Embracing the Grind: Replaying Crystalis as an Adult
DISCLAIMER: If you have never played Crystalis, released by SNK in 1990 for the Nintendo Entertainment System and currently available via Switch Online or as part of the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection, and do NOT want to have it extensively spoiled, turn back now, because this 30 year old game is about to bare (mostly) all of it’s secrets. This article is the result of my experience replaying the first action RPG I ever played/beat now that I am grown up. If you want a spoiler-free discussion of the game, or just a proper review before proceeding, check out Ben’s review of it here.
How It Started
There is a moment late in the 8-bit Action RPG Crystalis where I realized that I had made a terrible mistake. It was in the Draygonia Castle Boss Rush where the game requires you to take on four bosses you’ve already sent packing earlier in the story. Upon reaching the first boss I charged in, confident of both my skills and supply of mana-restoring Magic Rings. I knew it was nothing more than a simple matter of determining which sword element could hurt him. Was it Fire? Wind? Water? Thunder? After a few deaths and reloading a recent save state, I realized I could not damage the boss at all. Nothing worked. Nothing. Now this bothered me because I knew I had beaten this game when I was twelve, but here I was unable to even damage this boss. What could twelve-year-old Clark figure out that eluded me now?
I did a lot of research online and couldn’t come up with an answer. Pages didn’t mention any sort of invulnerability. So I decided to back track a little. Maybe I missed something earlier in the dungeon? I wandered for a bit, but didn’t really do anything, so I went and gave it another try and to my surprise, the boss took damage. What? Evidently, while I was going around exploring, I’d killed enough enemies to level up and magically reached the level threshold the game required to be able to hurt the boss. That explained the advantage my younger self had – he fell in love with grinding way too much XP so that he felt godlike when facing down a boss. And you know what? Something about that feeling stuck with me until this day. I am now in my 40s and the ritual of grinding in an action RPG is something I still find deeply satisfying. It’s during this mindless task that I find some emotional distance to process stress during world-altering events like a global pandemic.
I replayed the game from start to finish because it was the first game on this planet where I encountered what would become my favorite genre of video game: the Action RPG. So I wanted a sort of homecoming to revisit what was, what has become, and what could be. Maybe along the way we’ll discover something interesting…
The Things We’ve Kept
One of my primary questions when returning to Crystalis was, “What do we see in modern action RPGs that was present from the start?” To my surprise, a lot of things we expect today existed back then. The underlying tenets of the genre have not changed on a fundamental level despite the fact that experimenting with those tenets has, perhaps, itself become another essential tenet. More on this later. For now, let’s talk about some of things Crystalis does that any modern Action RPG fan would recognize:
Post-Apocalyptic Worlds and Purple Hair
The moment you begin the game, you wake up from a futuristic chamber where you have slept for 100 years to find a world practically barren of technology. To be clear, we are talking Crystalis,not BOTW or anything else. But the point remains – from the first moment I ever played an action RPG, post-apocalyptic settings were the norm. And here’s the thing – there were not a lot of examples of this type of world for a child in the 1980s growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. So this was cool and fresh to me – as exciting as it would be when I started up Final Fantasy III (it was actually FFVI) on SNES a few years later.
But the after-the-end-of-civilization setting wasn’t the only thing that stuck out to me as a child – the player character is wearing purple and has purple hair. This is key in Crystalis because most characters are drab typical villager brown, etc. Only characters who have slept for 100 years (surprise, there’s more than one) have this purple hair. This begs the question, what is the point of Crystalis? Why is there a purple haired guy from a society that died 100 years ago waking up now? What is he supposed to do with that hair besides charm all the locals and herald the eventual arrival of one Cloud Strife?
