The early Zelda games were important, but Crystalis outshines them. A game that holds up well today, Crystalis is the best NES RPG on Switch Online.
Though the Switch continues to be a runaway success for Nintendo, the reception of the Nintendo Switch Online service remains mixed. The service hosts close to 60 original Nintendo Entertainment System titles at present, including a small number of action RPGs, but neither of the Zelda games can match the quality of Crystalis, making it the best NES RPG currently available through Switch Online. The original The Legend of Zelda was a milestone, and established precedents that later adventure games and action RPGs would build from, while Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link attempted an innovative fusion of side-scrolling gameplay and RPG elements. Neither of these games has aged as well as Crystalis, which still offers a quality experience even by modern gaming standards, alongside a unique story and gameplay that builds on the Zelda fundamentals, making it the best of Switch Online’s current NES RPGs.
The service began by including online gameplay for select Switch titles alongside a curated selection of NES classics. Switch Online has since expanded to add Super NES games, and Genesis and Nintendo 64 titles as well for Expansion Pass subscribers. Nintendo will reportedly continue to add more NES and SNES games to the service, which is positive news, as the RPG genre is woefully underepresented on both consoles. There are no traditional turn-based RPGs available among the Switch Online NES titles, despite that console defining the JRPG genre with the early Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy games. This is likely due to both franchises having their formative games rereleased in different formats. Remastered versions of the first three Dragon Quest games are available for individual purchase on the Switch, Dragon Quest 4 was remastered for the DS, and the three NES Final Fantasy titles were recently re-released under the Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster series for PC and mobile devices.
Absent any true turn-based NES RPGs, Switch Online still does offer the RPG experience in games like the first two Zelda titles, Startropics, and Crystalis. A sealed copy of The Legend of Zelda sold for $870,000 in 2021, underscoring the game’s historical significance, but in terms of actual game quality, Crystalis outdoes the others. Crystalis clearly owes a great deal to Zelda, and released four years later in 1990, giving developer SNK plenty of time to learn and improve on the Zelda formula. Where Zelda is a pure fantasy setting, Crystalis, originally “God Slayer” in Japan, combined fantasy with post-apocalyptic sci-fi elements. SNK’s NES opus has a lot of common ground with Zelda, including swords that can fire magical projectiles, and a similar quest structure and item progression. Crystalis features a more robust storyline, smoother “8 way run” movement, and superior graphics, especially compared to the first Zelda game.
Crystalis’ Post-Apocalyptic Sci-Fi Vibe May Have Inspired Breath of the Wild
In a bit of fitting irony, the recent Zelda franchise hit Breath of the Wild mimics the opening of Crystalis. Some players debate how old Link is in Breath of the Wild, as the game begins with him awakening from 100 years of stasis. Crystalis begins with a player-named hero awakening from a high-tech hibernation device, and soon running across an enigmatic old man who points them towards their destiny to save the world. The world of Crystalis was ravaged by nuclear war, per the game’s intro sequence, where Hyrule suffered from Calamity Ganon in Breath of the Wild. It is perhaps appropriate that given how much Crystalis borrowed from Zelda’s formula Breath of the Wild would copy elements of Crystalis, decades later.
The Switch surpassed the NES console’s lifetime sales, but the inclusion of original NES titles pays homage to Nintendo’s first hardware success. Crystalis is not as well known as the Zelda series, but it is considered one of the best 8-bit games for a reason, making it something of a cult classic. The game featured real-time battles that accrued experience points and character levels, making it closer to Secret of Mana and other action RPGs that would follow in the 16-bit era. Other NES titles like Capcom’s gorgeous Willow game adaptation used a similar format, but that game in particular is unlikely to see a re-release due to licensing issues. Crystalis‘ story contains the now dated conceit that the world was decimated by nuclear war in 1997, and 100 years later science has been abandoned in favor of the study of magic. The game’s hero is awakened from suspended animation in order to combat the threat of Draygon who plans to use his mastery of both science and magic to take command of a floating, high-tech tower, and conquer the world.
Though most gamers agree the cost for Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack is too expensive, the $20 annual charge for the base Switch Online service is easier to rationalize. Support for online Switch games, along with more than 100 NES and SNES games is likely worth the cost of less than $2 per month. The majority of the NES titles on the service exist mainly as curiosities by today’s standards, gaming relics that show how far the hobby has advanced. Crystalis stands out as an 8-bit game that can still be enjoyed by modern audiences, along with River City Ransom, and a select few others. The game suffers from some of the same issues as many older games. Finding out how to advance can sometimes be cryptic without a walkthrough, and the story is presented through a handful of sparse dialogue exchanges. Still, Crystalis did include an actual save feature, unlike many older games that used a password system, though this is less relevant thanks to the Switch Online’s save states.
Crystalis Was SNK’s Best NES Game, And The Console’s Best Action RPG
Today SNK is more synonymous with the King of Fighters series, which already includes many series standouts, and King of Fighters 15 is on the way. The company produced action games like Athena and Ikari Warriors for the NES, but Crystalis was undoubtedly their best 8-bit title, and among the very best NES games in general. Many genre fans are hopeful Nintendo will add more NES RPGs to Nintendo Switch Online, including the original Fire Emblem and Mother, both of which the company has officially translated and sold separately in the past. Those titles could claim to be the best tactical RPG, or best turn-based RPG for the NES, respectively, but even among the console’s full library, Crystalis is hard to beat for the title of best action RPG for the original Nintendo Entertainment System, easily surpassing the oldest Zelda games.
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