It’s always interesting to look back at anything that claims to be a “pioneer” of something — especially when the title in question isn’t as well-known as some of its peers.
That’s why I was intrigued to take a look at The Demon Crystal, a game that originally released for a variety of Japanese home computers back in the mid-’80s, and which more recently had an enhanced port to Windows PCs and Nintendo Switch.
Original creator YMCAT and new publisher Regista claim that The Demon Crystal was a pioneer of the action RPG genre, although from a casual glance you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a straightforward arcade game. What does this peculiar adventure have to offer?
Let’s start by addressing those bold claims that it pioneered the action RPG genre, as well as establishing some definitions.
Firstly, by “action RPG” in this instance, we should be thinking “Zelda” rather than “Diablo”. In other words, we should be thinking of a game where the hero’s main power comes from items he collects rather than a constant, gradual increase of power over the course of the game via the acquisition of experience points and levels. The Demon Crystal certainly fits the bill here.
Was it truly a pioneer, though?
Well, here’s where things get a little murky. There’s not a lot of information about this game online, and there are a few conflicting reports relating to its original release date. YMCAT and Regista claim on the modern rereleases’ store pages that it was “produced in 1984”, but other online databases around the Internet, including MobyGames and Generation MSX, plonk its most well-known MSX incarnation firmly in 1986. Moreover, the MSX version’s title screen appears to indicate a 1986 copyright.
This is relevant, because if it was actually created in 1984, it would have been up alongside Namco’s The Tower of Druaga from the same year, a much more well-known game that came out in both an arcade incarnation and for home computers and consoles. Druaga, if you’re unfamiliar, is commonly cited as being immensely influential on the development of long-running series such as Ys, Hydlide and, of course, Zelda. It also has a lot in common with The Demon Crystal.
Had it been released in 1986 as would appear to be the case, however, it would actually be a contemporary of the first Zelda game for Famicom, meaning it wasn’t so much a “pioneer” as one of several early examples of the genre establishing itself.
However, dig a little deeper and you’ll discover that the MSX version was not the first release of The Demon Crystal. In fact, it also got releases for NEC PC-8000 and PC-88 as well as Sharp X1 in 1985… and, indeed, it appears that this game first showed up for Sharp MZ-80K in 1984.
The MZ-80K (specifically, the MZ-80K2E) was the first computer that The Demon Crystal creator Masami Nakamura (aka “Game Roman”) owned. Speaking on Twitter, he described the machine as “a luxury item” that cost in the region of 120,000 yen (about £855 using direct currency conversion; accounting for inflation it would actually be £3,250 today!) and thus not something it was easy — or safe — for your average working Japanese family to spend money on. But he pressed on, hoping to convince his mother that he would make a game and sell it.
It took three years — Nakamura acquired the machine in 1981 — but he was true to his word: he made a game, he sold it and it was ported to those aforementioned other platforms over the course of the next couple of years. And in an interesting twist of fate, Nakamura even ended up porting The Tower of Druaga to his beloved Sharp MZ-80K in 1985!
History aside, it’s clear that The Demon Crystal is an early incarnation of the item-centric action RPG. This might not be immediately apparent when you start playing, but as you progress it becomes more and more clear.
The setup for The Demon Crystal is that, unsurprisingly, a demon has been starting shit in the land of Fairys (sic) and, inevitably for a video game produced in the mid-’80s, has kidnapped a princess. Princess Chris, in this case. Not only that, but he has built a “Monster Town” to protect both him and his prisoner, so naturally it’s up to a lone hero named Ares to sort all this nonsense out once and for all.
Ares enters the first of the Monster Town’s houses armed only with a bag full of bombs that he can roll along platforms. These explode after a short period and cause a small fire that persists for a few seconds. Anything caught in the flames or hit by the bomb while it is rolling will be killed, with a few notable exceptions.
Your aim in each house is to locate its Big Key, which causes the door to the next house to appear, at which point you get a bonus for your remaining time added to your score. In order to reach the Big Key, you’ll have to collect smaller keys which can be used to open wooden doors around the level. Until a door is opened, the room beyond is clad in complete darkness, so you won’t know what’s waiting for you until you open it. Be ready to quickly toss a bomb if there happens to be an enemy there — and there sometimes is!
It’s worth noting that in all but one case I encountered during my playthrough, the levels are set up in such a way that it’s impossible to get “stuck” by unlocking the doors in the wrong order; you can, however, end up finishing a level without opening all the doors, meaning you could potentially miss out on some useful items. More on that in a moment.
Initially, your task is hindered by giant tarantulas that move erratically back and forth along platforms, occasionally shooting webbing at you. As you progress, you’ll also encounter samurai, who move at a constant speed and can climb ladders, and ninja, who can throw shuriken and teleport. These foes can all be dispatched with your bombs.