Let’s do a TL;DR version of the plot because this isn’t a review: Humans built up a big civilization based on technology which led to catastrophe. (BIG SPOILER) The character you control, as you eventually learn, was actually part of a team that built an AI controlled tower that would evaluate humanity 100 years to see if they had learned from their mistakes and deserved another chance. He and another character went to sleep to wake up in 100 years to ensure things go as planned. It’s unclear to me how it happens, but I believe you lose your memory and are unaware of your role for quite a while. As you can imagine, the tower AI decides humanity doesn’t deserve to live (Mass Effect, *cough cough*) as you, *it’s designer*, come to the opposite conclusion and decide to save humanity despite being one of the architects of the final boss. The game concludes after you search out the four elemental swords and combine them into Crystalis, the titular sword, which can damage DYNA, your AI creation.
Although I didn’t give it a full section, it’s also true that Crystalis is one of those JRPGs where the final boss isn’t the big bad who has been taunting you. Here, that’s the human guy (spoiler – he’s not a human but a dragon/lizard/thing?) who gets the AI all aggro on humanity. I always prefer the hugely satisfying showdown with someone you want dead, but the plot twist of taking on an AI from the past who is your own brain child works well to set the stage for what one can expect from the genre over the thirty plus years since it landed on home consoles.
Fast Travel and Rare Loot
The concept of “Open World” didn’t exist during the 8-bit generation. The staff writers and I talked about what a “proto” Open World title would be, and we agreed that a game that gives you freedom to break the traditional “always moving forward” model that dominated the generation was an early step in this direction. Crystalis, in it’s uniquely 8-bit way, is what I’d consider a prime example of proto-open world design because it includes two tropes that have become staples of open world action RPGs: fast travel and overpowered items hidden in obscure corners only accessible with late game spells and items. In particular, a spell called “Flight,” which does exactly what it sounds like, will allow you to reach a variety of inaccessible treasure chests around the game. These items are quite OP and not required to beat the game given how little content is left by the time they are accessible. But in a way, needing them isn’t the point. It’s about becoming so strong you can slaughter enemies that once intimidated you. With the level cap only 16 and only 1 point of attack added per level, if you truly want the highest DPS or defense, you gotta go explore the world and find that end game gear – sound familiar?
Mimics and Difficulty
Perhaps my moment of greatest sheer joy when playing was halfway through when I approached an innocent enough looking treasure chest that leapt to life and not only took a huge chunk of health but also poisoned me. As a veteran Dark Souls player, I loved that the game cruelly punished me for doing what it taught me to do, thus teaching me a new lesson. I genuinely had forgotten mimics existed in the world of Crystalis and can proudly say they are done right. You really just want to avoid them. They are way too dangerous when removing poison requires so much effort.
In many ways, like almost every game on the NES, Crystalis is highly skill based. Enemies are punishing and the mechanics can be unforgiving. This is something that action gamers crave and is half of what makes up an action RPG. I was glad to see things like spiked floors, statues with laser eyes dealing unavoidable damage, random enemies who fly in and can move faster than you, and elemental-based invulnerabilities. These things kept me on my toes like the mimic and reminded me that I learned to like hard games as a kid.
The Things We’ve Left Behind
For every familiar piece of Crystalis, there was also a moment of surprise. Some things I remember as dominating RPGs back then that have simply fallen by the wayside (for the most part). Other things, I’d forgotten about since I put the game down over thirty years ago. These are curious things, feeling like foreign artifacts at times and like forgotten memories at others. I think this is an essential part of the experience of revisiting a game you played much earlier in life. A few thoughts in particular stood out to me:
The Dominance of the Four Elements
It has been quite a while since I played a game that focused a large part of it’s story on acquiring one of four elemental powers by defeating a boss/dungeon (well, besides Zelda – the clear inspiration here). This, however, was fairly common back in the 8-bit and even 16-bit generation. Even the original Final Fantasy used this trope. In Crystalis, gameplay mechanics really enforce the importance of the elements within this world because almost every enemy in the game is invulnerable to one or more elements. Switching between your swords and their corresponding enhancements becomes second nature-ish, but it’s extremely hampered by the limits of 8-but UI and controller functionality. If you could swap on the fly, that would be something. Not the case here. All this does is make you really, really want to get the Crystalis sword because then you can hurt all elements and never have to open the menu to try a different sword ever again.
