The action RPG formula remains steadfast and constant since its humble beginnings. Combining a Zelda-like adventure game with some basic RPG elements such as leveling became such a common practice that this genre label was born. Secret of Mana has always been the favored child in this subset, striking a nice balance between both main attributes as well as providing players with numerous combat options. But not only did the underappreciated Crystalis prototype many of the things that make Mana so great, it also is one of the most influential RPGs to appear during the NES era.
In a climate where Zelda knockoffs were fairly common, Crystalis delivered gameplay elements that helped it stand out from the crowd. The four elemental swords provided meant you had to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the enemies rather than just mindlessly pounding them. Basic melee strikes are an option, but damage is more effectively delivered by holding the button until the meter fills up to enable charged shots, a precursor to Manaís attack level system. Both power and health are earned through experience gain, something top-down Zelda games never did. This does have a nasty side effect: You literally canít hurt bosses unless youíve reached a certain level. But for the most part, leveling provided another dimension through which the player experiences progression and is refreshingly welcome within this framework.
Crystalisí biggest triumph, however, was the world it created. Rather than traipsing back and forth collecting doodads, there is a mostly linear path to get from start to finish, which provides a nice feeling of forward momentum. And yet it isnít strictly linear, as each area is fairly open with several key destinations one can explore. These seemingly contradictory design decisions provide the benefits of both while tying the world together through strategically placed towns and narrative bits. The game achieves the goal of being both gamey and cohesive.
Itís criminal that SNK never followed up on this excellent first foray into RPGs. A Game Boy Color remake was released years later, but no sequels were ever made, nor did the company dabble in RPGs again. Crystalis stands as their one achievement in the genre, but when you think about it, serving as the evolutionary link between The Legend of Zelda and Secret of Mana is more than enough.
Based on: The Legend of Zelda meets the numerical leveling mechanics of a real-life RPG. Also, Nausicša and Psycho Soldier.