However, before long you’ll start to encounter enemies that need alternative means to defeat them. Ghosts, which move quickly back and forth along platforms, require a special crystal to make them vulnerable to your bombs’ flames. And Kappas, which occasionally get furious and double in speed — particularly if they get caught in a bomb blast or fire — can only be defeated with a sword. Ares does not have a sword. What sort of guard doesn’t have a sword?
Initially, you’ll have to work around these enemies, avoiding rather than defeating them. But here’s where the items come in.
Some houses have a treasure chest. Sometimes these are visible from the outset of the level, sometimes they’re concealed behind a door and sometimes they only appear under very specific circumstances that might conflict with your natural instincts while playing.
In the original home computer versions of The Demon Crystal, you were expected to figure these conditions out for yourself, much as in The Tower of Druaga’s similar system. In the recent ports, however, you’ll know if a house conceals a treasure chest because you’ll get a hint before the level begins. These are usually fairly explicit, and the actual tasks tend to be more challenging to accomplish from a skill perspective rather than an obtuse puzzle to figure out.
For example, an early stage requires you to stand still until the timer reaches 7000 remaining points before the chest will appear. Another requires you to reach the Big Key without killing any enemies or picking anything up. The former is mostly a matter of luck — better hope no Samurai come down the ladder to get you in those fateful seconds — while the latter requires you to both figure out a suitable route around the level — which, inevitably, is filled with items to accidentally pick up and enemies to get in the way.
There are three main types of item. Single-use items are self-explanatory: collecting them awards you a one-time bonus such as the ability to take an extra hit before dying, but then they’re gone. Permanent items are also self-explanatory: you collect them and they provide you with a permanent passive skill such as the ability to walk through the flames your bombs leave behind — at the outset of the game these kill you just as well as enemies — or being able to block enemy projectiles if they hit you in the front.
Just to throw a spanner in the works, though, there are several detrimental items scattered throughout the game. Some of these, taking the form of empty chests, simply slow you down for a short period, which is easy enough to deal with. Less pleasant is the red crystal that causes you to lose all of the items you’ve acquired up until that point, and even less pleasant is the fake Princess Chris, who causes you to drop most of your items and go back a bunch of levels.
To be fair, in both cases you are given ample warning that bad things will happen, but the fact that the game follows through on these warnings with some absolutely masterful trolling is both hilarious and infuriating.
It’s not the end of the world, though; at any point during gameplay, you’re able to quit the house you’re currently exploring and return to any of the previous ones you’ve previously unlocked while keeping your score and lives intact. Moreover, if you do happen to run out of lives, you’ll keep all your permanent items; you’ll just lose your score. In this way, you can gradually build up your power as you progress through the game, until you eventually reach the 30th and final house to take on the final boss and rescue Chris.
The Demon Crystal is not a long game. Once you get your head around the mechanics and structure, it probably won’t take you more than an hour or two to get through the whole thing. But this isn’t necessarily a “once and done” kind of affair; the arcade-style scoring system encourages you to run through the game again and see if you can do better — ideally, clearing the whole thing in a single run.
On top of that, a “results” screen that can be accessed at any time tracks how many of the items throughout the game you’ve successfully acquired and how many of the possible doors you’ve opened; in this sense, you can take aim for a “perfect run” by clearing the whole game without continuing, and with 100% completion in both of these areas.
Alternatively, you could try playing through with deliberate limitations on yourself. Can you survive without the flame-retardant armour, for example? How about the time-slowing hourglass? What’s the minimum number of enemies you need to defeat to clear the game? What’s the smallest number of doors you need to open in order to win? How the hell do you open the door that is “outside” one of the houses?
The Demon Crystal is a thoroughly interesting title that occupies a rather peculiar halfway house between pure score attack arcade affair and more substantial home computer game. Personally speaking, I find its faster pace and snappy bomb-based combat to be a lot more fun than the rather ponderous Tower of Druaga, but ultimately the two games provide their own distinct experiences, and both are worth playing — particularly as they both had clear influences on what would come later, even if one ended up rather more well-known than the other.
As for the modern ports, they offer a good example of “enhanced retro”, providing a much smoother, slicker experience than the original computer versions while remaining true to their overall aesthetic with a few enhancements. The sampled sounds are a particular highlight; they have an authentic ’80s style muffled crunchiness about them, and the loud screams that both the Kappas and the final boss make are absolutely, genuinely horrifying.
You may want to mute the music, however; outside of some orchestrated, arranged tracks in the menus, the main chiptune loop that repeats almost constantly throughout the entire game lasts approximately 10 seconds in total and thus will quickly drive you and everyone around you absolutely bonkers.
Aside from this, I really enjoyed The Demon Crystal. It’s an overlooked piece of gaming history, and the modern ports are a great, accessible way to experience it. So go educate yourself!
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