Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Crystalis: A Review

It seems appropriate to spell out my viewpoint at the very start of this. I not only look at this game with a certain nostalgia, but as a player old enough for their formative gaming experiences to have been 8-bit, and that includes having played Crystalis when it first came out.

Still, in contrast with other old games to which I returned only to find memory overly kind (picking up the original Dragon Warrior again, I was annoyed to find that I had to select "STAIRS" from a menu when I wanted to go up or down a floor), Crystalis held up very well a long time afterward, on multiple levels.

One of these was its world-building and storyline--arguably, more appealingly and lavishly developed than in any other 8-bit game of the type. Not only did the graphics make the most of that era's capacities in presenting a colorful, varied world. The main thread of the game takes place within a bigger, more dynamic narrative--a larger struggle against the Draygonia Empire. This facilitates the presentation of an array of engaging NPCs (developed enough to be capable of different responses depending on the situation, and even to display a measure of humor), mini-quests well-integrated into the larger drama (like the rescue of the villagers from Leaf), and dramatic plot twists (our hero is not the only one on a quest here), while more broadly imbuing the adventure with the feel of an epic, accentuated by a memorable musical score. It also has an abundance of appealing features, not least in the battery of magic spells the hero acquires (which permit everything from telepathic connections, to the power to disguise himself with an enchantment--both of which are essential to his successfully completing his missions).

It helps, too, that the gameplay is relatively smooth. This is most obviously the case in the quality of the controls, particularly where the management of a large and diverse stock of weapons, items and spells are concerned, and also the navigation of that world the game provides. (Using a pair of cheap warp boots, or teleportation magic, one can easily zip about the world map rather than having to walk all the way.) However, this is also the case with the unfolding of the larger quest. On those few occasions when I found myself getting stuck in Crystalis, it was a matter of the more cerebral challenges--as with unmasking the identity of a certain monarch through the use of a certain magic spell.

Of course, some have said that the game goes too far in that respect. The need to switch between different swords to defeat particular enemies apart, one can get through the fighting on the strength of button-mashing. Perhaps a bigger issue is that it is not a particularly lengthy game, even by 8-bit standards. Even while playing at a leisurely pace, leveling up well past where I needed to be at any one point, and preferring to chat with every villager, try every possible way through every maze, and puzzle things out when I got stuck rather than rush to the guides, I played through in about fifteen hours (a fraction of what the original Final Fantasy promised). A player less committed to such an approach to the game (or simply more skillful) could easily shave some hours off of that.

Still, button-mashing can be just the thing when one is looking to relax, and if there are longer games, this one was certainly fun to play through again--and, while the game does not seem likely to get much better known any time soon, thoroughly earns the esteem in which it is held by most of those fortunate enough to have encountered it.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Remembering Crystalis

SNK's 1990 video game Crystalis has some standing as a cult game, very fondly remembered by some, but by others not really remembered at all.

Arguably one disadvantage the game faced was in the timing of its release. It came after the 16-bit era had not only dawned, but got well underway. By April 1990, not only were the NEC-Hudson Soft Turbo Grafx 16 and Sega Genesis out for quite some time, but that very same month Crystalis' own maker, SNK, was breaking into the console market with its own 16-bit entry, the Neo Geo--and the release of the Super Nintendo was mere months away.

This was not a market conducive to even the most advanced use of 8-bit technology making a splash.

Another was, apparently, the tendency to see Crystalis as a Zelda clone, apparently still alive and well, and perhaps reinforced by the development of gaming since then. After all, not only was the Zelda series one of the icons of the 8-bit era, so much so that it was easy for it to overshadow the rest of what was still a new and small action RPG market, but the series has gone from strength to strength to remain as current as ever. By contrast, there was little in the way of follow-ups or remakes to the original Crystalis, limited to a Game Boy Color port back in 2000, with no edition ever released even for the Virtual Console (apparently on account of the idiot wrangles specialized in by holders of law degrees).

And of course the massive increase in the sophistication of gaming, the action RPG genre in particular, makes it harder for someone whose standard is set by newer gaming to take a nuanced view of the differences among games of a much earlier generation, made within rather narrower technical limits than those with which today's designers work. It would seem that for many one 8-bit game of this type is pretty much the same as another--reinforcing the "clone" charge.

For my part, however, I would say that Crystalis was the best action RPG of the 8-bit era, deserving of much greater recognition than it has received.

Why Crystalis is Not a Zelda Clone

I have often seen Crystalis called a Zelda II clone.

While The Adventure of Link remains a favorite of mine from the NES era, the claim strikes me as simplistic.

The player's experience of the worlds of these two games seems a logical place to begin the comparison. Where Zelda shifted between an overworld map and side-scrolling gameplay, Crystalis uses a 3-D overhead view throughout.

This is reinforced by the range of movement throughout the game's world. Where in Zelda the player always starts from the North Castle, in Crystalis one can save their location at any settlement--and with the purchase of a pair of inexpensive warp boots or the expenditure of a small amount of magic, instantly teleport to any one of them that they have previously visited, even if lost in the deepest dungeon. The ability to navigate the sea on a dolphin's back, and later, to overfly obstacles, also make the experience of navigating the game's version of post-apocalyptic Earth far more varied.

