The top-down action RPG has remained a staple sub-genre of gaming through the decades and even today many of these games remain among my favorites. While there is much to like about turn-based RPG’s, the tactile nature of the classic action RPG makes it suit my tastes just a bit more. This goes a long way and explaining my pick for favorite RPG: Illusion of Gaia on the Super Nintendo. It’s not everyone’s choice, for sure, and it is not even the best RPG on its own platform from a purely objective viewpoint, but there is something about the combat, the permanence and the feelings I have while playing Gaia that makes it a personal favorite. So, if I were to pick one game that I think comes somewhat close to Gaia’s stylings on the NES, I would have to go with Crystalis.
Crystalis is an action RPG from SNK released on the Famicom in 1990 as “God Slayer” (for obvious reasons this name was changed before it was ported). It centers on a nameless man awakening from suspended animation in a ship with amnesia. Upon exiting he finds himself in a strange world and has to embark on a quest fighting dangerous monsters and traversing treacherous landscapes. Honestly, the story is merely a setup for the main event: The gameplay. The action combat in Crystalis is much faster than what you may recall from other titles like The Legend of Zelda. There is also a charge attack ala Mega Man. New abilities and items can be obtained and genre staples like grinding XP and finding gear upgrades are also a key aspect of the progression. Magic spells are also granted and are often a requirement to proceed forward in the story.
The structure is actually similar to that of Final Fantasy, with a HUB village having a particular problem and once you defeat the boss, you can proceed to the next area. These stories are self-contained missions inside a greater quest to find who you are and why you woke up in a spaceship embedded in a mountain in a fantasy world. There are some elements that could be considered Metroidvania-esque as well, but I generally reserve that label for side-scrollers. Instead, Crystalis is a solid, challenging top-down action/RPG, and one of the best of its kind!
Visually Crystalis has good sprite work, but the worlds are very simple in design. Characters and creatures are varied though, and have quick, anime-style animations that add some life to the environment. Crystalis is also a very fast game; The intrepid hero moves very quickly and the attacks and brisk and hefty and there is weight to each hit conveyed in the game’s classic knockback. In the sound department, the effects are pretty generic and the soundtrack is okay, but nothing masterful. However, there are a few themes that really stand out; the ending music comes to mind.
For a game that is pushing-thirty, Crystalis is a standout title. It really holds up in a period where this style of RPG is making a comeback. If you want to play Crystalis, though, good luck. This one is getting harder to find as a legitimate release, having not seen a re-release on modern platforms, though a Game Boy Color port was released for a time but was not well-received. The NES cart for Crystalis is trending upwards in price as it has become a forgotten gem in the eyes of many retro gamers and currently goes for around $20. This price hike is justifiable, though as it is a truly great game that went overlooked for years. It is not rare, so it hasn’t skyrocketed, but it is certainly a game to look out for. Also, the fandom for Crystalis is fervent, too, with a ton of speedrunners, a number fansites and a massive gaming subcommunity. Also, Crystalis 2 exists as a fan-sequel featuring an all new adventure that is playable on NES emulators. It’s safe to say that a lot of retro gamers love Crystalis, and for good reason.