Yes, this was a bit of a “cookie-cutter” trope in a generation dominated by such approaches to game design. I cannot honestly tell you there was anything in Crystalis that I feel deserves being recognized as groundbreaking unless this truly was the first time it happened in video games (a question outside the scope of this article). It ultimately feels like a game of it’s time – an assembly of familiar rpg tropes with a zelda-like view and approach to combat. If anything, I think that a fair amount of “cookie-cutter” approaches exist today and likely should as games shouldn’t take forever to make. That being said, I much prefer the variety that has evolved in terms of how plot and gameplay are married over the 30-40 hour experience of the game.
Accidentally Invincible Bosses
As I alluded to in the opening, Crystalis is, by design, a game that you can accidentally get stuck in a place where you cannot progress and must start over. This is because, as I encountered, bosses have a minimum level required to cause them damage. If you start a boss fight and save it before you know what you are in for…you may be stuck. This almost happened to me during my replay for this article and it wasn’t my favorite moment. I think we’ve gotten so used to games that let us take on the challenge at low levels that we forget when RPGs were first made there was little to no interaction between gamers at large and developers. What’s more, simply patching a game was impossible on console at this time.
When Crystalis was rereleased on the GBC in 2000, much was changed. I am told, though I’ve never played the port, that this lower level restriction was removed. I think it would have been patched out of the original NES title as well if possible. So, unequivocally, I think this is something best left in the past. I don’t want to be too harsh on this decision, however. Things weren’t established yet and there are clearly other examples of game design choices from the 8-bit generation that also should and have been left behind.
Oh to be a purple-haired boy fighting sea monsters on the back of my trusted friend dolphin. I had no recollection of this section of the game from my childhood, but about halfway through Crystalis you run into a wounded dolphin that you can help out. Turns out this is a great idea because he is going to replace the boat you receive in most RPGs, allowing you to ride the waves and blast sea monsters. If you’ve ever wanted more dolphins in your action RPG combat, Crystalis has you covered.
Your dolphin helps you access several key areas in the game, including a town named Joel where you learn of a man named Clark who has gone to a neighboring island where there is rumored to be a zombie town. It’s not often you encounter yourself as an NPC in a video game, but I felt strongly called out. Of course I’d have gone off to see the ZOMBIE town! For anyone worried, I saved NPC Clark and he actually helped me out by giving me an item I needed like any RPG NPC worth their weight in code.
I do have to point out the Dolphin section didn’t make too much sense and was fairly limited. Everytime you think Crystalisis about to unfold into something more grand because you are accustomed to more recent titles doing just that, it reminds you that it is in every conceivable way an 8-bit game. The best parts of the game were in my head. The way I imagined this land that used to be so magnificent – the way I knew I was the only one who could help these people. Now I know it sounds dramatic, but the inhabitants of the initial town you start off in literally get kidnapped en masse at one point. Believe me, the stakes were high in my twelve-year-old mind. Like the rest of the game, the best part of riding the dolphin and wielding a sword in Crystalis is knowing in your mind that you are riding a dolphin and wielding a sword – if you are are into that kind of thing, which evidently I am?
How It’s Going
I am left with a few lingering thoughts from my time revisiting my first Action RPG. Some big, some small, but three in particular I’d like to share as a way to draw this discussion to a close:
What assumptions at the formation of the genre have we left unexamined?
One of the things most impressed upon my adult mind when examining the concept of the video game genre of Action RPG evolving is the realization that there are some assumptions we seem to have about what makes an Action RPG that, perhaps by necessity, are left relatively unexplored. This may sound confusing, but I think I can make it pretty clear:
The Action RPG mechanics in Crystalis are still instantly recognizable 30 years later. That is, we still genuinely like a lot of the same things in Action RPGs that we liked 30 years ago. For all our talk about how video games have and need to evolve and the way that drives generations of consoles, what truly makes these games “fun” hasn’t fundamentally changed. Maybe that is obvious. But it also makes me wonder – what would it look like if the source of the “fun” was different on a fundamental level? What would that look like?
