power that finding another title of similar design is almost impossible, even today.
Doing the monster mash
Nor are all of the changes are bad, with the most notable improvements being the addition of three save slots to the original's two and a much more detailed status screen. The speed of your sword attack has been toned down slightly, reducing your ability to run around machine-gunning your sword with superhuman quickness. The music has been remixed and is easily ignored, while the “digitized speech” serves largely to look nice on the back of the box.
Even with the game's few flaws, the GBC version is all that much more appreciated when trying to play the original. After 45 minutes of coercing an NES into functioning, I was finally able to play… for the 15 minutes until the system froze. Eventually some progress was made, but having a stable and accessible version of the game to play might just be the remake's best feature, especially in light of the NES version's rarity.
The fact that Nintendo has licensed and produced an admirable remake of SNK's classic is no small miracle considering the dearth of quality action RPGs. Pointless changes in story and terrible box art are nothing to complain about next to having a game as good as Crystalis lost to the sands of time.
Review by Ed McGlothlin, GIA.