Saturday, October 9, 2010

Exfanding Review: Crystalis (GBC)

In honor of the 13th (!) anniversary of The END DAY, I found myself playing Crystalis, as I do every year on October 1st. Except this time, I wasn't playing Crystalis--I was playing Crystalis. For the Game Boy Color. Note the difference in intonation in my voice.

Ten years after the relase of the NES cult classic, the GBC introduced Crystalis to a brand-new audience...and disgusted most of the longtime fans.

As a standalone game, Crystalis for the GBC is pretty good--on the surface, it's just a direct port from the NES with new dialogue, different music, and a few graphical tweaks here and there. You know; the kind of port that's totally acceptable to play if you can't get a copy of the original. But don't you be deceived.

The trouble begins with the introduction. The very first screen of the NES game--that ominous declaration of 1997, October 1 The END DAY--is one of the most eye-catching beginnings to any game I've ever played. The introduction that follows is grim, mysterious, and ultimately hopeful, with music that perfectly captures what the text and pictures are going for. This sets the tone for the entire game.

The GBC version starts out DUH NUH NUH NUH NAAAAH GENERIC FANTASY ADVENTURE NAAAAH!!! Gone is the mystique of this strange new world you're about to enter; all of the details of the entire game are fed to you at once in a way that feels more like a summary than a story. The music is now a cacophanous explosion of alternating low pitches and high pitches that scream, "LISTEN! THIS IS WHAT DRAMA SOUNDS LIKE!"

But hey, it's just the introduction. As long as they don't mess with the actual gameplay too much, I can just shrug it off as a different presentation.

The very beginning of the game starts off harmlessly enough. Everything plays out the same way, though the dialogue is a little different, and you no longer are able to accidentally start talking to people just by bumping into them. The menu interface has been reorganized to better fit the smaller GBC screen and, in theory, it's a little more organized. There's a few random, innocuous objects strewn about to give the place a smidge more flavor than the original.

No big deal. Some of the dialogue helps to flesh out a game world that hasn't gotten any deeper in the past decade. Pressing a button to talk makes sense. The new menu system is more logical than the old one. The little graphical tweaks make the game feel a little more modern. Nothing wrong with any of this.

Then I get my first weapon, the Sword of Wind. The village elder is suddenly a far more important person than he used to be. When I pick up the sword and hold it over my head for everyone in the tiny hut to see, a slightly garbled digitized voice blurts out, "SWORD OF WIND!" (Or, more accurately, "SGURG OB MEND!")

This doesn't feel right. It's not flat-out wrong, but it indicates that the game may be trying to deviate from its predecessor rather than simply improve upon it or update it for a more modern audience. Still too early to pass judgment, though.

I head out to the killing fields to hack up some slimes and tiger men. I recoil at the ear-piercing wannabe arcade game sound that has replaced the boppin' overworld theme from the NES. I charge headlong into monsters that never used to get anywhere close to me, thanks to the reduced screen size. Suddenly, there's no trace of the Alarm Flute I need to proceed to the next area--it's just...gone!

Oh, wait. There's a random tiny dungeon that wasn't here before, and that's where the Alarm Flute went. I guess I can live with that.

The first several areas of the game are virtually identical to those on the NES, but the music is already grating on me. For as much as I fancy myself a more objective observer than the average person, I absolutely cannot determine whether the music is so atrocious because it's decidedly not the Crystalis music I grew up with, or because it really is just plain bad. I suspect it's a little (or a lot) of both.

I begin to notice some strangeness with the level designs around the time I'm scaling Mt. Sabre; there should definitely be another room at the end of this tunnel, and the shortcut back to the village of Leaf is noticeably absent. I also notice some enemies that are showing up where they've never shown up before, some bosses are missing a special attack, and one or two enemies that have disappeared entirely from the game.

I can live with this. It's just different, and the developers no doubt had to cut out or change a few things to make everything fit on the smaller cartridge. At least the gameplay is the same, right?

Oh, no. That sword isn't supposed to hurt that monster. Each and every monster is supposed to have its own immunities and vulnerabilities to the four swords. Are you telling me that I can use whatever sword I want?

Yes, yes you are telling me that. And after extensive testing, you don't need any more weapons after obtaining a Level 2 Sword of Fire. Sure, you need to make ice bridges and blast apart iron walls, but as far as fighting random enemies is concerned, nothing else is as good.

Even the magic-guzzling Level 3 powers aren't as helpful this time around--the Sword of Water's most powerful attack is particulary sad, as the whirling barrage of snowflakes is now a multidirectional snowflake boomerang that NEVER hits your target.

Playing around with multiple weapons is a big part of why I love Mega Man so much, and it's one of the reasons I love Crystalis so much. Take away the distinctions between weapons, and Crystalis loses that little bit of strategy that keeps it from being a mindless hack'n'slash adventure.

I could prattle on about the rest of the game in fierce detail, but the central problems are easy enough to sum up at this juncture: (1) the limitations of the GBC keep any developer from doing full justice to Crystalis; (2) the major changes that were made change the fundamental feel of the game; and (3) too many of the little touches have been lost.

The GBC port of Crystalis may address a few minor issues that hinder the NES game. It may make the game more accessible (I.e. easier) for a younger or more casual audience. It's still got plenty of problems, and the problems are made worse once you realize what you could be playing instead. The original Crystalis is a game that, even with its technical flaws, is charming because of the developers' obvious attention to detail.

Even when the Sword of Wind becomes all but obsolete a third of the way through the game, there's a monster in the penultimate dungeon that can only be felled with the power of air. When you use magic to transform yourself into other people, you get unique reactions from townsfolk depending on what you look like--especially when you talk to the person you've transformed into!

The original Crystalis truly feels like the people who designed the game were also the people who wanted to play the game. The GBC port feels like the game was repackaged for a different audience, one that wouldn't appreciate the atmosphere, challenges, and nuances of the original. Much of what made the game worth playing in the first place was lost in the transition.

Crystalis for the Game Boy Color is a decent game, but for those who've played the original, it's the difference between fantastic sparkling cider and really bad champagne. Or something along those lines.

Yeah, I almost hurled a few times, too.

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