For a game developed more than ten years ago, Crystalis is still surprisingly relevant, and it's a testament to tight, polished RPG game design.
Crystalis was originally spawned by SNK for Nintendo's 8-bit NES console. One of the platform's most action-oriented RPGs, the game put you in the role of a young hero recently thawed out of a cryogenic slumber, the story being that his world was torn asunder some years ago by technology gone awry. Having since relinquished the lure of technology for the ecological soundness of magic, the citizens of the world were able to reestablish some semblance of civilization. Technology, though, had by no means been stripped from the world, and the evil wizard Dragonia began to dabble in its uses, quickly becoming a formidable threat to the world's newfound peace. Enter the hero: Destined to save the world from the corrosive power of technology, you must enlist the aid of four benevolent magicians, collect the four elemental swords forged by them for use during such a threat, and eventually re-form them into the mystical uber-blade Crystalis - the one weapon with the power to put an end to any and all threats technological.
That said, the NES-to-Game Boy Color port of Crystalis is anything but a bite-sized adventure. Though the game was created in a simpler time, there is definitely a dense adventure within the confines of this tiny cartridge - more, perhaps, than anyone would want to tackle on the go.
The gameplay can be written off as your standard action-RPG fare. There is a large world to explore (compete with dungeons, towns, and chatty folk), there are items and spells to collect, and there are hordes of enemies to defeat in a real-time battle system. During its initial release a decade ago, however, Crystalis was anything but standard. True, many of the elements had previously been seen in prior games (The Legend of Zelda, most notably), but Crystalis' sheer depth - and the quality of its presentation - was without peer, and it is still regarded as a milestone title in the genre.
In Crystalis' control scheme, one button lets you attack with your sword, while the other is reserved for the mapping of different items or spells. Only one function can be mapped to the button, however, so some situations will definitely call for a constant switching to the inventory screen. Throughout the course of your adventure, you'll acquire four swords, each with an elemental characteristic: fire, water, thunder, and wind. These sacred weapons, which will eventually merge to form Crystalis, are imbued with special powers that let you traverse previously blocked areas within the game. The fire sword, for example, will let you melt impassable walls of ice, while the water sword lets you create bridges over shallow water. Certain items must be collected to unlock these powers, and you'll learn about these items through the help of the four wise magi. Also, when a sword's sufficiently powered, you can unleash powerful projectile attacks by holding the attack button down and allowing the sword to charge.
The spells in Crystalis are particularly neat, especially when considering how long ago they were conceived. The telepathy spell, in particular, lets you commune remotely with the four magi, who give you clues as to what course your journey should take. The resultant screen depicts the hero in a meditative posture, with the images of the magi above him as selectable menu options - quite cool. Other spells include your run-of-the-mill curative spells, as well as teleportation and transportation spells and appearance-altering enchantments. The use of magic is regulated by MP, which increases, along with HP and other statistics, as you progress in levels.
To spruce up the package, Nintendo has added colorful cutscenes and digitized speech to further the game's plot. While by no means breathtaking, the quaint, colorful portraits inserted fairly sparingly do much to give life to the otherwise-muted sprites that represent key characters within the game. The digitized speech seems little more than a thoughtful addition meant to round out the package, as its harsh, tinny nature prevents it from evoking any serious emotional response.
Overall, Crystalis looks and plays very well, considering its age. The graphics are composed of hushed, colorful sprites and surprisingly effective animation. Nintendo has even tidied up some loose ends SNK left in the original game's plot, including the addition of an extra dungeon. For a game developed more than ten years ago, Crystalis is still surprisingly relevant, and it's a testament to tight, polished RPG game design. The one question that remains, though, is whether you'd want to spend several hours per day staring at an a screen with no backlighting as you make your way through it.