I don’t have an answer for these questions right now. These are new thoughts to me from this experience. I don’t want to rush an answer, but I do expect to talk about this concept again as I consider it at greater length.
Sixteen levels is more than enough
I remember very acutely being disappointed when I reached the level cap in Crystalis as a twelve year old. I childishly dreamed of grinding to levels never heard of, just to do it. I don’t know what I was compensating for or why, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only twelve year old with issues playing themselves out while I escaped the world around in a game like Crystalis that had comforting mechanics. I can see now I held this cap against the game designers as a flaw of their otherwise near perfect game (I loved it alot). Really though, I’m here to say it was fine.
Looking at the game now as an adult and watching the progression and how XP scales, it really does work well overall. You come across easy grind areas in nearly every dungeon in the game. You maybe grind a bit too much early on because you don’t know it’s going to get easier to level later down the line, but that’s what you do when you are twelve and eager. The thing is – by the time you hit cap, you have 255 HP and 255 MP and that feels like a ton. What’s more, you have little use for money late game (best gear isn’t purchased) so you can stock up on magic rings that instantly refill your mana, thus enabling you to heal, cure an ailment, or fast travel to a town.
So I know that young Clark would fall in love with grinding while playing this game and grow bitter when he found the cap was “so low” – but I think he was wrong. I’d like to say, in front of you all, Crystalis, please forgive me for all the things I said about you when I was younger and angry at you for having a level cap. I wanted you to be different, but I now see it was I who needed to change. Thank you for being you and teaching me to find my worth in the waking world.
Where are Action RPGs headed and why?
Jokes and allusions aside, I also asked myself if I learned anything about where Action RPGs are headed or where I believe they should be headed from my time with an old favorite. My thoughts collected around two different lines of thinking:
The first is that the evolutionary arc of the genre feels behind us. What I mean by that is that moving forward, the genre feels poised to focus on refinement through reinvention – not through some sort of radical metamorphosis into something new. Take for example one of my favorite Action RPGs of the past decade, Dark Souls. It was radically inventive in terms of what part of the player experience it gave authority over plot (setting assumed such authority in the absence of traditional narration). It also radically shook up some of the focus on making things easier that had become the status quo. That being said – this first invention has nothing to do with the genre, but rather the medium of video games themselves. The second isn’t exactly new, but rather a return to video game roots by embracing a brutal game design philosophy to require players to acquire skill with the system the game presents. Again – more of a refinement than breaking new ground.
That being said, part of being a critic and pointing things like this out is the sincere hope that I am wrong and that some designer sets out to show me as much. I genuinely want the next huge evolutionary leap for the genre to be poised around the corner where I cannot personally see it. It would be infinitely cool to look back and think boy was I wrong!
But, comparing Action RPG titles from 2020/2021 with one from 1990, I’m very okay with the progress that has been made and that – if anything – developers have doubled down on the fun they’ve been able to extract from these experiences. Today, Action RPGs are more fun than ever because they build upon what made past titles fun and relentlessly invent new ways to add to that fun – like adding coop, replayability, different classes/builds, and even post-launch support – all game changers.
All Good Things Come to a End
In the end, it took me around 22 hours to complete Crystalis, but I know using some guides towards the end helped keep that number under 30 hours. Additionally, the ability to save game states on the Switch was a huge time saver. Is Crystalis worth trying out? If you own a Switch, absolutely – even if you don’t finish it. If you enjoy the difficulty of roguelikes and soulslikes, you’ll be right at home. The graphics were amazing back in the day and hold up as crisp and clean on the Switch. I cannot say the same for every 8-bit game, so that was especially nice.
I may be done with Crystalis, but I’m not through with the genre, the ideas I started to consider here, or revisiting the titles that helped form my lifelong fondness for Action RPGs. Until next time, always hit the treasure chest with your sword before you try to open it!