One should note, too, that the RPG elements are considerably more advanced. The game affords a more complex system for managing a larger inventory of weapons and other items (not just found, but purchased), and incorporates a number of charmingly innovative features, like the telepathic connection that the protagonist enjoys with the various teachers he encounters in his adventure. Non-player characters often display touches of humanity and humor (some of the villagers you rescue from Mt. Sabre proving real ingrates, and dealing with Kensu often a trial), while helping to make the storyline much more elaborate. And the miniature quests one undertakes are not just considerably more dramatic (mere water-fetching will not suffice to make a basement-lurking wizard teach you a spell), but more closely integrated with the larger adventure, which achieves something of an epic quality (most pronounced in the events at Shyron). Naturally the gameplay is far, far less repetitive than the conquest of Gannon's palaces.

All of this gives the game rather a deeply different feel--in many ways, a more attractive one, given our fuller immersion in a better-developed and more freely navigated world, and more fully fleshed-out story, superior to what any other 8-bit game offers us.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Cult of Ian Fleming

When one looks at the history of the spy genre from the standpoint of significant innovation and precedent, Ian Fleming's claim to a place in it would seem to rest above all on two things. One is his successful synthesis of past important influences as diverse as Sax Rohmer and Somerset Maugham in thoroughly updating the "clubland"-type adventure for the post-war world. The other is his pioneering work in Moonraker and Thunderball on the structure and style of the techno-thriller that Frederick Forsyth, Craig Thomas and Tom Clancy were later to make careers from.

It is, perhaps, a narrower basis than one might imagine from the status of James Bond as fiction's most famous spy. Moreover, a place in literary history of this kind, even one more central than that, is not the same thing as artistic accomplishment of more enduring kinds--and being of interest to the hardcore student of a literary form not the same thing as having an enduring wide appeal such as would go on making for bestsellers generations later. Quite the contrary--a writer who was important for their ideas or style often ceases to interesting in that way when the ideas have become commonplace, or the style dated, and what they have to offer less than obviously transcendent in that way likely to impress the casual book buyer just looking for a good read.

It may be argued that Fleming falls into this category. By today's standards, the books' relatively slow pace and "literary" narrative style, as well as their tendency to lavish attention on their mundane aspects while treating the sensational briefly--in brief, the technique of the "aimless glance"--makes what is often a light serving of action to begin with still less satisfying. Additionally his Bond is not only a less glamorous and exciting figure than the movies present, but often a weary, grouchy, bad-tempered and bigoted middle-aged man who seems even older than his years--at times a mouthpiece for a creator who was in many ways out of date in his own period (and worse now), and at other times a butt of his author's jokes in tales with much more parody than one might expect. (Indeed, I've already written quite a bit about that first shock I experienced on picking up Thunderball.)

Moreover, it might be said that the place the original Bond novels occupy in the history of the form pales next to that of the Bond movies in the history of cinema. Far more responsible for James Bond's fame, this was due to, above all:

1. Intensified cinematic pacing. (The structuring of a film around "thirty-nine bumps" as Richard Maibaum called it, giving the audience a surprise, a twist, a bit of action--some kind of shock--every three minutes or so.)
2. Their use of the set piece, and particularly the frequency, variety and scale of the set pieces. (Think of it this way. From car chases to ski chases, underwater fights to aerial fights, is there any basic type of action scene they didn't use in those first half dozen '60s-era films? And already by the decade's end, they'd reached a point where it was just about impossible to go bigger.)
3. Their editing and photography--again, most evident in those set pieces. (The close shots and long takes and jump cuts and undercranking and exaggerated sound effects are what give the fights their punch.)

Along with the marketing of Goldfinger and Thunderball in particular (which pioneered the wide, big opening-weekend type of release, and ruthless merchandising), these were what set the pattern for the big action blockbuster that, with the success of Star Wars, which thoroughly assimilated the lessons of the Bond movies, became Hollywood's bread and butter.

These are specifically cinematic accomplishments, which have relatively little to do with the material Fleming contributed--as Maibaum pointedly declared in a 1964 New York Times article, when he recounted paying the author the "left-handed compliment" of saying that his work had "an untrans­ferable literary quality," and then telling the reader more bluntly that as bumps went, he simply did not have "nearly enough for the kind of films [they were] trying to make."

Indeed, it can be said that the films made it harder for us to enjoy Fleming's novels, and not only because they have created such a different image for the character (enduring a decade and four films into the "back-to-the-original" Daniel Craig era, and perhaps even enjoying a revival), but because they changed the thriller genre as a whole. The swifter, more action-packed Bond movies and swifter, more action-packed movies to which they led in general, have not only changed our expectations regarding film, but print fiction as well, which responded to that cinematic influence. Reading Clive Cussler's Sahara, for example, I felt that for the first time I'd had the experience of reading a book that felt like a summer blockbuster, and since then later writers like Matthew Reilly have only striven to realize this more completely, as the films have themselves become faster and more crowded.

The upshot is that, apart from the rather limited coterie of people who actually know and like the original Fleming novels on their distinctive terms, the evocation of the Ian Fleming brand name in its all authority means something quite different from what most people think it means.

Still, in fairness, I suppose one can say the same of just about all of the aged IPs lumbering zombie-fashion across the pop cultural landscape.

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